One of the new kings of streaming, 21-year-old Florida singer and rapper Rod Wave is fully capitalizing on his rapid rise to prominence and has released what is now his third studio album in just under a year and a half. While his earlier works saw him placing a heavy focus on emotional storytelling, often disrupting enjoyable song structure with extended stories and interludes and an emphasis on raw, genuine delivery, Wave is certainly maturing and figuring it out as he goes. SoulFly sees him dial down his rap flows and take things in more of an R&B direction than ever before, resulting in his most enjoyable project yet. Although Wave’s formulas certainly still do reveal themselves and begin to wear thin over the course of a 19-track album, he delivers both his catchiest melodies yet and some of his most affecting storytelling, distinguishing himself from his melodic and emo rap contemporaries by toning down the melodrama and hitting at something visceral and real instead.
The project opens with its title track, Wave bringing back his usual tricks of the lightly played trap piano beats and rumbling bass but improving his singing voice and storytelling on top of it all. Wave has a tendency to outline a story and build up the world and concept with an extended verse, before the song concludes in a single, decisive chorus. It’s a tactic that has yielded mixed results before, but as Wave gets deep about those he has lost and trying to be a good person so he can join them in heaven, the soul and conviction creeping into his vocals here makes that final burst of emotion all the more powerful. The early tracks “Gone Till November” and “Blame On You” continue to display that Wave is getting closer and closer to finding the perfect balance between all of his skills – his harder-hitting tracks and gritty rap delivery were often a pleasant surprise in the past, but he now applies that cadence to his naturally stirring singing voice when he wants to switch things up. With more bass-heavy instrumentals, Wave is cementing his place and choosing his lane as the artist with melodic rap bangers who might catch you off guard with a bleak lyric about death. A Drake for the streets, if you will.
Something like Wave’s raspy “goodbye” on the incredibly catchy “Blame On You” chorus blends his best tendencies as a rapper, singer and proven hitmaker together. “If you can’t feel my pain, this ain’t for you anyways,” Wave sings on the track “Don’t Forget,” and he likely has a point – I can’t imagine how much harder these tracks might hit for someone with a similar background. Single “Tombstone” is the album’s biggest success, and for good reason. It finds Wave’s smooth falsetto and some of his most emotional vocals backed up by gospel harmonies as he fantasizes about his own death – the moment when he’ll finally be free from life’s sorrows. For the image he puts forward, Wave’s music can be truly beautiful at times.
Some early signs of the redundancy that reveals itself mostly in the album’s back half reveals itself early on as well – the track “All I Got” feels relatively similar in concept and sound to some of the album’s opening tracks, reutilizing aspects of the emotional trap beat formulas, Wave’s build-up to a single chorus, and dedicating a surprising amount of the track’s runtime to a skit. Still, Wave’s vocals and storytelling abilities are often stirring enough that the project almost feels like a compelling 57-minute-long one-man stage show as he tells his life story. I was almost more interested in relating to and empathizing with Wave’s stories than the originality of the music surrounding it, something rare for this listener but likely a highly important aspect to many. The track “Richer” recruits the album’s only feature in Polo G for an uncharacteristic straight-up flex track, but Wave’s triumphant hook as he celebrates his success is another one that’s sure to catch fire on the radio waves. Despite the longest extended spoken outro on the project, single “Street Runner” is easily one of the greatest tracks here. With a Kanye-esque chipmunked soul sample – but of a deep cut from emotional pop singer-songwriter Ruth B. – the trap piano beat is at its most dynamic and lush as Wave tearfully sings about spending too much time away from his loved ones. The track “Pills & Billz” uses a similar sampling technique immediately after, but contains one of the most visceral narratives as Wave describes his own near-suicide while under the influence.
As the album passes its halfway mark, it becomes all the more evident that this album could have been even better with a shorter runtime and some of the more redundant tracks saved for a deluxe edition. The general intoxicating vibe of the album keeps up, but there aren’t as many immediately ear-grabbing melodies or lyrics to keep the engagement level from sinking into the background. The track “How The Game Go” has an instrumental so similar to DaBaby’s smash hit “Rockstar” that I legitimately had to go and check that it wasn’t simply the same beat pitched down (it isn’t). Wave tones down the energy a bit on the tracks “Shock Da World” and “What’s Love??,” attempting for an even more intimate angle that ultimately ends up falling flat due to the emptier instrumentals behind him. After another sluggish track with a strangely meandering chorus in “OMDB,” one of the hidden gems of the album’s back half is revealed with “Invisible Scar.” With a strangely sunny-sounding syncopated guitar instrumental for someone like Wave, the juxtaposition works wonders amidst the more monotonous tracks, Wave keeping up his typically somber ruminations. Despite Wave’s techniques becoming abundantly clear by the time you hit the 15th and 16th tracks, his penchant for hooks still certainly saves it from being completely boring. I could easily see tracks like “Calling” and “Sneaky Links” blowing up off TikTok – there could be a hidden hit single almost anywhere here. After a couple more trap-piano beats and come-up stories, the album closes with “Changing,” a final anthemic mantra clearly meant to close a live show as Wave succinctly sums up all the topics he covered – “safe to say I’m changing.”
Along the lines of what you might expect from a young rapper reaching new heights of popularity every day as he develops his sound, Wave clearly reaches closer to his full musical potential than ever before on this project and plays to his strengths, but falls further into the traps of the trendy long hip-hop album. Still, this is Wave’s best project yet and his massive crossover hit is just waiting to be discovered.
Favourite Tracks: Street Runner, Blame On You, Tombstone, Gone Till November, Richer
Least Favourite Track: OMDB