Lil Skies may seem like a perfect avatar for SoundCloud rap with his boyish good looks and assortment of face tattoos, but his effortless charisma and penchant for earworm hooks makes it clear that Kimetrius Foose could have been a commercially viable rap star even if he was born a decade earlier. His appeal is the appeal of Drake – a wounded lover at heart wrestling with life in the spotlight, albeit dressed in the distorted 808s and emo-indebted melodies of today.
True to this confusing era of mixtapes vs. albums vs. projects, his latest release, Shelby, is being billed by some outlets as a debut, despite 2018’s Life of a Dark Rose having all the polish of a traditional studio release. Shelby, named after Skies’ mother, covers similar ground to his previous effort, offering brief vignettes of the MC’s life before his name was in lights, along with copious slick talk and bleak romantic dispatches.
But despite his appearance, Skies’ appeal is pretty distinct from other artists who rose to fame through platforms like SoundCloud and Lyrical Lemonade. He’s not a left field, off-the-wall tongue-twister like Ski Mask the Slump God or Denzel Curry, but he never fully commits to channeling emo music like Juice WRLD or Lil Tracy, frequently opting for tried-and-true rap cadences. Skies’ appeal is much more like that of a quintessential pop rapper. You won’t be rewinding Shelby for blistering bars, but his song crafting ability is strong enough that there’s little here you’ll be compelled to skip, and a handful of tracks that hint at untapped potential.
While he’s seemingly positioning himself to reach the widest possible audience, Skies has been contemplating the downside of fame since his first taste of national success. Dating back to his 2017 breakout singles like “Red Roses” and “Nowadays,” he’s been questioning the people around him, numbing himself with substances, and waxing poetic about a simpler life in his Pennsylvania hometown.
“Nowadays, Pt. 2” isn’t as effortlessly infectious as its predecessor, but it does feature focused, confessional writing from Skies. “Sacrifices made me the man that I am/ If I had to do it, I would go back and do it again,” he says. Like many of his contemporaries, Skies’ bars often have a stream of consciousness looseness; one line he’s threatening the opps, and the next he’s crestfallen over a woman. As such, some of Shelby’s strongest songs are the ones where he wholeheartedly indulges his inner romantic.
“Name in the Sand” starts off with a lightly autotuned Skies crooning about finding love atop lush guitars sampled from Australian multi-instrumentalist Plini. But as the uncertainty creeps in, Skies switches to pure rapping, reeling off some of his most cutting lines on the entire project. "You take my heart and say you love me, are you the one I should really trust?/ Said I would stop but I go right back to this double cup,” he admits.
The album is light on guests, with Skies’ regular collaborator Landon Cube appearing, along with Gucci Mane and Gunna. The latter shows up on “Stop the Madness,” Shelby’s sole song over four minutes. After hearing Skies do a pretty credible Gunna impression for the length of a full track, the Atlanta star’s effect is diminished when he finally arrives.
Across the album, Skies’ sonic palette isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s well-suited to offer some counterweight to his feather-light tenor. Beats like Otxhello and Danny Wolf’s woozy, 808-heavy “Ok 4 Now” and Menoah Beats’ guitar-centric “Name in the Sand” are perfect backdrops for Skies’ reverb-soaked vocals. When the production doesn’t have an anchoring element, like on the shapeless “Breathe,” Skies’ voice blurs into the tangle of synths.
Despite the album being named after her, Skies’ mother Shelby is a relatively minor character here. Skies, whose tireless work ethic was partially inspired by his father’s near-fatal construction accident, clearly has a rich and powerful origin story to mine from, but he’s mostly focused on his own psyche and experiences.
The notable exception is “Highs and Lows,” where Skies speaks plainly and affectingly about the bleak reality of his early days. Producer CashMoneyAP has been responsible for some of Skies’ strongest songs like “Nowadays” and “Lust,” and he brings the best out of the 20-year-old MC with a sparse, somber instrumental. “I put my feelings and my pain in these songs/ When I die, I hope they all sing along/ I ain't do it for the fame, I just did it 'cause I had to be strong/ Nobody was helpin' me or my mom,” he recalls.
These moments of truly personal songwriting, coupled with Skies’ strong ear for beats and hooks, make Shelby an easy and endearing listen, even if it occasionally takes a turn towards the boilerplate. By album’s end, you’ll want to know more, not less, about who Skies really is. And in this over-saturated era of hip-hop, that’s a win.