Joell Ortiz has always been one of the unsung heroes of the east coast, infusing his Latin roots into the gritty street raps that made us distinct from other areas. From his debut, The Brick: Bodega Chronicles, to 2019’s Monday, Joell has gone through his trials and tribulations to mature into the rapper he is today. He has always carried a distinct swagger in his flows, never deterring from his slick multi-syllabic progressions that come in smooth succession. It continues on his new album, Autograph. It is a reflection on his career and life over the last 15+ years, taking us through these various layers that reflect the nature of his music and human being, continuously leaving us in disbelief that Joell is consistently loaded and ready to unleash at any moment.
Autograph is in many ways like 2019’s Monday, where Joell Ortiz is still more reflective – the unique difference comes from the type of production he raps over. Monday was nuanced in boom-bap New York rap, keening on percussion and slight jazz overlays, while Autograph is less monochromatic and provides us more palettes to get a taste of, even when some songs fail to hit the landing. For Joell, it’s usually the case when he falls deep into his bag and lets his emotions regurgitate standard lyricism, despite intentions being true and holistic. It isn’t to say that there isn’t any depth to these songs, but the semi-straight forward storytelling isn’t as profound in something like “Lifeline” in contrast to “Sincerely Yours.”
The various platters Joell Ortiz has stirred up for us to indulge range from elevated boom-bap base constructions to gritty-mood-inducing street production – the focus underlying within the string sections that gorgeously overlay subdued and slower percussion patterns. The elegance comes through with a perfect crescendo of acoustic guitar and high-pitch hi-hats on “Therapeutic,” which sees Joell rap about the duality and complexities of music and how it can help ease the mind. Joell tells us a story where he describes a shit-day Sunday; we see his high get hit with constant jabs below the torso, as it pushes him down and wears him down. From that, he relays his feelings over instrumentals in his files as he writes over with beautiful synergy in the rhyme schemes.
It’s a testament to Joell Ortiz’s producers on the project – The Heatmakerz and Apollo Brown return to deliver their naturalistic mind-melding production, as some of Joell’s usuals. The Heatmakerz, along with Salaam Remi, bring that New York City/Borough sound – there are moments you lose sight of the release date with nuances steering toward a darker side of hip-hop from the early to mid-2000s. Apollo Brown brings that equilibrium with his scratch-heavy style that you’re left in awe with the percussion, despite Joell’s delivery trip-ups.
Beyond the production, Joell’s style warps our minds with his progressive storytelling technique and shifty historical analogies. He opens Autograph with sports analogies – the 90s and 80s – to his person, like relating his fight throughout his career to Charles Oakley’s in the garden during his tenure with those rough-dogs New York Knicks that were heavily physical, making that a staple of their defensive play. That same tough mentality rides with him through his career, considering his placement as an underrated rapper, unlike his peers like Joe Budden and Royce Da 5’9’’.
However, nothing matches the tightness of brotherhood, and that’s what is represented on Autograph, as Joell Ortiz brings now-defunct Slaughterhouse member KXNG Crooked and The Lox’s Sheek Louch. Sheek Louch makes it known on the song “Love is Love,” where he trades bars with Joell, composing the sentiment opposite the title, ultimately reflecting a tight-knit kinship where they retort that they have each other’s back. It speaks on the brotherly love by personifying their strength as a testament toward that notion of having the backs of homies, even when it can get violent. Like Louch, KXNG Crooked, and others, the delivery on almost every song is as expected, consistent and captivating – there is never a moment where you’re distracted from what they present you.
And that is because Joell Ortiz is going in one direction, considering Autograph is, in the most basic way, a concept album that flows through Joell’s existence – he takes us from his early roots, reminding us of his Hot97 Freestyle when he was a teen to his first sense of hope as 50 Cent grew to be from the ground up. His life gets intercepted by the clique, eventually seeing himself up there making music under Dr. Dre and Eminem’s labels, respectively. Most of the stories have a lot of depth, with smooth and elegant flows and rhyme schemes that Autograph becomes a straight shot that can stay on repeat without getting tired.
Joell Ortiz strides in sync with his emotions on Autograph as he restores himself amongst a pantheon of greats. He doesn’t teeter blurred lines and keeps it straight with his bars, blending unique analogies with his trademark swagger. It is one of my personal favorite rap projects of Joell’s.