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The Uneven GHETTO GODS Finds EARTHGANG Tragically Catching Up With The Times

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Genre: Rap

Favorite Tracks: “GHETTO GODS,” “WATERBOYZ (feat. JID & J Cole),” “AMERICAN HORROR STORY,” “SMOKE SUM”

The release of 2019’s kaleidoscopic MIRRORLAND announced the mainstream arrival of EARTHGANG, one of the South’s most promising rap acts. Under the stewardship of genre titan J. Cole, EARTHGANG built momentum off a string of high quality EPs and several lesser known projects with various members of their Spillage Village collective before debuting with MIRRORLAND, which succeeded in fleshing out the threads of energetic weirdness and the eclectic influences of members WowGr8 and Olu. Obvious allusions to a certain renowned Atlanta rap duo have stuck to EARTHGANG from the moment they popped up on the scene, but trotting out lazy comparisons like “EARTHGANG is Outkast if both members were Andre” were tired in 2018 (not to mention disrespectful to Big Boi!), and feel even more so in 2022. Their newest project, GHETTO GODS, reigns in some of the wildest impulses found on MIRRORLAND, and hews more closely to the sounds of modern Southern rap production. The result is a more considered approach, and ultimately a more subdued offering; it isn’t that there aren’t moments of levity or full-throated excitement, but EARTHGANG are nestled in a package that feels more sober and, intentionally or not, reflective of the turbulence which marked the intervening years between releases. At first listen, the album was a disappointment, but a closer examination of the lyrical messages softened the blow. It’s less energetic, and there are a few puzzling missteps throughout, but ultimately GHETTO GODS is a worthwhile entry into the catalog of a duo with near limitless potential.

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One might be inclined to question my conclusions as the album begins. GHETTO GODS goes the way of MAN ON THE MOON and RODEO by asking an elder statesman to handle the spoken intro (this time it’s Atlanta’s trap dad 2Chainz), and immediately segues into the grandest beat and the most bombastic performance on the entire album with the title track. The airy, dramatic horns and thundering percussion call to mind a march, punctuating Olu’s earworm chorus. The track is a standalone knockout; the album never again matches this energy, but it does set up some of the thematic throughlines. “GHETTO GODS” is interesting but disjointed, at odds with the tracks that follow and with the mood established across the rest of the project.

Thankfully, the following songs are a riot, giving the album a breezy, blustery opening before giving way to the more straight-faced material populating the back half of the tracklist. “BILLI” is a fun, bouncy take on a classic trap track, as Olu and WowGr8 trade lines and giggles rapping about their financial goals. Future graces the back end, but an unwelcome beat switch and marble-mouthed feature leave the appearance feeling like a tacked-on afterthought. The opposite is true on “WATERBOYZ”, which was destined to join the pantheon of Dreamville classics from the moment the tracklist dropped. A charismatic five minute team up with JID and J. Cole, it sports more clever one-liners and flows than it knows what to do with. Extremely amusing, twangy production provides each rapper ample space to flex their personality. Olu delivers a groovy three part opening that becomes the bridge between verses, as well as perhaps the year’s funniest simile for struggle, “Down to my last, I was fucked up, I was down bad like cornrow Meek.” JID and WowGr8 follow with smooth, engaging cadences, and Cole closes the track with his most self-aware boast yet, “Please don’t get it fucked up from this homeless aesthetic / Whole lotta homes, and I ain’t even put out the tour but it’s sold out already / I’m General Tso how a n—- is breaded.”

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The mood changes substantially following a throwaway skit, and never returns to the lightheartedness of these three opening tracks. “AMEN” is a surprisingly hard-driving screed on loyalty and devotion that’s paced just a bit too fast and with drums a bit too harsh for my liking, which gives way to the much more subdued, contemplative “ALL EYES ON ME.” A sleepy JetsonMade beat undercuts the delivery, but the lyrics are a compelling, weary congratulations to everyday people for simply having the wherewithal to survive the past three years. EARTHGANG grapples with the feelings of loss and the effects of institutional racism, and references to stimulus checks and racial justice movements give the track a distinct topical tone. “LIE TO ME” revisits artificiality over a woozy, plodding beat, framed by an empty, performative relationship within a culture obsessed with outward appearance over internal substance. The hook feels like a desperate plea, imploring their peers to admit, “Can you be honest, can you be true? / Everybody straight up lie on cue / Ain’t nobody keepin it real with you.”

“LIE TO ME” establishes a central theme carried through the next three tracks; EARTHGANG has sympathy for many, but particularly for Black women navigating modern America. “LIE TO ME” laments the societal pressures that result in girls whose “love language is tags and receipts,” but stops short of blaming women for the structures they must survive within. “JEAN’S INTERLUDE” and “NEEZY’S WALK” place EARTHGANG in the backseat and give Black women’s voices contrasting moments to both champion women’s empowerment (“Man it’s 2022, all my bitches glowed up”) and acknowledge the great chasm still to be crossed to true equality (“You have to be your own candle after dark… / Having a body to defend, but a body not allowed to fight because that body is already a disciplinary infraction, a distraction”). These are affecting moments, underscored by the intervening “BLACK PEARLS,” which deploys a classic EARTHGANG trick by contrasting the tone of a performance with its lyrical content. The track has an uptempo rhythm and blasting hi hats reminiscent of a strip club anthem, but Olu’s verse surveys the often bleak cultural landscape black women face on the road to success and self actualization. A ferocious verse from Baby Tate closes the song effectively, but it’s arguable that WowGr8 and a clumsy hook muddle the message. What isn’t debatable is the massive misstep a few tracks later on “POWER,” which recruits credibly accused rapist CeeLo Green to lay a verse about power dynamics and “being in compromising positions,” a line so egregious it’s a shock and disappointment no one stopped to consider the optics on an album with an otherwise sympathetic message for women. Coupled with a flat, platitudinous grand monologue from Nick Cannon and “POWER” is an ugly misfire that would’ve been much better served if it simply ended after strong contributions from EARTHGANG.

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The rest of the album is uniformly strong. “AMERICAN HORROR STORY” is an album highlight with a zoomed out perspective on racial injustice and other societal ills. Olu’s verse traces an arc from the arrival of slave ships on African coasts to the immense difficulty of reversing generational trauma and oppression, while WowGr8 focuses on economics and the accumulation of generational wealth while admonishing peers who did make it to extend a hand down rather than sneer with superiority. These are two of the best verses either rapper has laid to date, visceral and impactful, but careful to shy away from preaching. The closing triplet still deals with trauma and survival, but in a manner that encourages camaraderie and care. “SMOKE SUM” recalls MIRRORLAND’s “TEQUILA,” a raucous party track girded with dark lyrics about using substances to cope with pain, only this time it’s a stoner song. “STRONG FRIENDS” is a 2022 “PROUD OF U”, trading the good vibes for a warm, heartfelt reminder that everyone needs support. Closer “RUN TOO” deploys Dreamville labelmate Ari Lennox on a gorgeous hook, rounding out the album themes in a wistful, satisfying manner.

In reflection, it was unreasonable to expect the same hopeful, lively energy on MIRRORLAND to appear on GHETTO GODS. The past few years have laid bare too many awful truths and stole too much innocence to warrant the same approach. For better or worse, EARTHGANG delivered an album that feels aligned with the times, managing to preserve a semblance of the fun while leaning more into the weighty topics that clearly preoccupy them.

Corey Guen
Corey is an East Coast lifer, Nintendo fanboy and proud beard-haver in spite of his Chinese heritage. He writes about music for Merry-Go-Round because listening to it and arguing about the Celtics are the only things he's managed to stick with for more than a few years.

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