Hip-hop trends come and go, but one thing will never become irrelevant: context. The same line that's a dud for one rapper may bring down the house for another; being a great rapper is as much about knowing that difference as it is about rhyming words. That's the takeaway from Everything I Need, the new EP from rising Raleigh emcee NANCE. It is a testament to the rapper's vast improvements and a midterm report card on what fixes remain.
Everything I Need starts strong with "Family So Proud," an anthem that sets an energetic tone for the rest of the EP. Though the record's production is polished, it's never better than on the second track, "Fall Forever," a story about love that inspires one of NANCE's best songs yet.
Soon, however, the EP slips into a rut with "Cold Young Boy" and "Feelings"—thematically identical songs, positioned back-to-back. The two tracks are also the harbinger of an imitation problem that ends up weighing down much of the project. Consciously or not, almost every rapper today is taking notes from Drake's blueprint, but the correlations on Everything I Need are overt and unavoidable. It's not that NANCE's Drizzy impression is particularly poor; in fact, songs like "Cold Young Boy" and "Day Ones" are perfectly enjoyable in the background because they suggest songs we already know and like. Ultimately, they accomplish what most imitations do: make the listener yearn for the original.
NANCE's rapping is best when he deploys it to tell his own story, and there are breakthrough flashes of such honesty. During the title track, a repurposing of Kanye West's "Everything I Am," NANCE raps: "Last night I had a dream, I made 100 grand/The show was really local, and I probably made one fan."
Coming from an artist who has yet to break through on a national level, the self-deprecation of performing a whole show to just make one new fan feels refreshing, genuine. That honesty doesn't come at the expense of confidence or pride, either. He's still making a new fan, still climbing the rungs, becoming the bigger name. The line feels like more than bluster, more than cliché one-upmanship. This is NANCE's perspective.
It's the kind of line that NANCE could have used more often on Everything I Need, which, for long stretches, feels more focused on the idea of being a rapper than telling the stories of one.
Nance appears Friday, February 19 at Southland Ballroom. Tickets are $10–$12.