Album Review: Local Rapper Vincent, The Owl’s New Set

You’d think a city of a quarter million — a pretty interesting one, too — would have more songs written about it. Luckily, we’re growing a crop of young rappers ready to represent for Hudson County. Piece Of Shit, the latest collection from local emcee Vincent, The Owl, is not going to win any clean-living fans at the Economic Development Corporation, but the artist leaves no doubt about where he’s from. “Downtown Jersey City” sets a tale of substance abuse close to home, and “Lucky 7’s” begins with dollar beer Wednesdays at Second and Coles and ends with body parts strewn all over the street. The other six songs here indisputably belong to the city, too: this is hip-hop as urban blues, and a short-story collection penned by a young man overcome by his surroundings and his own appetite for inebriation.

Should you be squeamish about representations of drug abuse, suicide and violence, this certainly isn’t the record for you. But like most hip-hop fans, I’ve got a soft spot for reprobates, and there’s plenty about Piece Of Shit I dig: the rapper’s evenly-paced, meditative flow, Vincent’s habit of teetering on the edge of breakdown, his plain-spokenness, his occasional flashes of cleverness, his honesty about his messed-up family relationships (he’s the opposite of gentle/because his pops is the opposite of parental), and his sure hand with a ghost story. This is an album that begins with a diatribe, possibly delivered in the Arnold Horschack voice of an elder, about Vincent’s mediocrity, descends into a self-destructive funk and ends in homicidal fury — and if it isn’t always fun, it’s certainly never boring.

As you might already have guessed, Vincent, The Owl shares more than a comma with Tyler, The Creator: like the Odd Future leader, he’s far too much of a lone wolf to be a gangster, and he spot-welds his rhymes to production that is spacious, brooding, and often beautiful. The nervous skitter of the high-hat and the pillowy echo of the vocal reverb makes a neat accompaniment to snowy days in Hudson County; as for Vincent himself, he could be a guy at a bodega, talking to himself and making the other customers blush.

This is a departure from Vincent’s prior approach: early Owl tracks weren’t quite as murky or menacing. Those songs worked, too, especially the excellent, quick-spitting “It’s Theo W. El,” but with Piece Of Shit, I think he’s found a sound that suits his subject matter. At its best, the set plays much like Danny Brown’s drugging and drinking tales — raps that derive their tension and energy from the spectacle of a likeable city kid putting his talent in jeopardy through his own excess. If you know the true Downtown Jersey City, rather than the sanitized version presented by the real estate brokers, none of this will play as a surprise. If Make It Yours is all you’ve got, well, here’s a corrective for a town that has lately seemed addled by a drug every bit as intoxicating as Vincent’s brew: boosterism.

You can catch Vincent perform on Friday, March 27 at The Studio At Webster Hall (125 E. 11th St, NYC) at 7 pm, admission is $15.

To learn more, go to Vincent, visit vincenttheowl.com or SoundCloud to listen his album.

Photo courtesy of Vincent, the Owl

Tris McCall

For the past twenty years, Tris McCall has been preoccupied with the art, music, architecture, politics, and public culture of New Jersey. For the past fifteen, he's been writing and singing about the Garden State wherever and whenever he can. The Trespassers, his first novel, was released in 2012; another not-dissimilar book is on the way. You can read more on his blog trismccall.net.