Norman Rapper S. Reidy Presents Introspective Musical Sketchbook on Scrappy, Poignant New Release
Most music is best enjoyed when it isn’t being forced into genre and artist comparisons, and S. Reidy is a prime example as to why.
With his signature beanie and low-hanging strands of hair, he doesn’t look much like a typical rapper, and he doesn’t much act like one, either. His taste in instrumentals prefers its gravitas understated rather than extravagant. He doesn’t puff up his character on stage because he’s not portraying one. In fact, he’s an anomaly of most genre tropes. Take a different side of Reidy’s many influences–DIY folk, classic punk, etc.–and one is bound to find similar incongruencies.
The Norman rapper/songwriter’s latest project, A Mixtape, continues to blossom on this different plane of creativity and is perhaps the best representation of it yet. With its unassuming title and unadorned cover art, it’s about as close to an “untitled” project as one can get. It uses the barest of definition, and this properly sets expectations aside in favor of general open-mindedness.
Unlike his last two decidedly conceptual album releases from the past couple of years, A Mixtape breaks away from narrative itself and instead presents a new collection of tracks as, well, a mixtape. This seems to have given Reidy a welcome boost of artistic freedom. The loose format gives him the grace to try anything and dip out if the inspiration runs dry. Meanwhile, other whims pan out and help expand Reidy’s range as an artist and performer. Cuts like “So It Goes” and “The Ballad of a Bitter Hater” are highlights that find the artist trying on styles outside of his usual pairing of duple flows and low-key moods, even if it’s sometimes parodic.
The tradeoff is that A Mixtape can be a mixed bag. Like a sketchbook full of ideas, it appears hastily made with strokes of inspiration that only sometimes sound fully realized. Some songs feel cut short. Some production feels undercooked. For listeners accustomed to studio-grade commercial albums, it may underwhelm, but for fans of truly independent movements like Soundcloud rap and the ongoing emo revival, the raw presentation should have appeal. If one views the project as artistic expression on its own terms, it transforms into an invitation to the inner workings of Reidy’s art, mirroring the confessional vulnerability of his lyricism.
It’s significant that Reidy does everything himself here, with no features and only a couple of borrowed beats. All of the writing, recording, and most of the production is done himself in a DIY fashion, which is not a rarity for his repertoire but does continue to result in the scrappy, rough-around-the-edges vibe for which he has become known. When combined with his typically impassioned but untrained singing on the occasional chorus, the emo side of Reidy’s sound comes to the forefront. Whether this is a positive or negative depends on personal taste and is probably a contributing factor as to why renowned internet music critic Anthony Fantano once responded to a submission with “didn’t really dig it.”
One track that works better than most with regard to Reidy’s singing is “Human Music”, which is on-key enough as to not rely on the overdubs that make busy many of his other tunes. Here, his supplemental vocals are used more to provide harmonic context and atmosphere. Also, his plain intonation ends up echoing the cleverly recomposed sample at the heart of the catchy beat, which Rick and Morty fans will recognize as the “human music” that placates an oafish character in a bare-bones simulation of human life in one television episode.
While Reidy’s instrumental prowess is fine for a mixtape and continues to hit the spot for those likely to stream a lo-fi hip-hop Youtube marathon for homework sessions, it could stand to branch out going forward. He draws from the beatboxing well a bit too often, and his sample work tends to start and stop at spoken word snippets.
Probably the biggest and easiest fix, though, would be to explore panning more in the mixing process. Pretty much everything Reidy touches as a producer sits in the middle channel and makes for a less immersive, less dynamic listen. It’s telling that the few times the stereo channels get any love is when he is using a particular synth or virtual instrument that is likely preprogrammed with the panning effects in place. If he does manage to work in stereo work, as on the call-and-answer chorus of “How Do I Do?”, it’s done not for sound but for effect. When the album closes with “Dreams”, a mere one of two tracks produced by someone else, the mixing is more spread out, and it feels like the difference between a vertical iPhone screen and theatrical widescreen.
Then again, entire films have been shot on iPhone, and S. Reidy is the epitome of a DIY independent creator. What might be critiques for others don’t always pertain to his work. Take, for instance, how short the runtime of A Mixtape is. At a full 12 tracks, it barely reaches over 25 minutes. An extreme example of the project’s brevity is “Carl Sagan”, which clocks a meager 35 seconds. Despite having one of the mixtape’s biggest beats, it basically throws it away and moves on before it has a chance to grow into anything. Additionally, Reidy’s characteristic pessimism feels at odds with the fun instrumental here from frequent collaborator Lonemoon.
On the other side of the coin, it’s exactly this unpredictability and brevity that keeps the tracklist on its toes. A Mixtape never outstays its welcome, and it’s a little sad to see it go so soon when it wraps on a note of combined humor and poignancy.
Like the project’s unexpected ending, S. Reidy has long buffered his Moleskine wisdom with a casual air of not taking himself too seriously. It’s a smart approach that lets him get away with goofy bars like a particular Caddyshack line in “How Do I Do?”, but it also risks underselling his more insightful moments.
Midway through A Mixtape, Reidy tells of a poet that grapples with a crippling void in both life and art on a track called “Waterfall”. Familiar metaphors of islands and droughts convey this limbo until a paradox becomes apparent. When inspiration and purpose are in short supply, sometimes one has to create one’s own, using the emptiness itself as a muse.
Much of Reidy’s music is similarly fueled by confessional honesty, making both therapy out of art and art out of therapy. One could argue that this is how any true artist approaches their work, but there’s something especially direct about Reidy’s method. Even with “Waterfall” being one of his more symbolic efforts, he makes sure to clarify that its character is a projection of himself with one of his signature phrases. He closes the track with the utterance, “Take the beat away, and all you got’s a poet.”
In many ways, S. Reidy throws out the rulebook on music branding and, ironically, that has become part of his brand. He leads with his gut to create humble yet macrocosmic spaces of feeling that value raw honesty over technical craft. As a herald of 21st Century living and its inherent psychological plight, he shows his personal seams to be vulnerable and relatable, and to zero in on his flaws is to miss the point entirely. The Devil is in the details, but Reidy finds God in the big picture.