By Jared Graf
Asst. Arts & Features Editor
One failed NBA career, 14 mixtapes, and a Nas co-sign later, Dave East is finally ready to kick the door down with his debut studio album, “Survival.”
The 20-track offering reminds us why the Harlem native is so widely respected by his peers and fans alike. He sounds hungry and confident – like an aspiring artist with nothing to lose, itching to ink a deal and make a name for himself.
But truth is, Dave East made a name for himself long before “Survival,” and it’s apparent this isn’t his first rodeo.
The raw, unfiltered style rap connoisseurs have come to know and love East for is on full display for the album’s introduction, “They Wanna Kill You.” Equipped with a Mobb Deep sample, production from Swizz Beatz, and record scratches from boom-bap’s forefather DJ Premier, East springs into a lyrical tirade – criticizing his haters over the course of one long verse. “You probably thought the label was gon’ shelf me / You prayed that this paper never helped me,” he spits unapologetically on the album’s opening lines.
East doesn’t live a mundane life, and he’s sure to remind us of this. On “Penthouse,” he makes most contemplate how lucrative their 9-5 is as he brags about lobster dinners, chauffeurs, Louis Vuitton, and yup, you guessed it – penthouse views.
J. Black provides a ridiculously catchy hook for the record, which originally appeared in a 2016 commercial for Nipsey Hussle’s clothing line. Production was handled by the duo Mike N Keys, who confirmed the late rapper never recorded a verse for the song, although his ad-libs can be heard toward the end of the track.
The album’s pinnacle comes with the cinematic, Nas-assisted “Godfather 4,” a song that finds the New York wordsmiths rapping via plane. East rhymes like he teleported to the “Stillmatic” era, while Nas’ lyrics seem to roll off his tongue, as he effortlessly weaves words together over a soulful instrumental, courtesy of DJ Green Lantern.
On production that sounds as if it should come complete with a Cuban cigar and glass of scotch, Nas drops more quotables than most rappers do on an entire album. “Like a tree falling in the middle of the forest / Nobody heard your s**t drop, it’s really garbage,” the legendary Queens MC spits, before signing off: “We’ll be cruising at 40,000 feet / Your in-flight movie is Godfather 4, starring me and Dave East.”
“What You Mad At” is a cut that maximizes East’s strengths. Reminiscing on his hard upbringing and struggle to reach success, East questions his haters: “We all got the same 24 hours, what you mad at?” Near the halfway mark, the beat switches to a gritty, up-tempo production that answers the question posed in the first half of the song.
Tracks like “Need a Sign,” “Daddy Knows,” and “Mama I Made It” are laced with the introspective storytelling East is known for.
For those in search of something to rattle their speakers, East ditches his laid-back, narrative style to talk tough on songs such as “Seventeen,” “Everyday,” and “Devil Eyes.”
The theme of survival is perhaps best articulated on “Devil Eyes,” a track that showcases East, E-40, and Mozzy rapping about death in the hood over harrowing, West Coast production. “Before you shoot him, look him in his eyes / Introduce him to God, they ain’t got s**t to do with mine,” East says in a jagged, raspy tone. One thing apparent throughout the project is his blatant disregard for human life.
Although East tries to cater to a more diverse audience than usual, the album surprisingly isn’t drowned out by attempts at radio singles. Tracks like “On Sight” are clearly tailored for the mainstream, but East sounds comfortable and organic over AraabMUZIK’s production.
With bars so tightly woven and structurally sound, there’s not much room for filler on the album. East’s unique flows, accompanied by his lyrical brutality, are what cause him to flourish in a time where many rappers struggle to stay relevant.
The only disappointing aspect about “Survival” was its first-week sales. Although the project featured high-profile guests such as Nas and Lil Baby, it failed to spawn a radio single and debuted at number 11 on the Billboard charts, selling 24,000 copies in its first week.
For an independent artist, these numbers wouldn’t be anything to laugh at, but considering East is backed by two major labels (Def Jam and Mass Appeal, respectively) he should have sold at least 40,000 in first-week sales.
The project is a melting pot of insightful, consistent, and cohesive content – making for a refreshing listen. It’s upsetting so many people skipped over a release that will undoubtedly play such a defining role in East’s career for years to come.
Dave East is in his own lane, and shows no signs of slowing down.