Note: My music reviews will always be “late.” It is my belief that albums should be listened to in different moods, settings, and after extended breaks, all while conditioning yourself to accept what you were given as opposed to what you wanted. Only then can you give a legitimate and honest critique of the material.
In 2015, Illmaculate and OnlyOne finally buckled down and gave the fans what they wanted: another collaborative effort from Sandpeople’s headiest alumni. Only & Ill was a dense effort filled with great bars, some amazing production, and its fair share of missteps. The same could also be said about 2014’s Clay Pigeons, but Only & Ill suffered a little more because some of its offerings felt more ambitious, which meant its faults had a greater impact. Whether or not the change was intentional, Illmaculate seemed intent on avoiding this issue on his next project; trimming not only his name, but the tracklist, as well.
This is where Still Standing comes in. Clocking out at just over 37 minutes, Illmac’s latest solo effort spans a mere 10 songs. Going into the album, I found this information encouraging. Although I’ve enjoyed everything he’s released up until now, I still felt like he hadn’t quite crafted his magnum opus, and I was hopeful that Still Standing could be just that. It was short, which meant less room for error; it had one producer, which usually means more cohesion; and it wasn’t bogged down by a ton of unnecessary guest appearances, giving me more of what I wanted to hear: Illmac himself.
What I never could have anticipated is the artistic shift that is ever-present on Still Standing, something I can willingly admit was a little off-putting at first. It would be silly to say Illmac ever had a specific “sound” because all of his releases have had their own, unique vibe, but Still Standing sees Illmac step out of his own lane in an attempt to adopt some of the musical stylings of his contemporaries. He’s less antagonistic this time around, less braggadocios. Instead, the music on this record is smoother and more refined, as if he found inspiration from artists like Drake and Big Sean.
The big difference between Illmac and these artists, however, is he refuses to let his wit and his wordplay take a backseat. While it may be true that Chase Moore’s smokey, ethereal, and out-of-this-world production is very reminiscent of contemporary mainstream Hip Hop, Illmac still loads each of these 10 songs with incredibly smart punchlines and one-liners. One of my favorite bars has to be on “Angels” when Illmac, in a moment of hostility, says: “Lit match, I flick that. Grin and burn the bridge laughing, like, cry me a river to swim laps in.”
The beautiful thing is moments like these are scattered throughout the entire album. Even if one were to have trouble finding a clever bar in the first nine songs, the album’s closer, “Skipping Stones,” would more than make up for it, because he’s throwing punch, after punch, after punch. What’s amazing is they all land; every jab connects beautifully, which isn’t something you can say often when more and more artists are cluttering their verses with struggle bars. Personally, I think this is where Illmac’s experience as a battle rapper becomes a benefit, because he simply has more practice writing and executing these heavy blows.
What’s even better is the man has Chase Moore in his corner for the entire match, and if this album is any indication, these two have really grown to understand each other as artists. Still Standing is arguably Illmac’s most cohesive project from a production standpoint, with the only other contender being 2011’s Green Tape with Calvin Valentine. At times, the music is intoxicating, and others, it is tense and uncomfortable, like the opening title track, which sounds like someone is ominously plucking at an acoustic guitar, resulting in a sound that makes my skin crawl whenever I hear it.
Having said all of that, it sounds like Illmac has finally crafted his perfect album, right? Well, not quite. The problem with Still Standing is it is easy to pick out these individual elements and think, “Wow, this is great,” but when you observe it is a complete package, the album simply doesn’t hold together all that well. Despite his best effort, there is still something missing here, and after a lot of deliberation, I’ve come to the conclusion that Still Standing (unfortunately) lacks the “wow” factor that separates a “good” album from a “great” one.
Part of the problem stems from how the album is presented. Take the title, for example: Still Standing. It’s strong, sure, but it also unintentionally creates a promise that what you’re about to listen to is going to be heavy and incredibly personal. It gives off the impression that the artist attached to the album went through an intense struggle and the music is going to reflect that experience. However, although he’s rapping to us for almost 40 minutes, Illmac fails to tell us what he’s “still standing” from. What is it that tried to knock him down? What did he prevail over?
Don’t get me wrong, there are references here and there. Both “Still Standing” and “Hakeem” give insight into his rough upbringing, but these are things he’s touched on before, so that can’t be it. There’s also a bar on “Timeless” that references his loss of the KOTD chain, but it’s so brief that it makes the situation feel almost inconsequential. All that’s left are the numerous relationship problems that are touched on throughout the album, but I have a hard time believing those experiences were so life-threateningly intense that he thought they would be the end of him. Above all, this is Still Standing’s biggest blunder: it’s too vague.
Then there’s Bobby Bucher, a California artist who Illmac and Chase Moore have taken under their wing. Because Illmac chose to largely keep this a solo affair, Bucher is the main guest on the album, appearing on four of Still Standing’s 10 songs. I wasn’t completely sold on him when “Excuses” was first released and my opinion didn’t improve much after hearing the rest of the project. Truthfully, it has less to do with Bucher as an artist and more to do with the fact that the two don’t seem to have much chemistry, especially since fans have heard Illmac and OnlyOne bounce off of each other for over a decade at this point.
So when you and your only guest fail to click with one another on a track, it makes it hard to get excited for the other songs where the aforementioned guest is going to appear. As a singer, I thought Bucher did a great job of handling the hooks on songs like “Love Me Too” and the title track, but whenever he had to handle a verse, like on “Excuses” or “Angels,” it just didn’t work for me. I’m not going to pretend like I’m an expert on the guy, but if his verses on this album are any indication, he sounds like an artist who is still trying to figure out who he is, and it’s painfully clear in the way he writes and structures his rhymes.
I know it probably seems like I’m down on this album, but I’m really not. There is no anger or disappointment for me as a listener. Instead, I’m more frustrated because I’m so painfully indifferent towards the project as a whole. Because there is nothing inherently bad about any of the songs, it’s difficult to summarize my opinion with a single adjective like “good” or “bad.” If anything, this may be Still Standing’s biggest fault: I didn’t love it, but I also didn’t hate it. There is no intense emotion on either end of the spectrum, which for me as a listener, is a bigger crime than simply crafting a bad album.
In an effort to create something more cohesive and whole, Illmac failed to offer any heavy hitters that allowed the album to feel fresh, because after a while, the entire experience kind of starts to blend together, and before you know it, the album’s over. You’ll remember some great punchlines and the thick, hazy production, but not much else. Everything on the album comes off as so nonchalant that, after a while, you start to crave a little aggression, a little energy, and despite a few sparks here and there, Illmac never really gets the fire burning.
“I’m sorry, but no apologies.”