Critical Voices: Lil Reek, The Graduation EP

July 27, 2018

It’s the squeak, that’s the first thing. The strain in his voice over high open-vowel sounds, Lil Reek sounds a lot younger than he is. He’s not old though. The Graduation EP  is his debut project, made as a send-off for his high school graduation. Admittedly, that’s almost old in Soundcloud terms. Lil Yachty was 18 when he dropped his first tape and blew up, YBN Nahmir hasn’t lost the baby fat from his face and is on the cover of XXL, and Lil Pump had his chart topping hit “Gucci Gang” at sixteen. But it’s the innocence that has yet to leave Reek’s young vocal chords that leaves me unnerved.

This is not to take away from Lil Reek as an artist or rhyme-smith. The first song on the tape, Rock Out, is already an underground hit, and rightfully so. The bouncy and sparse production from Brodinski perfectly matches the punchy delivery from Reek. Even beyond that, Reek displays a control of his youthful energy that suggests extreme potential. The song begins with a double-timed flow, barreling over the unprepared listener. Yet Reek masterfully reels and unreels his speed and flow, halving his delivery to draw out his southern Alabama drawl midway through the first verse. The song is endlessly listenable by design, opening with the hook, two long-16s in a row, and then closing with the poppy chorus again. This song would not be half the success it is without the ominous, house-inspired production of Brodinski, synths and 808s that would be more comfortable in a mid-90s bathhouse. Brodinski displays an intense trust in Reek’s versatile delivery, stripping back the instrumental entirely to kick-beats to begin the second verse to provide a backbone to Reek’s whiney, staccato flow.

Brodinski is an odd character, however. He’s a French-producer, with his fingers deeply entrenched into the underground scene, with production credits for Hoodrich Pablo Juan, Yung Nudy, and Jose Guapo, as well as more mainstream artists like Kanye West and 21 Savage. He is a legitimate taste-maker, with his own label that connects European production styles with American (specifically black) vocal performers. And he, more or less, brought Lil Reek to the world, encouraging Reek to rap and pushing this new mixtape on all of his social media platforms.

Producer-rapper relationships are a cornerstone to the modern rap scene. Pierre Bourne and Metro Boomin have made their friends into rockstars by granting them studio time when other people wouldn’t. There’s just something—I don’t know—odd about an older, White Frenchman pulling Lil Reek out onto the rap scene. The power dynamics between the two is irreparably uneven; Lil Reek doesn’t own his music, in the sense that he needs a producer (read: Brodinski or his connects) to provide a finished product.

Normally, this is something I ignore as a listener, as a necessary element of the music industry, and specifically rap, that must be suffered in order for rappers to develop their own platform. But the optics of a wealthy, well-established, white producer parading around a cherubic, black artist is uncomfortable, even with Brodinski’s best intentions. Not to mention, the white-mom inside of me cringes at lines like: “If you pull up with that nigga, boy you know that we gon’ drop him / I ain’t got time for the bullshit / I just spent a dub after school, bitch / Had to pay my motherfuckin’ senior dues.” The quick shifts from adulthood to childhood, violence to mundanity, absurdity to normality are shocking, especially when it comes from someone who sounds like they’re on their tip-toes in the booth. But that may be more indicative of my beliefs as a white listener, imposing my conception of normality, than the existential absurdity of Lil Reek’s flippant monologue.

This is where the listener is forced to take pause. The line between spectacle and reality are deeply blurred across this tape. Lil Reek’s boasts that he rocks Helmut Lang would make more sense in lower Manhattan than lower Alabama, but it adds to the whirlwind feel of the tape, a flurry of boasts that come off like a learned lexicon of wealth, wired into his brain before the money. This comes to a point at the paradoxical “I’m Back”. Lil Reek opens the song with a reverberative refrain: he was broke two months ago, now he’s back. But this cycle of trapping and flexing betrays the narrative of debut that “graduation” implies. Still, this doesn’t take away from the melancholy celebration of “I’m Back”: the eerie keys from Mister Tweeks match Lil Reek’s boisterous celebration of his new wealth. Reek’s youth shines on this track, his voice defiant and proud of his new security, even as his genius verse highlights how ephemeral his new materials are.

Not every song hits. The slow, harpsichord synths to “Digi Dash” turn the motion into a dirge, even as Reek delivers a hopeful set of verses about pulling himself and his mom out of poverty; admittedly, drenching Reek’s already pitch-challenged voice in layers of auto-tune was a mistake. The electronic crooning and moody instrumental are a bore, and distract from what is a more-than-competent set of verses from Reek. Although, “Blind Man” featuring Atlanta veteran Key! also finds Reek’s naturally alluring delivery smothered in auto-tune, to perfect effect. The gravelly hums of Key! Play well with Reek’s sticky yelps, and although the organ-powered background mimics the slowness of “Digi Dash,” the interaction between the two works much better than Reek’s solo effort.

This debut mixtape is elevated from standard-fare by more than just Lil Reek’s youth. He is a legitimate talent that has made the most out of his relationship with Brodinski, showing he can hold his own with industry veterans like Key! and other featured artists like Dro Fe. I’m only a year older than Reek, I’m not going to decry the loss of innocence in America because he raps about guns and money. Everyone raps about guns and money. Lil Reek is not a new phenomena in the longform chorus of rap, black boys singing about what is probably their real life, and about what they want to be real.

But Reek is a twisted metaphor for the way whiteness watches black adolescence; the perturbing beauty of The Graduation comes in the uncanny valley between adult and child that blossoms from his raps, the dissonance between his tongue and the words it produces. Another black boy made to grow up in a matter of months, the transformation is the off-color beauty and oddity that Brodinski is parading. I don’t want to take away from Reek’s autonomy, but at the same time the power dynamics of his relationship with Brodinski call into question the level of control Reek has over his career. This is probably bad. But Reek has money and a platform he wouldn’t otherwise have, and it’s unclear to me if that’s worth it (or if Reek is really sacrificing much by turning his life into a show). These questions don’t take away from what is a well-constructed, if deeply harrowing, debut mixtape. But they heighten the stakes of what could have been otherwise more by-the-book verses: the innocence in Lil Reek’s voice humanizes its words.

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