During the pandemic, following the path of least resistance means sticking to a routine. Trying new things and embracing the unfamiliar is hard when the world feels so much smaller.
Despite the circumstances, Oakland-based ALLBLACK has managed to show his fans a different side of himself. His album, No Shame 3, released last week by Empire, finds the rapper exploring new musical and thematic territory. Of course, these being COVID times, the listener has got to exercise some patience: The exciting, novel stuff doesn’t really show up until the second half of the record.
ALLBLACK, also known as D’Andre Sams, has by now tasted plenty of fame and success. He’s toured the country several times, and broken into the Billboard hip hop charts with his feature on “West Coast,” with G-Eazy, Blueface, and YG. He knows he can get people going with tales of pimping and partying, sprinkled with football references, delivered hard and fast.
Fans will find plenty of that on No Shame 3. Several tracks, like “Kony Flow,” “Large White Tee,” and “DMX,” recall ALLBLACK’s Two Minute Drills EP with Kenny Beats from 2018. These short, bass-heavy zingers are ready-made for a workout — whether on the gridiron or at the strip club.
ALLBLACK’s energy is contagious. If his verses don’t exactly rhyme or come in on beat, that’s yet another reason for the listener to stay on their toes. Like any good Bay Area rapper, he’s not afraid to employ some unappetizing imagery. After all, that energy has to come from somewhere: “Four tours one year, I’m never home/ Eating addys back to back to back like they pizza rolls,” he raps on… “Pizza Rolls.”
On the first half of the album, we hear more about ALLBLACK’s come-up, and how fame has treated him. (Hint: well). He makes a credible case that he is, in fact, “the hardest out the O since Keak Da Sneak,” as he announces on the title track. (Sorry, G-Eazy).
And while it’s all tight and well-produced, especially the aforementioned quick hitters, by the middle of the set there’s a sense that we’ve seen this movie before. It would be very hard for ALLBLACK to top last year’s “304” — its flow, its humor, its sassy Kossisko feature — while frenetically rehashing the travails of the pimp game.
Then, out of nowhere, comes “Club E11even.” The icey, Noah “40” Shebib-type beat slows things way down, trading strobe lights for the soft glow of candles. Oakland’s Guapdad 4000 enters, singing, “North Beach vibes, she dance to my delight.” What follows is essentially a Guapdad track — a woozy dreamscape of drinking and hooking up punctured by the thought, “But I can’t miss this flight.” ALLBLACK’s verse feels like the feature here, even though the “Feat.” is attached to Guapdad’s name.
Sure, there’s no shortage of dark, sexed-up hip-hop on the bleeding edge of R&B, à la The Weeknd and Jeremih. And no, Guapdad’s not quite at that level, although his voice sounds good on “Club E11even.” What’s exciting is that ALLBLACK would veer so far from the bouncy, hyphy Bay Area sound that defines virtually his entire catalog, and feature something smooth and melodic, almost foreign. The song may be about Barbary Coast strip clubs, but it has an affinity with the north, with cities where last call is 4am or nonexistent, where it’s too damn cold to leave the club.
The creative risks keep coming with “Devil’s Call.” While this track has a more familiar beat, its themes stand out big time. ALLBLACK opens rapping about his difficult childhood before cutting himself off: “This ain’t no Noisey episode, I ain’t finna go no further/I was just lettin’ you know how I turned into this mother fucker.”
Then things take a decidedly Faustian turn. The devil literally gives ALLBLACK a call, asking him to pull out a pen and paper. “He told me, ‘Write down every single one of your haters.’/ I wrote ’em down and said, ‘What now?’/ He said, ‘I’ll call you later.’”
Interspersed with more laments from his youth, ALLBLACK reveals that he has “started working for him,” (the devil? The man? Empire Records? G-Eazy?) and that, “since I signed the dotted line, I been paid/ On the inside I look dead, my outside look amazing.”
ALLBLACK doesn’t get so metaphysical again, but he does continue to surprise. “Never” featuring local hip-hop legend Too $hort, turns up and throws it back with 808 cow bells, Licensed to Ill guitars, and a staccato, no-frills flow that is reminiscent of Eazy-E — in both its energy and over-the-top flexes (“three hand grenades in case it’s us against the club”).
On the outro track, “S.H.E.,” ALLBLACK reflects on racism and the history of his hometown, accompanied by a gospel choir and a melancholy piano lick worthy of a Tupac ballad. “My grandad watched the Black Panthers rise into a fall/ I’m watching People’s Breakfast Oakland fight through it all.”
Through it all, ALLBLACK stays loyal to the soil, even as he pushes the boundaries of his musical identity. Maybe it’s a portent of more experimentation in Bay Area hip hop, at a time when the unexpected is most welcome.