Mariah Carey. Tamia. Ruth B. Leon Bridges… And, now, Rylo Rodriguez.
For the last year, in a small but substantial corner of YouTube, a Mobile, Alabama rapper has furiously sought to place himself within a lineage of R&B and soul music, despite not possessing any of the technical vocal qualities — range, diction, consistently hitting notes — that tie this disparate group of singers together.
In the hands of Rodriguez, Carey’s “Always Be My Baby” is re-contextualized as a tale about poverty and violence titled “Project Baby.” The song, from the melody to its cadence, lifts liberally from the 1996 hit. On “Valentines,” Rodriguez’s sandpaper Southern drawl crashes against the sped-up sample chirp of Tamia’s voice, courtesy of 2006’s “Can’t Get Enough.” In January and February alone, he’s added to his growing oeuvre of hood classics, stripping Bridges’ “That Was Yesterday” and Ruth B.’s “Lost Boy” for parts, and arriving at something just as interesting as its source material. Predictably, few of these songs are available on a platform like Spotify, since they’re all begging for a lawsuit, instead flourishing on YouTube, where the view counts range anywhere from eight to one million.
In the world of Rodriguez, the dichotomy of successful pop hits and the smoothed-to-perfection voices that made them so popular are forced up against stories of walking on bullets, food supplied by EBT, and T-Shirts adorned with the faces of dead men. It’s a place where Ruth B. sweetly sings a nursery rhyme-esque passage, “My only friend was the man in the Moon,” while videos of a man pouring cough syrup into a blueberry Faygo bottle and another toting a gun flash across the screen.
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This would all fall apart if Rodriguez wasn’t such a captivating storyteller. Blunt, brutal, and mush-mouthed, his narratives tend to focus on the small details and impenetrable references that only those in his orbit could hope to understand. On “Amen,” Rodriguez tells the story of a 13-year-old’s descent into a life of drug dealing and death. “He had seen the opps he was 5’7, but tryna leave ’em 6 feet,” goes one line, next to metaphors like “Dropped outta school was a must, deodorant he ain’t get his Degree,” each patiently revealing details about his unnamed protagonist. It’s a technical display, at odds with its recognizable sample.
For the last decade, the charts and the nation’s heart have been overrun with rappers chasing the musical textures of R&B crooners, and pop singers desperately trying to mold their career after rappers. Rodriguez exists in a Wild Wild West where sample clearances are an afterthought, using widely recognizable cultural touchstones to lend his street-level songs immediate emotional weight. It won’t always be like this, but for now Rodriguez is creating free of constraints.