Shaquan Lewis aka Skillz ain’t mad no more. In fact, he sounds content with his place in hip hop on his new album, The Million Dollar Backpack. The album marks Skillz’ first release since 2005’s Confessions Of A Ghostwriter. His first CD, From Where??, was an undergound favorite in 1996 with a hit single that (that coincidentally inspired the name of this here website you’re reading) “The Nodfactor.”
There’s no doubt that Skillz is an immensely talented rapper, capable of amusing punchlines and engaging storytelling. But there is a big difference between doing a yearly “Rap-up” over someone else’s beat and putting out a project of your own. So what is Million Dollar Backpack really worth?
Backpack begins with Skillz tracing the journey of the backpack in hip-hop, from Buckshot to Kanye, over a mellow bassline and rimshots courtesy of DJ Jazzy Jeff (and maybe Al Green but we’ll let you all fight over it). But the difference between his 16-bar blitzkriegs on other people’s projects (ie “One MC, One DJ”) is that Skillz is more focused on concepts that punchlines for his own album. And for the most part the producers match his intensity note for note.
On “So Far, So Good” Usef Dinero gives Skillz and Common a lilting piano to reminisce on their place in hip hop and on the hilarious “My Phone” Fusion Unlimited provide the jazzy soundbed for Skillz “dreams of calling an Hollywood chick” style narrative. On “Hold Tight,” Skillz and Black Thought of the Roots rip a horny, pounding beat from ?uestlove and James Poyser and on the inspirational “I’m Gon Make It” Bink! wraps some organ notes around some frantic cymbal crashes matching Skillz Redbull-infused recollections of his childhood. “Preachin To the Choir” may not invoke the “oh shit” factor of stories like “Imagine” but it comes pretty damn close.
But the battle-rapper in Skillz is not dead. The Kwame-produced “Sick” is an epic brag rap where Skillz tells listeners just how long he’s been a one-man quarantine. Over what are probably the hardest kicks on the CD Skillz brags that “he was sick before Ye’ and Swizz Beatz knew how to chop them drums…” and on “Don’t Act Like You Don’t Know” has Skillz and Freeway spitting vicious verses over a “What We Do” sound-a-like produced by Orthodox and Ransum.
Unfortunately, some tracks feel like mixtape material–good without leaving a lasting impression. Filler like “Yeah You Know It” just drag down the proceedings and Skillz falters when he forces the R&B hand. He feels out of place like Buckshot at a P Diddy over the breathy hook and conga drums of “(For Real) He Don’t Own Me” and and the Jake One produced “Where I’ve Been.”
That said, the best tracks on Backpack are some of the best tracks I’ve heard this year, and prove that Skillz still deserves our attention in 2008. No matter what his backpack costs his flow is worth way more than 50 Cents any day.