Published Jan 24, 2019John River raps about being ready to die on the opening couplet of his eagerly awaited debut album The Academy. Unlike swaths of lesser rappers, he's not exaggerating.
The Mississauga MC famously took to social media to detail his bout with debilitating health issues almost exactly a year before this new album dropped. And aside from the evocative, spit-sung intro about his brush with death, he also bookends the album with "The Finish," a closing track replete with vivid details about how he endured a brain fluid leak. That song's tight high-pitched vocal sample and dusty boom-bap beat are reminiscent of a Roc-A-Fella classic. He also finishes the track with a fun spoken word spiel not unlike the outros of Kanye's early classics.
In that sense, River is a revivalist, picking instrumentals throughout this album that harken back to rap's jazz-indebted past, and blatantly defying the woozy, synth drenched SoundCloud sound de jour. There are resounding piano key clinks and crisp drums on "Before I Go," faintly moaning horns and a high hat that sounds like falling pocket change on "Laney High," and rapid percussion straight out of a marching band on "Pull Up."
Aside from such sterling vintage production choices throughout, River's lyrical content also eschews the shallow mumble rap style dominating so many of today's playlists. That's especially evident on "Before I Go," which finds him rhyming from the vantage of a remorseful robber. But an even better example is "Neither Am I," a warts-and-all confrontation of his misogyny-laced insecurities, which he finishes by humbling copping to slut shaming and other transgressions. Less effective is the overly salacious sexual assault parable "Lisa," though River's bold narrative ambition is, while misplaced in this instance, nevertheless laudable.
Yes, from the throwback beats to the timeless lyrical depth, this 24-year-old shows wisdom beyond his years on his very promising debut. (Independent)