Hip-hop had a hell of a year in 2022 – we wouldn’t blame it if it took a bit of a break this year. Turns out, there’s plenty of releases to be excited about even this early in the year. January 20 saw the release of To What End, the umpteenth (okay, ninth) solo album from Washington D.C. rapper Oddisee, a man I found out about waaaay too late with 2017’s The Iceberg, an inhumanly good album about humanity, its vices, and desire (and need) for understanding.
Oddisee makes what is affectionately referred to as grown man rap, music that speaks to the sides of our soul that value growth and development as we age, recognizing our penchant for self-destruction and making concerted efforts to change them while appreciating what truly matters. Remember those Chicken Soup for the Soul books that were everywhere in the ’90s? Oddisee is that for hip-hop, but way less corny. Being 33 now, I feel like I’m in prime target range for this sort of thing despite me being into it for several years already with groups like A Tribe Called Quest, Little Brother, Beastie Boys, and more putting out progressive and thought-provoking material in their later years. Good music is just good music, right?
Oddisee does even more to lock in the grown aesthetic by making his music profanity free (guest performers on his work are free to write as they wish, but naughty words will be censored) and therefore ripe for family gatherings and playing around the kids, and using tons of live instrumentation for his rhymes to glide over. The result is something wholesome without avoiding tough topics and poignant expression that be the catalyst for thoughtful discussion or reflection.
With him handling the overall production and arranging, it all comes back to Oddisee‘s artistic declaration and what he wants to get across. It’s what makes songs like “Many Hats” hit so hard, yet retain a gentleness and a danceability that feels rooted in community – I could so easily see this song played live at a club and everyone’s just feeling it so hard with immaculate vibes as he raps confidently on stage and the jazz-tinged backing band doesn’t miss a beat. I get chills listening to this. It’s one of the best songs of the year so far, thanks also in part to its relatable lyrics:
‘Two stepping off the pivot been a traveler
Before I was a passenger
My baggage was just adding up
Blowing up became a star but as it happened
Feared of getting 86ed any second like the Challenger
I know enough how to hold a bluff when the going’s tough
Feel like collapsing but hold it up for show and such
Wear many hats but no graduation to throw it up
All I know is clutch‘
These feelings can be felt all over the rest of the album. “Already Knew” is more upfront with its hip-hop flair and the little swing in its step. Or how about album opener “The Start of Something”, which is a wonderfully twinkling intro the Oddisee‘s mind these days with a reminder that anyone can still get it (‘A shepard can’t be in the shadow of goats/Your favorite rapper is just cattle, I will snap at the throat/At the end of Ramadan I slaughter lamb for my kin/That’s not a threat just understand I’m not as Western as hoped‘) while earnestly exploring the diligence of man.
One thing that stands out on To What End is the features. They’re not typically something you come to an Oddisee album for – he does just fine being the marquee artist and holding attention – but there’s ample challenge this time around with all due respect to the Sudanese-American rapper. Phonte – one of my favorite rappers ever – comes in with a bit of a “Renegade” moment of his own on “Choices” and lays one of the tightest verses I’ve ever heard from him. Every bar either sets up or cashes in on a punchline or wordplay that literally leaves my mouth agape. I could quote the whole thing here, but the first half is my favorite:
‘I’m thinking back on my block
Way before I knew if this rapping would happen or not
I used to stand and just watch
My OGs say [shit] like, ‘if this don’t pan out, we going back to the pots’
Let’s examine the plot
And just imagine that you standing at a crossroads
To overcome or overkill
You could choose to politic it or choose to keep it real
And still get your whole family shot like Olan Mills‘
“Ghetto to Meadow” is another great one, this time featuring the great Philly Freezer, Freeway. He brings hard-bodied raps that you’d expect (‘I was young and I was thievin’, totin’ ninas and the ghetto/I grew up around some heathens tryna be Robert De Niro‘), matching the mean bass line the track has. Oddisee on the other hand gives us a double time verse on the dichotomy between lived experience and the environments that are less than ideal or cooperative to it, referencing everything from violent toxicity (‘I seen youngins wet up like Poseidon just for smiling/That’s aggression if you grew up where expression is a sign‘) to killer cops (‘Lack of breath when there’s a pressure on your neck and you complied/All you’re left with is the questions that don’t ever get obliged‘).
I’d be here all day if I wanted to cover all noteworthy things on To What End; suffice it to say it’s worthy of lengthy discussion and consideration, proudly leading the charge for AOTY discussions as we get into the cycle for 2023 – never too early, right? This is a masterful follow-up to The Iceberg and his last mini-LP on the love, hope, and fear that manifested exponentially with COVID on 2020’s ODD CURE. Just as that project was succinct and appropriately touching in a trying time the likes of which we’ve never seen, providing a cool head and calming voice, this too shall providing a guiding light as we butt heads with a new year whose direction we have yet to see fully unfold.
Now 37, it certainly seems like Oddisee is in one of the best phases he could be in; then again, his sense of optimism likely dictates that there’s good to all points of time and the change they bring. That’s the sort of vibe you can expect from his work. There is strife and pain in life, but the good must be sought out, grasped onto, and cherished. For us, his music is itself that, a beacon of reason and expression that can be homely and warm even as he details aspects of life that we may not fully relate to. Dude is an orator first, one that can so expertly meter out the words to make great raps, and his taste in production and instrumentation only further solidifies him as one of the best in the game currently. Peace to him and his family.
I hate to end this on a bad note, but I feel compelled to give a quick shoutout to Trugoy the Dove/Dave of De La Soul, whose death I just found out about as I was writing this review. Oddisee was a big fan of theirs, and it shows in much of his music. Rest in peace, Trugoy.