Most rappers on the come-up do just about anything to create the illusion of an industry co-sign. They'll stick a verse in the middle of a radio hit and hype it up as a “remix.” They'll sample a popular rapper for a hook and when they blast it out to the blogs, credit the song as “featuring” that popular rapper. So, when Baltimore-based, San Bernardino-bred rapper UllNevaNo tells listeners that he has “no relationship with [D.C. beatmaker] Kev Brown,” on a mixtape consisting entirely of raps over Kev Brown's instrumentals, it's a sobering dose of sincerity--and precisely the kind of cagey honesty that permeates much of The Color Brown.
UllNevaNo exhibits the expected verbal dexterity (the mission statement-like “Bright Sound,” the concentrated lyrical exercise “Serious To None”) but he offers up something a bit more rarefied and unpredictable too. He can be playful (the “riding the Metro sucks” rap-rant “Tune Em' Out,” the old school pro wrestling references in his rhymes) and at times, disarmingly emotional. Coming right after the contemplative “Reconsider It,” there's the relationship rap, “Someday,” a tangle of diary-like confessions (“I don't even know what to say/I wrote this verse and thought about you today”) and nerdy, needy pontificating (“There's too much technology, not to stay in contact,” he tells his ex from five years ago). When UllNevaNo wonders aloud if the girl still has the mix CD he made for her all those years ago, and a depressed guitar sample rises out of Kev Brown's foggy beat, punctuating the sentiment, it's one of the most touching, bittersweet moments in rap this year.
Along with this keen emotional intelligence and an unflappable excitement for rapping, UllNevaNo also possesses the all but extinct talent for writing memorable, non-R & B inspired hooks. That's to say, he realizes that for all the grimy, super-scientific lyrics of rap's Golden era, 90s rappers knew how to turn a throaty dude yelling a phrase over and over again into something as punchy and alive as the rest of the song. This is something of a lost art—usually, an old soul sample or an R & B crooner does the job nowadays—and that's unfortunate, because the melodic, chant-rap qualities of songs like “Rock, Paper, Scissors” and “Tune Em' Out” ultimately make The Color Brown a knotty, enjoyable listen all the way through.
Though The Color Brown isn't co-signed by Kev Brown, it is sponsored by Under Sound Music, one of Baltimore's most dependable and consistent hip-hop labels. Like past releases from this boutique label (E Major's Majority Rules and The Major Major Mixtape, producer Eddie's Sound Wandering), The Color Brown occupies this good, weird place between expected sounds and style of underground rap and something far more divergent and personal.
Download the album for free here.