HighEndLowLife exercises old demons

RaRa's new mixtape might be best rap release this year

Toward the end of RaRa's exceptional new mixtape, HighEndLowLife, the MC/producer drops a line that describes what could be interpreted as the story of his career thus far. Over a lumbering bass line and sample from Jodeci's "Jodecidal Hotline" RaRa shouts, "I ain't made a dime off of one rhyme but you still ride," directed at his manager Nick Love. The track "Art of Loyalty" is an ode to RaRa's family, fans, peers, and detractors who kept him motivated over the course of a career that's spanned 10 or so years.

In the world of rap music and production, evolution's not always drastic and can come in the form of a simple name change — think 2 Chainz' switch from Tity Boi or Future shedding the moniker Meathead. Like the aforementioned ATL rap it boys, RaRa's journey to a new stage name and more cohesive sound accompanied with solo success comes with shedding the failed artist you thought you were and embracing the musical auteur you always wanted to be.

As a teenager under the alias Young Capone, the So So Def newcomer enjoyed success with 2007's "I'm Hot," a track with typical Southern braggadocio featuring Jermaine Dupri and Daz. Young Capone's later releases followed that same tired trap rap formula, whether it was a list of things that made him great ("Shawty") or the all-the-bitches-love-me shtick prevalent on a track like "Choosin'." It was evident that the East Atlanta MC had potential but thanks to the fact his debut album, Big Faces and Bright Lights, never saw a shelf or digital store, the thought was that "Young C" would fall to the wayside, another victim of industry politics.

Like its predecessor, 2012's Higher, HighEndLowLife, aka H.E.L.L., finds RaRa still taking the independent route, and it sounds like this path is right where he needs to be. H.E.L.L. plays like a gangster confessional full of conversations balancing faith, spirituality, and remaining positive despite being caught in the midst of real-life bullshit. "Frustrated Young Man" pairs RaRa with the equally if not more fierce Mr. "Ghetto Gospel" himself, Killer Mike, while "Born Loser" shows the lyrical duality of an artist wanting to "pimp like Chad" and "Geto Boy like 'Face," but is very conscious of himself and desire to evade 'hood tendencies for the finer things in life.

Where Higher was an MC in the midst of change finally getting a grip on his sound, H.E.L.L. is that artistic potential realized. Dude's really on some Southern rap Super Fly shit that rattles with every 808 drum and eases that corresponding thump with a few horns spread throughout.

Yet, growing into your own, it can be hard to shake old habits, and for RaRa that's where the only misfires come in. Quintessential dope boy anthems "Foreign" and "Errrthang" show RaRa still has one foot in the life of Young Capone, but there's also signs of something new and more progressive. Just one listen to "The Thirst" and you can't help but hear a little Hi-Tek with sprinkles of the late J Dilla in RaRa's production, and that's just in one song.

"Need You More," RaRa's take on Tom Brock's "I Love You and More" (most notably sampled on Mos Def's, aka Yasiin Bey's, "The Panties"), is masterfully produced while lyrically, he rides the drums and guitars like a smoother operating ladies man, something that wasn't exactly evident on any of his previous records.

With the exception of two DJ Toomp-produced jams ("Dealers in Paris" and the bonus cut "All the Way Live" featuring Big Rube) RaRa handles the production on H.E.L.L. and it shows. Without a label slowing him down, and a penchant to literally take matters into his own hands, RaRa finally sounds comfortable in his own skin.

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