If you’ve been to a hip-hop show or a nightclub in the last couple of months, you’ll have seen what Sheck Wes is capable of doing to a room. In London, let alone in his native New York, the Harlem rapper’s breakout single "Mo Bamba" has been turning crowds into unruly, bouncing mobs without fail since summer.
Almost a year after its release, "Mo Bamba" has earned young Sheck Wes co-signs from Drake, Travis Scott, and Kanye, the latter of whom have signed Wes to G.O.O.D. Music / Cactus Jack under the umbrella of Interscope, in addition to a spot on the soundtrack for the game NBA Live 19 and a credit in the score for the latest Purge film. His debut album MUDBOY has been anticipated as a moment-defining record for a rap world in flux.
However, on MUDBOY, Sheck Wes doesn’t really make a case for being hip-hop’s future. At 14 tracks long, only half that number that warrant repeat listening. MUDBOY is more a plod through some of modern rap’s worst habits than it is the frenzied dash into the future that "Mo Bamba" promised.
A lackluster, dingily mixed beat opens the record, with Wes mumbling incomprehensibly for well over a minute before he kicks off "Mindfucker" in earnest. Once he begins to rap things pick up, and the energy in his voice offsets the murky beat. Synths pulse dramatically, promising a chorus or at least something that will signal the start of this album. Sadly, nothing happens. Where there should be a hook, Wes’ flow trails off, and he instead begins to talk about "fucking everything with your mind." The synths keep pulsing. The song ends.
"Live Sheck Wes" starts on a more promising note; Super Mario-coin sound effects give way to a gothic trap beat, a chanted mantra of "Live Sheck Wes/ bitch I’m dying Sheck Wes" bringing the first glimpse of that "Mo Bamba" energy. Wes launches into a relentless verse and then back to the chorus. The beat peels back and bursts back to life. It’s simple, it’s stripped back, and it ends with Wes screaming ‘gang’ over and over again. Why isn’t this the album opener?
"Gmail" keeps the same energy with bubbling, almost rave-worthy keys providing the backdrop for a MUDBOY manifesto. Some moments make you screw up your face, and there's the odd bar worthy of Sheck Wes’ copious ad libs. The second half of the track is punctuated by huge drum hits that demand your attention and underline his bars with dramatic flair. Unfortunately, Wes’ vocals disappear before the song is over, and the energy that’s been built up evaporates as the next cluster of tracks begins.
Getting into the core of the album, "Wanted" and latest single "Chippi Chippi" take the haunted house trap vibe a little too far, with the spooky production and overblown bass threatening to overwhelm a pair of low energy performances from Wes. "Wanted" redeems itself in places and when you can hear the bars properly there are some gems (notably “I got asthma, can’t never leave the pump”), but neither track does enough to hold your attention.
"Never Lost" and "WESPN" are attempts at balladry that should have never made it onto this album. While the latter comes through with a catchy hook, Wes’ singing is out of tune and needlessly dreary. His declarations of "Sheck Wes been in a sad state" and "you ain’t never been through shit/ you ain’t never had to shoot shit," feel like Lil Uzi Vert-lite. Follow-up "Kyrie" is higher energy and sees Wes back on his game, employing countless basketball references and riding a genuinely chilling beat with refreshing energy.
The Exorcist-inspired keys that serve as the opening of "Mo Bamba" come as a huge relief after a series of hit or miss tracks. The clarity of vision with which Wes delivers both his verses and ad libs on it is still as infectious and impressive as it was back in January when the music video dropped. The drone of the chorus is staggering, as is the raw energy of the beat switch midway through. It’s irresistible.
Another key highlight is "Jiggy on the Shits," the most soul-searching track on the album. It finds Wes singing in Wolof and reflecting on his time spent in Senegal, his parents' home country, as a teenager. Setting the scene in English, he raps ‘seventeen years old, in this country alone…’ before switching languages to detail his misadventures and loneliness in Touba, the country's second largest city. It’s the best illustration on MUDBOY of the variety that Wes is capable of as a rapper.
Between its grandiose, soaring instrumental and Sheck Wes’ in your face Harlem rap, "Vetements Socks" is one of the best closing tracks of the year, and might be the only moment on the album better than "Mo Bamba." Rapping over a gloriously rich beat, Wes is triumphant, dropping braggadocious bars left and right, reveling in the height of rap stardom. It’s also the first moment on the album where he sounds truly happy, declaring “listen, young man, don't be stressin'/ Bullshit's part of life, it's a life lesson” and delivering a series of almost flawless verses. Compared to some of the drearier moments at the start of the album, "Vetements Socks" practically emits golden beams of sunlight from your speakers.
Despite the strength of its closer, the main takeaway from MUDBOY is that there’s just too much of it. When Sheck Wes is good, he comes close to being generation-definingly great, but when he’s bad, MUDBOY dissolves into SoundCloud-fodder. Parts of the album feel incomplete and included for the sake of bolstering the tracklist. Coming so soon after "Mo Bamba"’s success, the record ultimately feels rushed and overstretched, its lesser moments outshining its best.