Album Review: Mikkey Halsted – Castro

Posted: August 17, 2012 in Album Review, Best of 3rd Q 2012, Hip Hop
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Those that follow the Chicago scene are all well aware of Mikkey Halsted.  The annals of rap history are filled with the tales of rappers who had impressive talent that were never able to translate it into mainstream rap success, but Halsted has certainly flirted with greater success longer than most rappers who fall into that category.  The length of that flirtation has to be in part due to the fact that Halsted hasn’t made the same kind of creative missteps that plague many of those rappers, he may have made material that Cash Money wasn’t ready to release to it’s core audience, or been stranded on Virgin during their collapse, but both of those situations are relatively understandable to those who understand both of those situations.  The music that Halsted has released whether mixtapes or independent albums has continued to showcase the same talent that has earned him praise and respect as an inspiration in the game from everyone from former labelmate Lil’ Wayne to former collaborator Kanye West to the great No ID.  There is likely not a person of prominence in the rap game or an avid follower of the Chicago rap scene who hasn’t heard the name Mikkey Halsted and recognized the talent he could bring to the table in the right situation.  That said, it hasn’t worked out for Halstead to date, that’s not to say his previous projects aren’t all worth listening to, they definitely are, or that he hasn’t had opportunities, he has and for one reason or another they haven’t panned out.  Fortunately, right now Halsted seems completely focused on the music, and he seems to have surrounded himself with an impressive team, filled with excellent producers, Chicago legends, and industry power brokers.  If there was ever a time for Mikkey Halsted to make good on his ample promise in this rap game, it’s right now.

Listening to Castro one gets the distinct sense that even in a music industry where few creative and intelligent artists are able both have success on a major label and make music that doesn’t drive the core audience – who supported their creativity and consciousness their independent afforded them in the past, to commit seppuku – that Mikkey Halsted has the ability.  The initial impact of Castro is the quality of the product, while Halsted has worked with the likes of No ID and other greats in the past, this is by far his best produced project from front to back.  No ID, Young Chop, and Don Cannon all bring their own distinct vibes, but they complement each other in a very cohesive way.  Castro is the rare album where a variety of producers with distinct styles can be pulled together by a rapper with a distinctive style.  A major part of this rapper created cohesion comes from the fact that the album has almost no outsiders on the mic.  Sure, there’s some background vocals or vocal samples on some  of the songs, BJ the Chicago Kid and Cocaine 80’s lends their crooning skills in support on a couple of tracks, and Pusha T comes through to go toe to toe Mikkey on “Momma In My Ear,” but for the most part this album is all Mikkey.  Even the aforementioned “Momma In My Ear,” showcases such strong chemistry between Mikkey and Pusha that it would be excusable if listeners barely noticed the passing of the mic between the two lyrical heavyweights if not for Pusha’s trademark “Egyuck!”  In fact, Pusha and Mikkey sound so good together that one has to hope this isn’t the last collaboration between the two, as Pusha hasn’t had an artist sound as good next to him since Malice found God.

As a rapper there are elements of many others present in Mikkey’s style, given his longterm history of near misses, behind the scenes work, ghostwriting, and his close proximity to so many of today’s greats at one point or another in his own development, it is at times tough to decipher how much of it is Mikkey influencing him, them influencing Mikkey, a reciprocal process, a general vibe drawn off of the No ID beat work, or maybe more of Chicago thing than anything else.  Either way it’s easy to draw comparisons to Kanye West, Lil’ Wayne, Bump J, Rhymefest, Jay-Z, and Pusha T in his vocal, lyrical, and stylistic approaches at one point or another on the album.   Regardless of where credit may lie or whether those comparisons are merely the placebo effect caused by the listener knowing his past, that’s a nice shortlist to be on for someone when describing artists who create similar material.

While Mikkey may have shown you his personal coffee shop (or even pulpit) friendly side in the past he manages to incorporate that into his style here without coming across as preachy or overbearing.  What Mikkey accomplishes here, is the ability to show the kind of range that makes Big K.R.I.T. so interesting on a mainstream level, but do so in a way where the duality doesn’t stress the listener quite as much as it does on a project where a rapper goes from a song about the strip club to a song about the emotions of slaves travelling the underground railroad.  On one end here Mikkey brings the listener the glossy Don Cannon produced, “Fly Nigga Shit,” a song ostensibly about flossing and pulling other men’s women in Miami and LA – with plenty of allusions to his rough Chicago background – while on the other he brings “Love Games,” a sleek dedication to the games the opposite sex play when they recognize they’re really falling for one another or “Obamanomics,” a  soulful description of Reagan’s War on Drugs and the acknowledgement that while much has changed over the last thirty years the main tenants of the system of economic inequity remain in tact.  What Mikkey manages to do throughout Castro is paint multiple pictures of the life of a struggling rap star with great

Another stand-out track is “P.T.S.D. (Voices)” the beat, a collaboration between Young Chop and Don Cannon, is a bouncy vocal sample tinted and BJ the Chicago Kid assisted track gives Mikkey the opportunity to describe the haunting voices and thoughts that infest the mind of a man with an urban jungle survivor and rapper on the edge of stardom.  For Young Chop, the song represents a marked departure from the drill scene production he’s become known for through his work with Keef, for Mikkey it represents the opportunity to share elements of his story as well as shine light on the trauma faced by so many inner city residents in a creative way.

As with most of the best rap releases, Castro avoids filler, sure there’s a section of back-to-back Bad Boy sample hook inspired “Buck 50” and “Weak MF,” two songs that for a moment give the project a bit more of a mixtape feel than they do an album feel, but even there the quality of the execution – from the beats to the rhymes to the overall energy – is so high, it would be difficult not to nod your head and appreciate the craftsmanship.  But even some of the songs that originally may not stand out quite as starkly as “P.T.S.D.,” “Occupy,” “Obamanomics,” “Momma In My Ear,” and “Pain,” reveal lyrical jewels upon further examination.

Mikkey himself has described Castro as a tale of survival against insurmountable odds, both on the album’s intro and in my recent interview with him, and that makes sense on many levels.  As a former resident of Chicago’s infamous ‘Wild 100’ section who made it out through basketball, rap, and higher education, Mikkey has survived against many odds personally, at the same time professionally Mikkey has managed to maintain relevancy on a rap scene despite dealing with over a decade of music industry fuckery.  There is little doubt that if he continues to release music on Money Makin’ Mikkey (his forthcoming collaborative album with The Legendary Traxster) and Castro 2 with the same level of proficiency and quality of production that Mikkey will once again get a shot with a major label, hopefully this time with a release date attached.

You can download Castro from Datpiff.com or djbooth.net.

Comments
  1. Rico says:

    This is one of the best written articles if not the best article on Mikkey halsted to date. Great job

  2. […] Mikkey Halsted dropped Castro this summer it was a sign of serious preparation for the next level.  Backed by a couple of the […]

  3. […]  Perhaps Mikkey hasn’t yet figured out how to bridge the MMM Season audience with the Castro audience or how to channel his excellent writing talent into something that will have a little […]

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