It would be an understatement to say that many fans of the onetime indie stalwart Stalley were surprised at his decision to sign with Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group. While he was no Talib Kweli, Stalley had a penchant for putting just the right amount of heart and intellect into his signature brand of “intelligent trunk music.” At the time, folks were simply unsure how Stalley’s thoughtful, blue-collar approach would blend with MMG’s roster of high-flash, low-substance artists. Pre-MMG tracks like “Address” (produced by Ski Beatz) and his pre-MMG mixtapes sold listeners a sound that was like nothing one would expect to hear from MMG’s stable of producers, known for crafting assembly-line beats that adhere to an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” formula.
However, Stalley managed to prove the skeptics wrong with projects like Savage Journey to the American Dream as well as Honest Cowboy, both released through MMG and giving listeners a Stalley unlike what came before, but still not conforming to anything one would expect from the label. Unfortunately, the distinction between what an artist is allowed to do on a free mixtape vs. what an artist is allowed to do on a major label debut is all too clear on Ohio. While the title may lead you to think you’re about to hear a compelling narrative set to music about a place on the map that’s been under-represented in hip-hop to date, what you end up getting from Ohio is a tug of war between what’s real and what’s just marketable in today’s climate.
“Chevelle” is surprisingly unlistenable from the opening line, with a hook sung by longtime producer and friend Rashad, who is probably better off behind the boards than on the mic. To make matters worse, Stalley resorts to likening his car to a woman on this track, similar to how many rappers have used the same device to describe their love for money, rap, the cocaine trade, marijuana, etc. “One More Shot” is another overly-syrupy track featuring the auto-tune robotic whine of August Alsina. This attempt at a slow jam just seems unnecessary, if not out of place altogether, exposing Stalley’s (or his label’s) hand at attempting to be all things to all people on this LP. Stalley continues to cash in on trends with “Always Into Something,” which calls for even more auto-tune, this time courtesy of Ty Dolla $ign and an unimaginative hook.
On a positive note, “Jackin’ Chevys” borrows from Eazy E’s classic “Boyz N Da Hood” as Stalley raps about the illicit pastime of car theft. Producer Black Diamond flips an Ohio Players sample and employs a soulful piano on “Free,” where one could surmise that Stalley is yearning for he and his to be “free” from the violent, desperate surroundings he paints a picture of. “Free” represents the epitome of what Stalley’s “intelligent trunk music” is supposed to be, providing a bright spot among some disappointingly trite songs on this debut.
“Navajo Rugs” features a surprising assist from De La Soul, reminding listeners that the Stalley they remember pre-MMG and what he could have become is still in there somewhere if you can endure beyond the “play me on the radio, please” tracks. Rhyming before heavyweight Posdnuos, Stalley takes a slightly more abstract approach to rhyming about his craft, comparing writing rhymes to the art of creating Navajo rugs. “Got so much on my mind / all these thoughts weaving in and out create a design so intricate like hand spun rugs,” he raps. While not the most obvious comparison, it’s a welcome contrast to the hackneyed material found elsewhere on the album.
The positive thing about the popularity of mixtapes is that the artist gets to show listeners what they have to offer free of the influences of major labels and what they’re trying to back financially. The negative side of it is that an artist like Stalley gets to put out multiple projects being one sort of an artist, only to present himself on his for-pay debut as a hodgepodge of different artists making records for different audiences. While Rashad’s presence as producer throughout the album provides a bit of sonic cohesion, there seems to be an inner conflict concerning what type of artist Stalley is trying to be on Ohio and for whom. Fortunately, it’s the song concepts and idea that’s being diluted and not so much the heart or intellect behind the lyrics.