When I listen to music, I prefer to listen to albums. A good, varied playlist is great, especially when you hang out with people with far ranging musical palates, but there’s nothing like an artist, or a group of artists, having a vision for an album and seeing it through. While hip hop as a whole has gravitated more towards singles in recent years, the hip hop album is back in 2012. LP’s like Ka’s Grief Pedigree, billy woods’ History Will Absolve Me, and Nacho Picasso’s Exalted are powerful and cohesive artistic statements that have forced me to make time to listen to them over and over again. Smoke Dza’s Rugby Thompson is another one of those albums. I’ve been aware of Smoke Dza for a minute, and while his laid back flow and minimalist style hasn’t really wowed me in the past, the self-dubbed “Kushed God” has come into his own on Rugby Thompson. Assisted greatly by NYC producer of the moment Harry Fraud, who produced the album front to back, Rugby Thompson is the album Dza was born to make.
The album title is a play on words involving Smoke Dza’s love for Polo “Rugby” shirts and Steve Buscemi’s win-at-all-costs Boardwalk Empire character Nucky Thompson. On most of his previous projects Dza has been content to stay in the ‘weed rapper’ lane, and while there are still plenty of reefer references throughout the album, Dza comes with a different perspective on Rugby Thompson. He focuses on survival and success through the lens of his drug hustling past and music hustling present, complete with a more rugged style to match Harry Fraud’s raw production. Dza starts out the album with possibly the two finest solo songs he’s ever made in “Rugby Thompson” and “New Jack”. The slow, smoky groove on the title track allows Dza to display his great stream-of-consciousness wordplay “He only pick up when the money’s calling him”, while “New Jack” is a stylistic statement of arrival over the type of hard hitting beat that’s quickly making Harry Fraud a household name. Dza rhymes- “Bitch I’m way iller than your boyfriend/ plus I make more money, you think he cool cuz he ball overseas?/ Shit I ball overseas too, I’m in the game, he won’t never see the league true”. These types of lines show the confidence that touring the world with some of hip hop’s brightest young stars has given to Smoke Dza, allowing him to truly embrace rap as a career.
I first heard Smoke Dza through his work with New Orleans rapper Curren$y and his “Jet Life” crew, of which Dza is practically an honorary member. Curren$y, the current crown prince of weed rap, recently released his major label debut The Stoned Immaculate and lends a stellar verse to the players’ anthem “Baleedat”, making it one of the album’s standout cuts. While Smoke Dza owes a lot of his success to his affiliation with Curren$y, Curren$y’s recent output suggests he could learn a thing or two from Dza about quality control. The Stoned Immaculate falls victim to a lot of the common pitfalls of hip hop albums that Rugby Thompson avoids. Loaded with random guests and inconsistent production, Curren$y’s still solid album shows why making a good major label album can be a tricky proposition. Its singles based format will undoubtedly bring Curren$y a lot of new fans, but as a stand-alone album, it doesn’t work nearly as well as his previous ventures, and Dza and Harry Fraud’s tightly crafted effort makes the disparity even more clear.
Smoke Dza’s greatest strengths as an artist are his ear for beats, his ability to seek out high quality collaborators, and his ability to adapt his style to create seamless collaborations. On Rugby Thompson everyone comes with their A-game, making it the rare hip hop album where every guest is a welcome addition. Dza enlists west coast rhymers Domo Genesis and Schoolboy Q on the braggadocious “Ashtray”, where Q’s choppy flow in particular demonstrates why he’s one of the most sought after young talents in the game. Smoke Dza’s verse makes clear that while he doesn’t sell drugs anymore, it’s a legitimate part of his past and not something he plays up like so many run-of-the-mill trap rappers. Hustling may have been a necessity for Dza at one point in time, but he sounds comfortable trading that life for his new hustle, music.
Not only does Smoke Dza work with MC’s from all over the country, he also works with MC’s from all different age brackets. New York’s younger generation shows up through A.$.A.P. Twelvyy and Action Bronson’s appearances on “Game 7” and “Turnbuckle” respectively. Twelvyy contributes a slurred chorus and a standout coming-of-age verse to “Game 7” while Bronson and Dza trade visual tag-team verses on “Turnbuckle’s” shimmering reggae influenced soundscape. NY’s older generation is represented through appearances by Boot Camp Click legend Sean Price and fellow Polo aficionado Thirstin Howl III.
It seems as if Smoke Dza made all the right decisions in making Rugby Thompson, but tapping Harry Fraud to produce the entire album was undoubtedly his best one. Fraud has built a buzz through his work with Bad Boy’s French Montana and is now working with everyone from Action Bronson to Rick Ross. A Brooklyn native, Harry Fraud grew up with musician parents who helped foster his passion for making music. His unique use of various drums and drum patterns is probably his greatest strength as a producer, but his eclectic sample choices and subtle layering allow him to tailor his tracks to the artists that he works with. His constantly evolving style incorporates chopped and screwed choruses on “Ashtray” and “Rivermonts”, layered and shifting samples on “Kenny Powers”, and even a jazzy golden beat on “Playground Legend”. Rugby Thompson is one of those albums where the sum result is greater than the individual parts. Smoke Dza may never be considered an all-world MC, but with the help of Harry Fraud and several friends he has created an album that is quite simply one of the best albums I’ve heard this year. Grab your copy of the album.
Written by John Bugbee