Favorite Track: Wherever Least Favorite Track: Roadtrippin
COVID-19 has ravaged the world for a little over a year now. Thousands of lives have been lost, communities have crumbled under economic hardships, and many have been struggling with staying healthy, both physically and mentally. Through it all, musicians have been one of the groups who have had it the hardest. Live performances were ripped away, money was lost, collaborative playing was frowned upon, and the dream of a career in music seemed to be a fantasy. Hell’s Kitchen emcee Marlon Craft had big plans for 2020, especially after the popularity of his 2019 release Funhouse Mirror. The project's deep and relatable content, lyrical sharpness, and insane jazz/hip-hop production showed Craft’s prowess as a flow-centric rapper and an excellent storyteller. When the pandemic hit, he released a short EP Work From Home, which touched on topics of uncertainty, confusion, and disappointment, but only on a surface level. It wasn’t until his 2021 release How We Intended that he expanded on those themes previously mentioned; and to an extent, it evolved from a simple statement of Marlon Craft’s feelings about his pandemic blues to a more focused analysis and meditation on COVID-19’s degradation on him over the 2020 year.
Part of what makes Marlon Craft such a courageous artist is his refusal to shy away from asserting his opinion with an unabashed degree of honesty. He is never afraid to speak his mind and frequently discusses issues that reflect the times we find ourselves in. Funhouse Mirror saw Craft address police brutality, racism, and inequality in the American system, done eloquently on songs like “Gang Shit.” On his new release, he keeps that same realness, but instead of solely speaking his mind about societal issues, he explains how they contribute to his personal growth. The track “Hoodie Weather” sees his most aggressive flow in that socially-conscious-Marlon-Craft persona. Lines like “Fuck gettin’ rich, if I leave it, different people hurt” and “It’s still word to Trayvon, our hoodies gon’ stay on” are obvious expressments of animosity towards the greedy 1% and corrupt police system. At one point, he raps about overbearing church fanatics who push their religious views on people, stating that “Their God lied, ain’t nobody taking me to church” and how he instead is “Trying to find my inner self, boy, that’s how the spirit works.” It is equal parts enlightening and interesting to hear his anguish with the world and how it contributes to his growth as a person. The following track “Lot To Give” is set to a self-reflecting jazz instrumental, and Craft discusses the journey through life and what should and should not matter to us in our upbringing. He goes on a amazing rant about social media and its grip on humans’ pursuit of success. “I think success is feelin’ blessed with all that you been blessed with/Without needlin’ all that bad dopamine that we all inject with/That buzz from that buzz in my pocket ain’t a good high.” To him, success isn’t something that can be measured, even though social media advertises that it is. Ultimately, it is our goal to look beyond the fabricated digital world and continue to pursue true fulfillment.
How We Intended explores Marlon Craft’s gratitude and appreciation in the things that bring him love and comfort. “Off Beat” is an ode to Craft’s significant other, waxing poetically about his love for her and the emotional peace she has brought him throughout the pandemic. The lyric “I’m the hair on Negative Nancy’s worry-wart/Huh, and I’ve been called a know-it-all/But you speak that one truth that I never heard before, I know it’s yours” is a look into the supportive and reassuring relationship the two lovers share, which is an important outlet to have through 2020 and 2021. The track “Grateful” is exactly what the song title entails, giving thanks to all those, good and bad, who have developed Craft into the person he is today. It is a highlight both in lyricism and form. Marlon Craft is an unbelievable hook/chorus writer, but this album was a slight degradation in that regard, with many of the songs, like “Get Off My Yard” and “Roadtrippin,” being easily forgettable. But “Grateful” has an infectious chorus that is highly memorable and utilizes a refrain, which is an expert lyrical tool. “Wherever” is another highlight and one of the most interesting tracks in terms of self-exploration. He summarizes that no matter where he is or goes, he will be present. This is a nod to the situation that the pandemic brought to many artists, who lost their ability to play live performances and pursue other career goals. Craft explains that even though this isn’t the optimal place to be in, he will not shut down; instead, he will rise above and continue to bring us self-reflective, socially-conscious music like How We Intended.
It’s not only Marlon Craft’s lyricism and courage that makes him an amazing artist; it is also his innate ability to rap over jazz instrumentals, which is something we haven’t seen effectively from modern rappers since Kendrick Lamar and the late Mac Miller. Funhouse Mirror’s appeal lies in its socially-conscious lyrics matched with harmonically-dense, syncopated jazz instrumentals, which is an unmatched grouping if pulled off well. In How We Intended, Marlon Craft definitely matured in terms of his musical presence, and that doesn’t always mean for the best. “Roadtrippin” has a mediocre and monotonous trap beat, sounding less like a Marlon Craft instrumental and more like a Playboi Carti or Future track. There is nothing wrong with utilizing different beats, but since this specific track is one of the weakest lyrically, it doesn’t help do it any justice by putting a generic trap beat over it. On a more positive note, some of the tracks off of How We Intended are instrumentally brilliant. “2020 Intro” is heavily bass driven, as are most Marlon Craft songs, and is paired with comping piano, a tight snare/hi-hat groove, and some crazy baritone saxophone licks. “Lot To Give” is easily the jazziest instrumental on the album,, with a neo-soul piano and bass progression, background harmonized vocals, and some sweet Maurice Brown-esque trumpet licks.
While How We Intended does not embody the stellar instrumentation or exceptional penmanship many have come to expect from Marlon Craft, it still exhibits his classic sound in a more introspective way. How We Intended is the first time that Craft has come across as truly relatable. This comes on account of his puzzling attitude towards the degradation that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to our society. As with every artist finding inspiration and drive to compose and release music during a time where music seems the least important, Marlon Craft was able to shake off those feelings and present something profoundly personal and expressive. As a project to reflect his musical journey thus far, it may not have been all he intended it to be, but that’s where How We Intended relates to our crushed expectations for an exciting year like 2020 assured.