by Nick Hanover
Dominican Jay’s new album Reality Rap immediately forces you to confront its themes through Tosin’s cover art, splitting a front lawn house scene between a positively stereotypical image of suburban white America and a negatively stereotypical image of the urban black America that beaming white clan fled. It’s a thoroughly unsubtle depiction of the title, but subtle discussions of structural racism are a big part of why inequality in America has grown to such monstrous proportions that hate became a winning platform in the 2016 election. As Reggie Coby puts it in opening track “Under the Jail,” “It seems like the system’s set up for me to fail,” and the fallout of white flight that album cover shows functions as more than a thematic illustration, it also serves as a fuck you to the expectation predominantly white hip hop listeners have for covers to represent excess and hype– this isn’t street rap glorifying the game, this is street rap that makes you view the uncomfortable truths about what your suburban comfort has cost.
Reality Rap’s thesis statement comes early in the album with “Keep It Real,” where Jay makes it clear that his lyrical fixations exist not for braggadocio and dramatic effect but because for him this is reality. Struggling with the fact that many of his friends and loved ones are jailed or dead because of a system that actively works against them, Jay delivers the lines with a harsh immediacy that makes them land with more impact, Jonathas’ smooth, laid back hook serving as a necessary contrast dividing the material in much the same way Tosin’s cover art does.
Later, in “Cold As Ice,” Jay and his crew accurately self-identify as “street educators,” calling out audiences’ views of their art as strictly entertainment, with the late Esbe boldly declaring “Hip hop is dead/All that’s left is scraps.” Esbe’s appearance on the track brings more than just his dexterous style, it also serves as a stark reminder of the very real stakes in Jay and company’s reality– Esbe notably died as a direct result of a lack of health coverage, so his guest appearance from beyond the grave is a chilling reminder of what musicians in Austin are up against before you even factor in the obstacles hip hop performers in the city in particular face. Esbe’s declaration that “The first rule of getting straight/Is getting out of your town” is even more vital when you consider he didn’t really even have the chance.
Even the album’s more overtly commercial tracks, like coke rap ode “On Schedule,” connect with this self-actualization message, making the case that the less-than-legal self-funding ventures detailed on Reality Rap are necessary because they offer the best hope for realizing artistic ambitions. “On Schedule” is particularly interesting because its doom-laden beat is as irresistible as the product Jay and Gerald G hawk but the lyrical focus is on the need to treat your business as a business, not a glorified counter-status symbol, bluntly shit talking fake hustlers who think it’s all a game.
When Reality Rap shifts its focus to more domestic issues, it’s no less impactful. Take “Don’t Blow My High,” where a semi-comedic set-up about Jay and Sertified trying to just enjoy their high in peace despite the protestations of significant others gives voice to the counter-argument, as Jay’s partner calls out “all these motherfuckers in my house and nobody cleaning up after themselves,” never mind the fact that nobody’s even sharing with her. It’s a domestic lament that in a twist of hip hop tradition doesn’t let the dudes saying “Don’t Blow My High” off the hook.
Reality Rap’s lyrical ambition and sprawling cast would have been difficult for even the most confident emcee to pull off, but Dominican Jay and his crew have made a major accomplishment here, tying together serious explorations of social issues, street hustle odes and clever domestic sketches with aplomb. Album closer “Keep It 100” has Sertified boldly declaring “ain’t nobody working harder” than this crew, but it’s hard to argue with the result. Reality Rap is one of the most artistically fulfilling and adventurous releases in a year packed full of startlingly excellent Austin hip hop, and it sets the scene for some major improvements in the reality of its featured cast.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Ovrld as well as Loser City, where he mostly writes about comics. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with his friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover