ALBUM REVIEW: Rodes – Self-Titled

“Rodes” is the fourth studio album from Chicago rapper Rodes, who’s been a stalwart of the city’s independent hip hop scene for roughly two decades, with his first two albums “The Huntside” and “Self- Preservation” regarded as classics.  Along with his 2020 EP “Henny Hunt”, this self-titled album marks his official return to music after a 5-year hiatus. With lyrical support from BC, Fashawn and Cormega (the latter of whom is bound to pique the interest of many East Coast hip-hop heads) and production work from Dacypha Beats, Chips, Ben Malick, I AM Genius Boy, Skagnetti, Bootleg Da Producer and Swiss Boy, this could be a worthwhile comeback album from the Chicago native.

And fortunately, it is – largely due to Rodes’ commanding presence behind the mic. With “Henny Hunt” as my official introduction to Rodes’ work (Yes, I will check out “The Huntside”, “Self-Preservation” and “Focus or Fold” – his third album – soon enough!), I was impressed by his flows, razor-sharp bars and overall charisma. I should mention that his husky, slightly-drawling voice, for some odd reason, always reminds me of Houston rap legend Scarface. But with this album, Rodes brings some thematic variety to the table, evenly balancing braggadocious barfests with thoughtful, socially-aware urban tales.

Kicking things off is the intro “R IV”, the title of which represents this album being Rodes’ fourth one, and a subtle reference to the album cover: a black-and-white photo of Rodes’ father and grandfather – which makes Rodes himself “Rodes the Fourth”. I dug the dusty drums and off-kilter, chopped-up horns on Ben Malick’s beat, which gave the song a psychedelic, 90s-jazz rap vibe to it. Rodes delivers a pretty impressive freestyle over this beat, and though I wish he could’ve spit a few more bars before the end of the song’s almost minute-long runtime, he did successfully show how natural and smooth he can be on the mic.

We then get “Kings .”, one of my favorite tracks on the album, which features hard-hitting drums and an exquisite, sultry Spanish guitar loop on Skagnetti’s instrumental. This is the sole posse cut on the album, and features BRILLIANT verses from Rodes (who closes the track) and guest emcees Blacc Suhn, Kadiz and Knowshun. And while you can picture all four rappers riding slowly into the sunset or into some Western town like lyrical gunslingers over this instrumental, the track has more of an East Coast, Wu-Tang Clan feel to it – particularly its subject matter which, much like the Wu’s Five Percenter-based raps, centers on black excellence, struggles black people faced from the days of slavery onwards, and the influence of European religion in black history.  

Speaking of religion, the following track “Pastor” is a three-verse, character-driven exposé on the double standards present in the modern church. Chips’ dramatic, piano-driven beat creates the appropriate atmosphere for these brief, brutally honest and distressing narratives involving sex offenders, spiritual backsliders and the harsh truth behind so-called ‘pillars of the community’. Rodes’ vocal drawl which, like the aforementioned Scarface, has a ‘preacher’-like sound to it is quite effective on this particular track.

Afterwards, we get the album single “Ladybug” which is a sentimental, heartfelt and genuinely beautiful tribute to Rodes’ childhood friend. Dacypha Beats’ sweeping, violin-assisted instrumental gives the song a warm, soulful feel, and backed by Rodes’ nostalgic lyrics on his childhood experiences – from getting into fights with said friend, both trying to impress the same girls and making the most out of their impoverished environment – made for the album’s truly tear-inducing moment.

Thankfully, there are some less emotionally heavy spots on the album. On the Swissboy-produced “Playa Talk”, with its thumping bass and funky organs, Rodes and guest emcee BC deliver explicit insight about the ins-and-outs (literally and figuratively) of being a player, and I imagine if you’re a fan of 90s and 2000s Southern hip hop, you’ll find this to be a pretty damn entertaining track. Over the tense, confrontational instrumental of I AM Genius Boy’s “The Edge”, Rodes and Cormega each spit aggressive verses aimed directly at the domes of their haters. And in case you’re wondering, Cormega’s pen game is STILL STRONG! Hell, he actually delivers one of the album’s BEST verses, and even opens with one of the sharpest bars I’ve heard in quite some time: “Love is love, hate is your fate in my hands with rubber gloves”. DAMN!!!

“Acknowledge Da God” finds Rodes and a show-stealing Fashawn (who, honestly, I haven’t heard anything from since his 2015 album “The Ecology”) literally acknowledging themselves as lyrical gods (think of them as mic-wielding Olympians). And though Chips’ production lacks the grandeur one would expect from the song’s title, it still establishes a moody-enough atmosphere for both rappers to do the thing – which, by the way, they do EXCELLENTLY!

Wearing his decades-long rap career as a badge of honor, Rodes occasionally takes time to address those who question his relevance and reasons behind his continual hustle. On the single “Nevamind” which features an ear-grabbing instrumental from Bootleg Da Producer (thanks in part to a female vocal sample which sounds like it was lifted from a 60s psychedelic rock song), Rodes confirms his veteran status and assures the doubters out there that he’ll always represent Chicago in his music (“Whenever I’m approached by killers and cliques / Solidify my status with sulfuric spit”).

Over Ben Malick’s ‘chipmunk-soul’-esque beat for the title track, Rodes delves deeper into how the environment he was born and raised in made him the man he is today. And while the sonic tribute to the production style of Chi-Town’s own Kanye West is quite admirable, the sample itself does tend to overpower Rodes’ vocals at times. Thankfully, the brief, pitch-shifted soul sample on “Facts” is more pleasing to the ear, especially when combined with the track’s lo-fi, string-supported instrumental. Here, Rodes sounds like an elder statesman of the block, dropping jewels of wisdom, motivation and inspiration to those willing to listen. It’s a surprisingly optimistic moment on the album, and easily one of its best songs.

Which leads to the final track “10 Piece Spicy”, which is the furthest thing from the Wendy’s or McDonald’s promo song you were probably expecting. Over I AM Genius Boy’s trap-flavored beat, Rodes raps about being racially profiled by the police after forcing him to pull over his vehicle. Even on his admittedly catchy hook, you can feel the stress and anger he’s clearly feeling at that moment. And while for some, this track may feel like a retread of Chamillionaire’s smash hit “Ridin’”, its second verse – which does take a while to show up due to a slightly lengthy interlude – gives a chilling reminder that incidents such as this aren’t merely things of the past (“A melanated king is an automatic weapon / The powers that be feel instantly threatened / Serve and protect, treat me with respect / I’m not going out with a knee on my neck”). If “The Edge” is the most aggressive song on “Rodes”, “10 Piece Spicy” is certainly the angriest – and a fitting, albeit grim, way to end the album.

As a whole, I REALLY enjoyed this record! Rodes came through with a solid, cohesive project with some truly memorable highlights in regards to lyrics and production. Fans of Rodes will definitely enjoy this one, and newbies like yours truly will appreciate it as a great starting point to his style, sound and discography. If you’re looking for lyrically potent, BS-free hip hop, definitely give “Rodes” a listen!

OVERALL RATING: 8 out of 10.

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By Matthew Bailey

Waz d scene, people?! I'm Matthew. In the isle of Trinidad, born and raised. Inside a movie theater is where I spend most of my days (Saturdays and occasionally on weekdays to be exact. I DO have a life!). Fueling my passion for movies and filmmaking at a young age to the point that I decided to express this passion through movie reviews. Now I have my very own blog (established since 2011) and a dual podcast called Beers, Beats & Bailey / Retrospect Reviews.

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