The uninspired all-caps-rap of hip hop's most colorful act arrives at a time when the entertainer's life has all but crumbled.
It’s impossible to talk about Tekashi’s success without mentioning the dark undercurrents of his real life. His career presents a ethical minefield, while also standing as an emblematic hip-hop story of 2018. The x-rated equivalent of Rainbow Brite, he was one of several controversial artists to help cement the mainstream viability of “SoundCloud rap.” His appeal and popularity largely came down to his social media extracurriculars, which consisted of sensationalistic, nonmusical content that was catalogued daily for his legion of more than 15 million Instagram followers. For Tekashi, image was everything; rapping was an afterthought. Though the “also raps” moniker is by no means a novel concept, Tekashi mastered it. He was the king of a visual world in which talent is no longer a requirement for entry. “I didn’t really want to be a rapper or whatever,” he told Adam22 of the No Jumper podcast. “I just thought of making music because everybody was like: ‘You look mad cool.’”
The movement would have been relatively harmless had it not been for Tekashi’s unquenchable thirst for viral clout. He had the presentation: rainbow-colored hair and grill to match; face tattoos; and the number 69, with its sexual connotation, emblazoned across his body more than 200 times. But he needed an avenue to sustain, and more importantly legitimize, his relevancy. This desire led him to a set of Brooklyn-based Bloods known as the Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods, who in turn latched onto the impressionable Daniel Hernandez and never let go. He struck a deal with Kifano Jordan, A.K.A. Shotti, to be his manager; how he linked with Shotti, who was busy avoiding an outstanding warrant in New Jersey for narcotics trafficking while Tekashi scratched and clawed his way to internet fame in 2016, remains unclear.
A hit record changes everything, and for Tekashi, “GUMMO” was his breakout moment. Minimalistic and bloodthirsty, the single was an instant smash that offered very real signifiers of New York: Bed Stuy brownstones, trash bags full of weed, cop cars, red bandannas, and gang signs. The credibility that Tekashi so desperately needed was paying off, and the rap opera commenced in full force. His relationship with the gang was mutually beneficial: he was their cash cow and with the exception of a few rumbles here and there, they kept him safe. Within a year of forming the partnership, Tekashi and his crew began charging a fee of $100,000 per show, only for everything to come crashing down in a flood of federal charges.
The rapid rise and fall of Tekashi 6ix9ine is best exemplified by DUMMY BOY, his newest full-length musical offering that was delayed, leaked, and rushed to release. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the rather disturbingly accurate portrait used as the album’s cover art tells the entire tale: a cartoon version of the grinning malcontent, with his trousers dropped down to his knees, stands in a puddle of his own multi-colored waste.The album was supposed to be Tekashi’s commercial and artistic breakthrough where he finally served up a big-budget arena rap spread. Instead, the death rattle of a project is a featherweight and amateurish attempt at such a spectacle, awash with laughably ill-conceived ideas. Disjointed, formulaic, and worst of all an outright snooze fest, it’s a failed pop crossover attempt on which Tekashi seems more interested in molding himself to the sounds of the moment than pushing forward the provocative, loud, dumb fun that got him famous in the first place.
The opening track “STOOPID” is explosively catchy with a diabolical charm. Bobby Shmurda, who’s currently serving a seven-year prison sentence, delivers a short but thrilling verse, recorded over the phone, that interpolates his 2014 hit “Hot N***a.” From there, things begin to take a turn for the worse. “TIC TOC” is a cheap attempt to try to replicate Lil Baby’s success on his acoustic-driven tracks, while the heavily-auto tuned “FEEFA” is characterized by the kind of played-out guitar lick meant to cue the listener into the fact that it’s a self-serious trap ballad. “KIKA,” which is smothered with Caribbean-flavored spice and quasi-steel drums, seems to have been recorded in recent weeks. Tekashi uses his tiresome, hyper-aggressive grunts and screamo flow to try to clear his name and distance himself from his past. The stale running joke throughout the album of Tekashi getting cut off before he is allowed to scream his signature battle cry, “TREYWAY!,” is meant as a humorous through line, but comes off as more of a pitiful facade than anything else.
The rest of the album is par for the course, employing the old pray and spray tactic in the hopes that any number of expedient contemporary sounds will stick. The polished latin pop on “BEBE” and “MALA,” situated back-to-back and featuring blase performances from Anuel AA, is watery and virtually identical. “KANGA” cannibalizes lyrics from “Aulos Reloaded,” a song Tekashi put together with French artist Vladimir Cauchemar, and unwaveringly bites Kelis’ “Milkshake” and A$AP Rocky’s “F**kin’ Problems” (it’s worth noting that Tekashi sounds like he’s doing a horrid impression of Fat Man Scoop). Kanye West and Nicki Minaj appear twice on the album, as if Tekashi is trying to show the world that he belongs in the same conversation as two mainstream higher-ups who, funny enough, deliver some of the most ridiculously underwhelming performances of the project. All in all, it seems as if they’re babysitting the red-in-the-face rapper in hopes of piggybacking off his hot streak. Kanye jokes about getting “cancelled” and pegged as being “about as black as Macklemore,” while Nicki shamelessly capitalizes on the now three-times platinum “FEFE.”
Perhaps the most startling and telling aspect of DUMMY BOY is the way that it relies on its guests. The blueprint within is completely and utterly contradictory to Tekashi’s come-up off of solo hits like “GUMMO” and “KOODA.” He has always been a singles artist, with a penchant for crafting earworm songs. His singles up to this point were head-turning cultural moments that relied on his discernible sense of pacing and rhythm. His style was one of reckless abandon: he was wholly uninterested in the basic tenets of rhyme structure or complexity. And that’s fine for some, but when paired with his limitless arrogance and single-minded goal to become a fixture on the Billboard charts, it becomes a severe hindrance.
From a marketing standpoint, Tekashi's artistic choices on the album are genius, as is his ability to leverage publicity into support from industry mainstays. The occasionally tasty production from the likes of Murda Beatz, Scott Storch, and Boi-1da is one of the album's few saving graces. However, it’s the overall quality of the final product where he falls woefully short. Tekashi feels like a visitor on his own album: he gets outperformed by features who half-heartedly lend their names and stoop to his level in order to squeeze into the mediocrity of his rainbow-colored realm. Nowhere is this more apparent than on “DUMMY,” a remix of TrifeDrew’s “Stuck in Dubai” where Tekashi only pops up on the last 30 seconds of the song. To make matters worse, the vast majority of his brief appearances are rendered inauthentic by his clumsy lyrics and lack of vocal range. He would have been better off staying in his comfort zone, although it seems doubtful that even that would have saved this random collection of singles that “feature” the supposed headlining act. His sound has been so thoroughly boiled down to the most boring bits imaginable that it brings an entirely new meaning to the hackneyed notion of oversimplifying in order to reach a wider audience. Dark, nasty, callous, and at times humorous, DUMMY BOY is a hit and mostly miss, braindead black hole of an album that by in large should have been left on the cutting room floor.
Whether people are listening to DUMMY BOY out of morbid curiosity or because they find Tekashi compelling is unimportant. The fact still stands: the album is all over the streaming charts, like every other piece of music that Tekashi has released to date. It probably would have done even bigger numbers if he were around to promote it. Instead, Tekashi now faces 32 years to life in prison after getting snatched up by the FBI and plastered with racketeering and firearms charges among others for his proximity to gang-related activities. Prior to his demise, the imperiled rapper lived as if he was the one running the show. He spent the year outsmarting everyone, reveling in his reputation as a bully and publicly provoking his rivals, actions that were amplified by social media.
But by the end of his run, he had broken cardinal rules that live at the deadly intersection of the industry and the streets. He agitated powerful people with his “test my gangster” attitude and lived up to his perception as a “loose cannon and liability.” It’s true that numbers don’t lie, but they do leave room for error in the margins, and overlooked miscalculations were Tekashi’s undoing. His move to clean up his public image and pursue safer money came when it was far too late. Realized or not, he became the victim of his own enterprise. Everyone gladly soaked up his stardom and dumped him the minute his fame was no longer advantageous. Not that it’s much worth pondering at this point given his impending trial in September 2019, but it begs the question: was the tireless search for fame worth it?
In hindsight, perhaps this was the inevitable end to Tekashi 6ix9ine’s story all along, one that will presumably collect dust as a window into a extraordinarily bizarre period in hip-hop lore. On the other hand, maybe Mr. “10 for 10 on the Billboard” truly was on the cusp of superstardom. With his career now indefinitely on hold, there’s no way of knowing what might have been.