Maybe it's a backward strategy. At the very least, it's nontraditional, but Raleigh hip-hop crew Kooley High has put individual gain in front of collective interest and advancement this year. After releasing an underwhelming group mixtape in April, each member—Charlie Smarts, Tab-One and Rapsody—devoted a considerable amount of time away from the group to recording solo efforts. The ostensible hope is to generate buzz for Kooley High's perpetually delayed The High Life debut LP by demonstrating the strengths of its parts. The idea works, at least on Charlie Smarts' F'Alex and Tab-One's The Tabloids: This crew has discarded signs of egotistical rhyme-rousing, along with the idea that they have to stand together to stand at all.
Charlie Smarts probably doesn't belong in a lovable, straight-edged hip-hop group named Kooley High. Cuckoo High? Maybe, but not Kooley High. His songs are mostly centered around playful abstractions and wordplay. F'Alex is Smarts' psychedelic playground that, freed from the discipline of Kooley High, attempts to see how far he can stretch his imagination. He talks about bugs, Wilmer Valderrama and "Freudian sublimation." These hazy meanderings strongly resemble another lonely stoner by the name of Kid Cudi who, coincidentally, Smarts resembles physically and stylistically. Save for Smarts' puny vocal chords, he's North Carolina's answer to Cudi's loaded, urban lulling. When he's not spewing half-witted phrases like "My cucumber is ay caramba," he's certainly a better rapper, too.
Where Charlie Smarts might forget to mention the hip-hop culture in the midst of his oddball rhyme odysseys, Tab-One sticks to the basics on The Tabloids with fundamental tracks like "Welcome to the Tabloids" and "Vc Insd My Hd." Tab-One lobbies for hip-hop like a star attorney delivering a legendary closing argument to a jury of nostalgic hip-hop heads. Even when those spaces are as awkward and forced as Tab's bluegrass-stained "Iron & Rhyme" (terrible pun, man), Tab's a courageous hip-hop zealot or an obedient, hand-raising teacher's pet, not an obnoxious know-it-all. Now we're all waiting for Kooley High's Rapsody to come out of her shell with the material that she and producer 9th Wonder have been prepping for some time now. She's the star of this crew, and until we hear a bulk of material from her, we'll never know how grand Kooley High's sum can be.