When the story of a desultorily opportunist era in mainstream rap is finally written, 6ix9ine will undoubtedly land a starring role. But give the Brooklyn hip-hop troll credit: he’s critic-proof. Even as he languishes in a New York detention center on federal charges due to his alleged association with the Nine Trey Gangsters, his second project, Dummy Boy, opened at number two on the Billboard charts.
6ix9ine’s modus operandi — hoarse and shouting, with vague but insistent references to Bloods mayhem and streetwise depravity — clearly resonates with a wide audience (though in the streaming era, it’s impossible to distinguish between genuine fandom and the kind of hate-listening rap fans use to devour hours of new content). His blend of garish Day-Glo net art and brawling homage to the glory years of DMX and Onyx may be a commercially effective millennial update of Rotten Apple thug rap. But aesthetically, his distinct lack of lyrical talent and annoyingly hyperactive presence often undermines the whole thing.
Dummy Boy tries to broaden 6ix9ine’s scope beyond his February mixtape debut, Day 69: Graduation Day, and bloody flag-waving singles like “Gummo.” The big radio hit here, the softly thumping “Fefe,” finds him muting his voice into an Auto-Tune murmur, growling, “I don’t really want no friends.” But it has all the personality of a wet blanket and is more notable for being a public relations disaster for his collaborator, Nicki Minaj. Much as the music industry tries to pretend otherwise, many people are still upset that a man who pled guilty to filming an underage girl in a sexual performance for his Instagram account is allowed to thrive on radio stations around the country.
But even listeners who blithely tune out 6ix9ine’s extra-musical controversies may find Dummy Boy rough-going. The opening cut promises a cameo from Bobby Shmurda – another New York rapper who briefly scaled the rap charts before his imprisonment on alleged gang affiliations – and 6ix9ine tries to spark drama by calling Ebro “an old nigga on a young nigga dick.” But Shmurda’s hissy, literally phoned-in verse disrupts any rah-rah energy 6ix9ine generates. In fact, most of the album finds 6ix9ine ceding the spotlight to a list of guests, including Lil Baby (“Tic Toc”), A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie (“Waka”), Gunna (“Feefa”) and others. Only Kanye West, of all people, seems content to complement the headliner’s wack-ass lines like “I’m a muthafuckin’ sex addict/Hit shorty from the back, gotta back-crack it” on “Kanga.”
Which leads to the question: Why is this second-rate ham so popular? 6ix9ine’s adrenalized voice might sound as intoxicating as a ride in a bumper car, but at least it provides energy to a mainstream scene too dazzled by narcoleptic, opiate-dazed rap singers. “Last year I was sleeping in the basement…I was coming off the bench, I wasn’t starting/Now I’m out here ballin’ like I’m Harden,” he sings on “Dummy,” perhaps the album’s best track. If only he spent time working on his craft and writing decent songs instead of trying to be a villain for the social-media age. Now, as he faces life in prison, it might be too late.