As the release of "ADHD" looms ahead, are Joyner Lucas' attempts to diversify his sound working in his favor or is he straying too far from what makes him unique?
There’s a lot to be said for maintaining a spirit of diversity in music. Many of hip-hop’s leading lights, both past and present, retain their vitality by constantly evolving. Although it’d be easy to compile a laundry list, Kanye West, Eminem, Kid Cudi, Outkast, Travis Scott and Kendrick Lamar are just a few of the notable names who have avoided musical rigidity in favour of letting their sound grow and morph. But no matter how far they strayed from their original "format," the music remained unmistakably original and furthered their own unique approach.
Midway through one of the more sporadic and unconventional album rollouts in recent years, Worcester MA’s Joyner Lucas has made a habit of dabbling with far-flung sounds. Each new single that has emerged through out 2018 and 2019 appears to have been constructed from a different sonic template, placing cohesion on the backburner in favour of looking at hip-hop from a birds-eye view. Taking an element from here or appropriating a motif from there, the result has been a set of tracks that seem artistically ambitious and familiar all at once. Met with a polarizing response for the most part, each precursor to ADHD has taken the listener down one road before he abruptly changes course for pastures new.
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For the most recent case study, you’d need only look as far as project’s title track. Drenched in reverb and the customary trap 808’s, “ADHD’s” sorrowful inflection and emphasis on melody shares more DNA with the work of Juice WRLD or Post Malone than it does “Ross Capicchioni” or the multi-layered lyrical workout of “Backwords.” The product of letting bygones be bygones, the cadence and structure of the Logic-aided “ISIS” was littered with tropes that have become synonymous with Drake just as “Broke And Stupid” saw Joyner put his own spin on Memphis Bleek & Hov’s “Dear Summer” in a way that mirrored the 6 God’s recent work. To top it off, it even harboured a thematically similar music video to “God’s Plan.” While these tracks have an influence that can be traced back to artists he’s previously admitted that he bows “gracefully” to, “I Love” took a different tact yet again and contains hints of Big Sean and even his former adversary Tory Lanez. With an uncharacteristically inane chorus that’s draped over TheSkyBeats production, the pursuit of a banger continued with “10 Bands” alongside Timbaland and seemed more like a love letter to the legendary beatmaker’s Shock Value era than a Joyner track in its own right.
Save for “Devil’s Work”— which invoked a strong online reaction for other reasons— none of these teasers are what could be categorized as ‘vintage’ Joyner Lucas, instead acting as investigative forays into other styles and subdivisions of hip-hop. In theory, taking a chameleonic approach to music could be beneficial as a way to maximize your appeal across different demographics. But if done haphazardly, the end product could be the distinction as a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none.
That said, there is evidence to suggest that Joyner had precipitated this exact reaction. Released at the beginning of last month, a bar from his Tory-assisted “Suge” remix shed some light on the ethos behind his upcoming project and could go some way to explaining why it has lurched from one sound to the other:
"Why you keep droppin' your album in increments? ADHD is a social experiment, who pay attention the most when they hearin' it?"
A rebuttal to those who believe this drip-feed approach to unveiling the album is counterproductive, this incisive line would suggest that Joyner is still firmly in the driver’s seat, orchestrating his every move with precision. Described by Joyner as his “only therapy,” music has been a conduit for him to express himself with raw, unabashed honesty and it’s his heart-on-the-sleeve lyricism and undeniable aptitude for rhyming that earned him fans around the world. Diagnosed with ADHD as a kid, he was branded “fidgety” and “impulsive” but all of that melted away when it came time to step in the booth. Now, as he readies his most ambitious project to date, the real crux of the matters lies in whether he’s still approaching the creative process with the same strength of conviction as he always had, or if he’s straying from the path in order to chase a hit.
To unravel the situation, it’s important to clarify what Joyner sees— or perhaps saw— as the key ingredients of his output. To do this, look no further than a set of remarks he made back in 2015. Entrenched in the promotional tour for his third mixtape Along Came Joyner, he conversed with DJ Booth about numerous tracks on the album. When pressed for one standout that typified what his music was all about, Joyner didn’t hesitate to cite his paradoxically-minded work on "Opposites Attract" and his reasoning was as follows:
"It shows lyricism, it’s real melodic at the same time and also I’m just going off. It’s like three key elements of Joyner Lucas."
Elsewhere in 2017, the Massachusetts MC described how he regularly flips the archetypal songwriting process on its head in order to create in the vein of a film composer:
"I take the video first approach," he relayed to Revolt. "I write the video treatment first. I write the soundtrack to the visuals and once I know what the video is going to look like, I go and create the record around the structure of the video. That approach works for me."
Prone to unveiling track and video in one fell swoop, the absence of a visual accompaniment to the record’s title track and the sharp difference in lyrical bent that he offers on tracks such as “I Love” could suggest that these methodologies aren’t as easily chartable in his output as they once were.
In the opening salvo of "Isis," the medical diagnosis that’s plagued Joyner since his adolescence is explained, making note of how it “affects an individual's ability to focus, causing them to move around more frequently.” Considering his decision to traverse the length and breadth of modern hip-hop in recent months, it almost paints these musical flights of fancy as a case of art imitating life. On the other hand, it’s also keeps in line with one of his preferred pastimes during his come-up. From “Look Alive” and “Mask Off” to “Gucci Gang” and “Bank Account,” Joyner made a habit of toying with the other side of hip-hop in a way that fell somewhere between pastiche and a viral showcase for his talents. It would feel as though he’s progressed from repurposing these types of commercialized tracks, to attempting to create his own chart-topping titans based on their sounds. The only problem with this hypothesis is that only “Isis” has cracked the Billboard Hot 100 at time of writing.
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Proven time and time again, the consequences of chasing a hit and letting your own artistry fall by the wayside can be incredibly grave. The origin of many maligned singles and albums, even veterans such as Method Man— who admitted to getting wrapped up in “trying to make hit records and SoundScan” on Tical 0: The Prequel— aren’t immune to the lure of those numbers while one of the major complaints about Lil Nas X’s 7 EP was its latent attempt to broaden his appeal by ungraciously melding genres. Speaking on an April 2018 edition of his podcast, Joe Budden spoke of the innate horrors of making music to try to appeal to the masses and it’s a warning that Joyner— and any burgeoning artist— would do well to heed:
"I was so open minded that I was willing to try almost anything. Records like 'Porno Star,' 'Roll Your Backyard,' and 'Jingling Baby'-those records are so far from anything that I would write personally. I was in the strip club about five years ago and I heard "Roll Your Backyard" come on and it was like my soul was cringing. It almost felt like I was going to throw up. That's when I decided I would never make another song that I didn't want to make."
Whether caused by that same inextricable restlessness that Joyner has contended with for his whole life or a concerted effort to cater to every type of hip-hop audience, fans still have yet to gain a clear picture of what awaits us on ADHD. As much as eclecticism and boundary-pushing can work in the artist’s favor, Joyner must retain the authenticity that made him such an exciting outlier in the first place if the record is to succeed. For now, we wait patiently to see what the next single sounds like.