Disclaimer the first: I was born in northeast Ohio. In a little city named Elyria, to be exact. Stalley is also from that part of Ohio, about an hour away in Masillion. No, we don’t know each other. But my home-state bias is what drove me to Google after seeing him on Sway in the Morning.
Disclaimer deux: I’m reviewing the datpiff version of this EP. Amazon has another version with a few extra songs but it’s missing others that are the best on the whole EP. So if you choose to grab this, I suggest going to datpiff.
Stalley is the first national emcee (in my memory) in a long time to rep Ohio so vocally, which is just one thing I love about him. Another is that he’s very good at crafting dreamy, relaxed, good times. These moments, plus a few criminal songs, are Honest Cowboy at its best. Out of 11 tracks, only 4 really bore me or are bad. Yeah, not perfect, but that’s a pretty damn solid record.
So let’s get those negatives out the way first. Samson is ok but way too conventional. Where Stalley normally sounds very different from what’s readily available in mainstream hip-hop, this song fits right in due to its unfocused rhymes, average southern gangsta beat, and the sample of Rick Ross saying “money” that plays throughout. The beats are what drives most Stalley music, too bad this one sounds like a Rick Ross throwaway. So Samson isn’t terrible, but it’s very skippable.
Raise Your Weapons and Long Way Down are the “conscious” songs, but they’re so generic that they completely fail to impress me. There’s nothing to learn on them, and they just end up being accusations against a vague establishment and calls to undefined action and revolution. That kind of stuff does absolutely nothing for me. While I appreciate that Stalley raps about more than just good times, I wish he had a lot more to say. Aaaaannnnd I hate the beats, especially Long Way Down’s electric guitar whose brashness shatters the vibe that Honest Cowboy works so hard to maintain.
Speaking of that vibe, now to the good stuff! Stalley has a knack for creating and maintaining a calm, “drive slow outside the club on a Saturday night” mood that I just love. I can’t decide exactly how much credit he deserves for this, because, obviously, the beats are a huge driver of this appeal. But I’ve heard plenty of emcees piss all interesting vibes with their lackluster verses. So, surely, just as a lot of skill is needed to carry a song with complex lyrics, there must be a similar skill needed to create interesting verses that don’t get in the way of the overall song and mood.
To that end, Stalley’s not spitting many metaphors or punch lines, he doesn’t speed-rap, and, besides the songs hated above, he’s not saying much. But his rhyme schemes are varied, his flow’s good minus a couple rhythmically awkward moments, and he knows exactly when to let the beat take a solo. This all makes him great on his own releases where he’s selecting the beats but he fails to impress on features and freestyles where they aren’t exactly what he sounds best on.
So what makes Honest Cowboy magical? Well let’s examine Swangin’ (one of my favorites), which is about slowly swerving in a classic car, likely while high off lean. I frickin’ love the sample, Mint Condition’s classic You Send Me Swingin’, but I was hesitant to find out what a rapper would do with it. That sample (respectfully jacked, no need for major chopping), plus Crystal Torres’ soft singing and scatting, would make the song lean too far towards R&B, but the percussion and booming bass firmly root it in hip-hop. This pairing of smooth elements with strong drums, a Scarface (!) verse, and Stalley’s raps creates a nice contrast that’s often repeated on Honest Cowboy. Stalley pulls his own weight well, even on Swangin’, where his verses are only around 8 bars long each but there are four of them and in them he often toys with rhyme schemes:
cherry red paint make the frame glow
them gold flakes make it rainbow
when the sun hit it it shine from every angle
furry red dice dangle from the rearview, a pimp’s cathedral
While the stars may have aligned for Swangin’, many other songs like Cup Inside a Cup have a similar contrast and use it just about as well. With these there are a few regular gangsta songs that nicely break up what could have been a monotonously relaxed tracklist. A-Wax is the best of these, because Stalley sounds so good on its faster-than-his-usual tempo that I now have to have some hope for him as a regular emcee, despite what I said earlier about the limits of his style.
Verdict: Though Honest Cowboy has more than enough positives to make me happy, I wish Stalley had more to say on his conscious songs, and rapped more often with the fire shown on A-Wax. But this EP still very nicely succeeds at displaying Stalley’s smoke/sip/drive lifestyle and at being a soundtrack for my own relaxing.
- Cup Inside a Cup