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Straight Outta Gaithersburg: Logic apes the mainstream and breaks through, but what does that mean for Baltimore hip-hop?

Straight Outta Gaithersburg: Logic apes the mainstream and breaks through, but what does that mean for Baltimore hip-hop?
The specificity of Logic's mimicry may be the sign of a passionate rap fan, but certainly not of creativity. (Ryan Jay)

Lyrical rapper Logic, who released his debut album "Under Pressure" on historic hip-hop label Def Jam last month, really wants you to get to know him. No, like, really wants you to. On the record's guest-free 57 minutes, the word "I" is used no less than 589 times (excluding bonus tracks), easily surpassing first efforts from established rap narcissists Kanye West (220 on "The College Dropout") and Drake (410 times on "Thank Me Later"). This kind of blinding solipsism is in the service of what Logic clearly hopes will be a "classic" rap album. And why shouldn't he have those high hopes? The kid has a nubile, energetic flow, plus he's made a legit come-up; any biracial kid from Gaithersburg, Maryland that can land a Def Jam deal should have a story to tell, right?

Indeed, it's those tales of growing up in suburban Maryland that make for the best tracks on Under Pressure, rendered on 'Gang Related' and 'Growing Pains III' with complexity and a real sympathy for those involved. 'Growing Pains' in particular captures the constructed mental insularity that a kid has to create growing up in this kind of area if they ever want to get out and do bigger things. Here, Logic actually shows the struggle he has transcended instead of just telling us about it and that gives rap fans a reason to care about Logic's music almost as much as he does.

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However, on every other track, Logic subjects us to an examination of his career goals ad nauseam: how much he loves music; how hard he's worked to get here; how these bitches love him now, and so on and so forth. It doesn't help that Logic's lines are generally pretty simple:  Based around predictable end rhymes ("gifted . . . lifted"), basic-ass "I," "me," "my," constructions, and overused wordplay like "music in my genes like denim." When Logic does abandon this Color-By-Numbers template, it's generally just to jump into a hurried double-time rap (the second verse of 'Metropolis') or chase high-concept abstractions he can't quite pull off ('Nikki' is about nicotine, get it?). Worst of all, he has a tendency to jack ideas from  popular artists he clearly idolizes: His wordy introspectiveness often evokes J. Cole; he pronounces "hoe" with the exact cadence of ScHoolboy Q on "Bounce"; and his aforementioned double-time mostly recalls Kendrick Lamar's verse on Drake's 'Buried Alive.' The specificity of his mimicry may be the sign of a passionate rap fan, but certainly not of creativity.

At other points, "Under Pressure" sees Logic actively trip over his influences. The nine-minute title track, with its raps from multiple personas and voicemails from his parents, recalls Kendrick Lamar's genuinely ambitious 'Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst.' The comparison might not be quite so egregious if Logic didn't sample 'Thirst' only two tracks before on 'Metropolis.' A robotic "guide" leads listeners through the album in homage to A Tribe Called Quest's "Midnight Marauders," but totally lacks the eccentricity of that endeavor on Tribe's classic album. Instead, it gives us a still deeper glimpse into the cavern of Logic's navel, citing breathtakingly normal tidbits like his fandom for Quentin Tarantino and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Worse, Logic has also taken on the patronizing “nice guy” misogyny of those Cole, Drake, and Wale types. Just look at a recent VEVO video interview with the rapper entitled, “Logic talks about why women should have more respect for themselves.” In it, Logic smarmily recalls being put off by the active advances of some girl he met on the road, on the grounds that “she’s gonna be a mom one day.” So I guess in Logic’s mind, a hypothetical future baby prevents this woman from ever asserting her own sexual agency or, I don’t know, just doing whatever the fuck else she wants? We’d prefer hip-hop’s overt old-fashioned, misogyny over this nonsense.

Nevertheless, this guy matters. He has built up a legit following, and he's on a major label and thus must be reckoned with. This is particularly true given the context of Baltimore hip-hop, which remains largely under-the-radar, however much buzz it might be making on the streets. What does it mean for a rapper, one from Gaithersburg of all places, to get the support of Def Jam? Is it at least in part because he seems so willing to leave all of the more interesting specifics of his story behind to do a B-minus J. Cole impression? How do big street personalities like Lor Scoota and Young Moose, who have found stylistically unique voices within the rote blueprint of trap, or emotive rappers like DDm, who can rap his ass off but is inexorably grounded within his unique point of view, make it if this is how you "get on" in 2014? Indeed, for the embattled, oft-ignored, eccentric-filled world of Baltimore hip-hop, Logic's success is a confounding inspiration. If you lack a distinct personality, or at least are willing to sacrifice your quirks and specificity to sound like everybody else, then Def Jam will certainly come knocking.

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