While the world waits patiently for the return of its flagship artist, Top Dawg Entertainment rapper REASON is here to fill the void with his debut, New Beginnings. One of the more obviously similar artists on the label to Kendrick Lamar himself, REASON dots his album with musings on society delivered in a similarly earnest and sometimes frantic storytelling mode. Although there are times where it’s easy to see that REASON doesn’t yet have the same kind of magnetic charisma or natural ability to craft instantly memorable bars and flows as some of today’s heavy hitters, he absolutely proves that his technical skill and songwriting game are something to be reckoned with. While REASON’s slower, more contemplative tracks can often be hit or miss with retaining my attention, he never fails to connect on the few outright firestarters that pop up from time to time. Even though there’s still some clear improvements to be made, this is a respectable debut from a rising star with potential.
The album opens with one of its most low-key tracks in “Something More,” fading in as TDE’s always ethereal vocalist Zacari croons about changes before REASON begins spitting an extended reflective verse. Outside of a skittering trap hi-hat that fades in and out as the watery instrumental ebbs and flows to highlight certain passages, there’s almost no percussion to be found here to accentuate REASON’s rhythms. There are tracks where REASON goes in with some lyrical content much more than this, and it’s a bit of a strange choice to kick things off – jumping around from topic to topic, he certainly comes through with some impressive writing and internal rhyme schemes but never really lands on anything truly powerful. Some radio static immediately transitions to the eerier beat of “Stories I Forgot,” where some of REASON’s Lamar-sized aspirations come into full focus, delivering the hook in a dead-eyed and nasal voice before attacking the heavier beat in his verses with a deranged voice dipping in and out of a falsetto scream. While his calmer approach doesn’t always connect, REASON truly does have an excellent rap voice and it really pays off when he doesn’t focus as much on the message and delivers some more standard boisterous rap tracks. It’s clear that REASON wants to be a Kendrick, but his strengths lie much more in the model of someone like a ScHoolboy Q. Q, of course, appears on the next track, “Pop Sh*t.” In another conflict between technicality not necessarily making a great song, the pitched-down and repetitive hook kills all of the energy but REASON’s verse is one of the more impressive on the album. I mean, the man finds a rhyme for “Antetokounmpo.”
The album truly picks up in a huge way as soon as the beat drops on the track “Show Stop.” And no, that’s not just because Kendrick Lamar blesses the track with some ad-libs, it’s genuinely the most energetic and catchy song here. Opening his verses with a couple humorous call-and-response lines before speeding up the flow and leaning hard into the groove created by the melodic bells of the beat. The flow switch-up in the second verse demonstrates just how versatile REASON can be as well, showing off his personality in a huge way and making a lasting impression. The more hard-hitting tracks that continue to show themselves as the tracklisting progresses are all knockouts for him, and it makes me wish there were a couple more of them. The transition into shorter track “Favourite N***a” honestly makes it feel like more of an appendix to the previous track, with similar but distorted instrumental tones as the rumbling bass rolls in and REASON unleashes the kind of ad-lib heavy SoundCloud flow interspersed with gunshots that you’d never expect a “conscious” rapper to tackle but keeps the energy going here. Another track that stops the show just as much as “Show Stop” later on in the tracklisting is “Flick It Up,” which welcomes typically cerebral TDE rapper Ab-Soul onto the track to have a little more fun than usual. With some of his cleverest punchlines mixed into a carefree speedy flow with some delightful vocal inflections, he complements Soul’s manic energy well as the two easily harness a knocking beat.
The track “I Can Make It” is still a bit of a flex track, but it sees REASON return to some headier lyrics about his capabilities to use his art to make a better life for himself and those around him. Once again though, his inability to truly land on and extrapolate the meaning out of a single topic sees him get outshined a little on his own track by one of the most consistently impressive conscious rappers in Rapsody, who shuts the track down with a blazing political verse riding over the old-school boom-bap energy of the instrumental. The next track “Fall,” however, is easily the most powerful message that REASON delivers on the album. In contrasting verses, he analyzes the struggles and barriers of breaking into the industry that are specific to women or men. Toning his voice down to an exhausted-sounding sigh that still packs a determined and undeniably angry punch, REASON takes a deep dive into the sexual politics and creepy executives affecting young female rappers and the pressure on men to act “ignorant” that ultimately leads to real-life issues like drug addiction, nodding to the tragedy of Mac Miller in the voice of an excited agent treating death as a profitable thing. On the other hand, reading the lyrics to a track like “Slow Down” closely on a second listen truly surprised me that REASON is exploring some highly personal and private topics about his life and personal demons, because the sleepier instrumental and his tone honestly made me tune out early the first time. REASON’s pen game is spectacular, but he needs to find some kind of unique or attention-grabbing thing about him to stick around. He gets to show off that pen game with two other lyrical superstars on “Extinct,” as he, JID and Isaiah Rashad all show off their skills cypher-style. Truly, these three all belong in a different age of rap.
The track “SAUCE” recruits Vince Staples, though the typically fiery rapper doesn’t really fit in with the calmer instrumental at all here, his juvenile yelp clashing with the minimalist instrumental. It’s the first time that REASON’s punchlines falter a little, especially in one baffling moment where he rhymes “Obama” with “O-lineman” as if it was a mindblowing flip of wordplay. Luckily, the other tracks that wind the album down are pretty strong as REASON extends the runtime to fully address some topics. “Westside” is a pretty moving story about REASON observing a girl stuck in a toxic relationship and hoping to save her with a discreet late-night meeting, and while the stuttered hook of “Gossip” brings Lamar to mind more than any other track here, REASON going deep into conflicts with his family members after the fame is another insight into just who he is at his core. The album closes out with “Windows Cry,” a nearly 5-minute track with another minimal beat that sees REASON giving a state of the union address about his feelings and doubts about his placement in the complexities of the music industry and his doubts about ever being able to chase his dreams and become a worldwide star. It’s a pretty raw portrait that shows some real emotions, and makes you root for the guy a little harder.
In the grand scheme of TDE artists, it’s clear that REASON’s artistic vision isn’t as distinct or memorable as many of the label’s signees. Still, there’s a lot of untapped potential here if he manages to find a niche and carve out a path as essential and unique as a Kendrick, SZA or ScHoolboy. For now, this is a pretty decent introductory set of tracks that should appeal to all your old-school rap needs.
Favourite Tracks: Show Stop, Flick It Up, Fall, Extinct
Least Favourite Track: SAUCE