Stream: O.C. “Jewelz”
O.C.’s early style is deceptively simple. His rhymes land in the oddest places. Sometimes he chooses not to rhyme at all for stretches of time that nearly violate unwritten conventions. He raps confidently and methodically, as ifÂ instructing the music to stretch itself out to comfortably fit his pace. He is neither arrogant nor sleazy.Â You will not hear him cram too many syllables into his bars. He does not insult the intelligence of his listeners by selling verbiage disguised as profundity.
Instead, O.C. decorates his verses with commonplace words that render his stories lucid and his social commentary astute. His unaffected voice communicates sincerity and humility. He speaks in warm, soothing tones that meld with the accompanying music but his voice does not weakly fade into the background; his rare combination of straightforwardness and brooding pensiveness makes for a powerful presence.
One gets the sense that O.C. purposely eschews bluster and provocation to challenge himself to cultivate songs of subtlety and depth. He is one of a very small group of emcees who devote a large portion of their time on the mic to relating the inner workings of the mind1Â — emotional responses, ratiocination, spiritual and moral conflict, imaginative and creative impulses— in the form that they take as they occur.
In other words, when we listen to O.C., we are not merely granted access to the end results of a thought process, which for most rappers amounts to some variation of “this is me and this is what I have to say.” We are also treated to a detailed description of the emergence and development of the author’s2 thoughts; we are given a sense of what it was like for him to experience, perceive, process, interpret, and imaginatively refashion his life into song.
On “Jewelz,” the title track of O.C.’s sophomore album, the rapper’s union of style and substance is perfectly realized. The track lacks producer Lord Finesse’s characteristic funky swing, and is not suited for his punchline-heavy banter.3 This song was either crafted with O.C.’s moodiness in mind or passed to him with the understanding that he could easily navigate its turns. O.C. rips it.Â The odd lilt of his flow naturally springs in and out of the song’s pockets. But the mental journey that his voice take us on is the true reward.
The opening ad-libs suggest a feverish mind ready to create; although “Jewelz” is clearly a rehearsed and refined product, the spirit of improvisation is detectable. O.C. sets it off not by announcing his name or stating his intent but by describing how the inner workings of his mind continually shape his art. We quickly learn that he is as changeable as the tides or a mood ring, and his flows follow suit. He is not content to simply describe this process, however. He shows and proves how it works when he nonchalantly shifts between describing hairs grayed from stress and temporary respite from gnawing uncertainty in the form of “wifey telling me good things.”
It is bold for a rapper to confess to emotional unpredictability and occasional faithlessness, and perhaps doubly bold to name his steady girlfriend as his anchor. Neither statement does much to sell O.C. as cool in any regular sense of the word, and he does not attempt to redeem his un-macho stance by resorting to thuggish melodramatic posturing.4 But although his recitation is outwardly calm, his psyche is laid bare for all to hear. His expression inhabits a space between detachment and effusiveness, where he can speak forthrightly about vulnerability without coming off as soft.
O.C. is unconcerned with being perceived as soft, though. He relates his inner turmoil with a recognizably mature dignity. He is not answering to anyone else when he permits himself to discuss both his grief for deceased friends as well as his coping mechanisms. He characterizes his intense visions of a stable life of repose in tropical climes as mild hallucinations that collapse under the weight of reality. He repeatedly finds himself back in his unideal surroundings, somewhat shaken by his trips. His vivid imagination is his bane but also his gift: his willingness to honestly confront his self-doubt as an artist without a regular paycheck likely resonates with the young working poor.
O.C. is self-conscious to a degree about how his art is received, but only in the sense that he fears that the journey through his mind might seem too self-indulgent. To address this fear, he connects to his listeners by appealing to their sense of urgency, making it clear that the pursuit of comfort and happiness is fraught with difficulty and peril to all who are not born wealthy. The stakes are high. The chorus lauds righteous living but warns of earthly pleasures that tempt men to stray from spiritual ideals. In the second and third verses O.C. describes how such forces can wreak havoc on the individual’s sense of moral certainty and threaten the collective’s inextricably linked moral and economic progress.
O.C.’s delivery and word choice intensify ever so slightly in the second verse, imbuing the frenzied thoughts of an embattled young man with color and beauty. Biblical images of burning bushes and luminous epiphanies give way to an unnamed but probably singularly unholy burning temptation residing on his shoulder. When desperate impatience turns his psyche towards violent impulses, he feels as bloodthirsty as a polar bear. Feeling defeated, he sits with his head resting between his kneecaps, lost in thought, but does not wallow for long. Refreshed, he visualizes a life of exotic luxury as the fruit of artistic labor and strategic power moves, but reminds himself that the money is a means to an end.
By the third verse, we understand that the rattling engine of O.C.’s brain propels him towards a better life. He experiences strife in order to grow, and we are persuaded that his troubles have strengthened his resolve. He now demonstrates the level of self-possession required to apply his lessons to a larger context, noting that his collective’s progress has been impeded in part by an unwillingness to adequately confront the trauma of slavery. In “Jewelz” we hear a plea for the adoption of a set of values that is incongruent with instant gratification. To embrace it one must remain vigilantly attentive to the nuances of his own psyche; O.C.’s thoughtful approach to writing and rapping prepares us to ably contemplate such things. — Thun
- Other artists that I believe fit this description include Scarface, Jay-Z, OutKast, and Ghostface Killah. [↩]
- Yeah I said it. He’s an author as far as I’m concerned. Big L could never write shit on this level, with all due respect to the deceased. [↩]
- I am a huge fan of Finesse’s style but O.C. is clearly on a whole different tip. [↩]
- Again, no disrespect to the deceased but such a move is one of 2Pac’s favorite tactics. [↩]