Progress and patience don't always find a happy medium in hip-hop. Artistic growth isn't something that can be rushed, but the demand for volume fueled by Internet music culture can force some artists' hands before they're truly ready.
But Charmingly Ghetto's ascent to the head of Boston's current hip-hop class, as confirmed by his latest release “On the Meaning of Progress,” has been carefully plotted since his breakthrough 2011 release “Overstanding.” The potential shown on that album yields the tangible growth found on his new one, where, as the title suggests, everything is taken a step further.
Note: Video contains some strong language.
It helps that he's starting from a good place. On “Overstanding,” he excelled as a vibrant narrator in the vein of Reks or Edo G, deftly painting portraits of urban life drawn from both personal experience and observation. Subsequent releases like “Study Abroad” and “Scotland Yard” served as further platforms to showcase his increasingly sharp writing over jazzy, soulful sample-based beats from international producers.
The common theme throughout his work has been an examination of conflict—between art and business, financial and personal rewards, thought and action, and within himself—but he has the maturity and intelligence to explore the nuanced motivations of both sides rather than looking for easy self-serving answers.
What exactly that next level is isn't always easy to describe, as CG notes on "Introduction." Over a slow burning Fender Rhodes groove, he traces his steps so far with cautious optimism: "You think I don't love rolling to Brooklyn, coming through for a show or two, hitting up a studio, building all these bridges for my people, shoot a video/it's happening, and I feel it and I look back, and think what does it change?"
"I think an artist’s biggest fault is being overly critical," he says. "I can be that way too about my music, but it's so beautiful that I can turn around and someone else is excited about it. That ties into what I'm talking about on the intro, basically trying to have a better sense of self and what I do. I'm asking what's important at the end of the 'Intro'—asking how somebody's kids are doing and how we are going to move forward when we interact with each other."
The album's subsequent 10 tracks continue this ongoing dialogue: his stream of consciousness flow on "Redefined" steers through contradictions and conflicts ("I'm occasionally pissed off at hip-hop, I got some issues but I love her though" he admits) at breakneck pace, while "Accidental Martyr" examines familial bonds against the backdrop of urban violence with a literate sophistication that distinguishes him from his young contemporaries.
CG has more questions than answers, but that's part of the power of “Progress.” On "Sleepy People," built around a haunting soul sample that fits the blurry eyed early morning vibe, he compares social media to addiction, lamenting how he's "lost in the matrix, with everyone philosophizing about s*** that is so basic ... God rue the day they smartened up my phone, and made me dumb."
His willingness to unsparingly examine his own motivations and issues, particularly on the philosophical final cut "Signs," elevate the music beyond the typical sermonizing.
Brooklyn-based producer ATG deserves a large share of the credit for CG's “Progress,” bringing a fuller sound to the album's various tonal shifts. The vocals are more pronounced within the mix than on previous releases, a purposeful adjustment for a lyrically driven artist. ATG's instrumentals continue in the vein of the jazz and soul-based flavors from “Study Abroad” and “Overstanding,” but with the added talent of knowing when and how to push CG into more aggressive (“Forget Rappers”), reflective (“Signs”) or even radio-friendly territories (the catchy groove of “Dreams”).
"On this one we were trying to go for quality, especially when it came to the sound in the mix," says CG. "That hasn't necessarily been a weak point, but maybe I didn't have the right people to bring the sound and production value to that level.”
He adds, "I kind of allowed other people like ATG to have an input if he thought a beat he made was going in a certain direction. Just allowing other people to come into the creative process more than I did before."
And when CG is followed by Reks on the posse cut "I've Arrived," it's hard not to feel as if the co-sign is indicative of the progress he aspires to on this record. "We never rushing it, it never really made sense, but we made sense out of what the others don't," he raps before passing the baton back to CG, the Lawrence-based veteran MC, who's been open in his admiration for his young counterpart. He knows progress when he sees it.
Martín Caballero is a Somerville-based arts writer for The Boston Globe and editor of JTTS.com.
This program aired on July 26, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.