“I’m not about to get on this beat and rap like Conway,” spits RXK Nephew on “Fuck Yo Set,” the lead single released ahead of The ONEderful Nephew—his new album-length collaboration with Brooklyn beatmaker DJ Rude One. It’s just one of the tangentially-related thoughts that Neph feverishly spits over the course of the track, like he’s Twin Peaks’ Dale Cooper, documenting esoteric conspiracy theories and personal diary entries with equal importance on a handheld tape deck. This particular bar, however, acts as the record’s de facto mission statement. Even when he’s teaming up with a veteran producer best known for his collaborations with technically proficient boom-bap revivalists like Westside Gunn, Your Old Droog, and Roc Marciano, Nephew adheres to the improvisational, intentionally messy stream of consciousness he brings to the plugg and electro beats he’s accustomed to. Despite Rude One’s vintage percussion samples and the aforementioned single’s KRS-One inspired artwork, The ONEderful Nephew is less of a nostalgia trip than it is a chance for the New York rapper to re-invent the old school’s sound in his own demented image.
On the duo’s best effort, “B.B. Belt,” the rhinestones around Neph’s waistband act as Proust’s madeline, triggering memories of stealing belts as a teenager, arguments with his girlfriend about his on-stage antics, and dudes who risked it all for a pair of foamposites. Rude One’s production is skeletal, limited to little more than kicks and snares, but he deploys samples of dissonant film noir piano cues and muted rhythm guitar strums at just the right times to soundtrack Nephew’s darker moments of introspection. Each artist whittles their work down to its rawest form on the track, experimenting in real time and nudging each other into gradually weirder territory, like seasoned free jazz artists 10 minutes deep into a solo.
The ONEderful Nephew isn’t all avant-garde outsider rap, though. “Raw Dope” is a fairly traditional hardcore Hip Hop cut centered on a gloomy harpsichord loop that shifts the focus to Neph’s humor and cadence. Working with standard coke-rap tropes, he plays the role of kingpin with a strangely warm affect, almost giggling to himself as he delivers lines like “you need a sleeve, I might put an extra bundle in it for you—auntie, what the fuck you need I put extra love in for you.” On “Way More Than a Little,” he wonders if he should wear a shirt that says “I SELL CRACK” on it to drum up more business.
The subgenre’s always been reliant on punchlines, but Nephew’s tales from the crackhouse feel like they take place in a seedy corner of the Looney Tunes universe, governed by dream logic and cartoon violence. There’s still plenty of grit to his storytelling, but he’s most compelling when he delves into the surreal.
Evocative as Neph’s writing may be, it’s held back by The ONEderful Nephew’s breakneck pacing. Only three of its 10 tracks eclipse 150 seconds, and although there’s an immediate appeal to the album’s brevity, a few entries leave you wanting more. “One Hundred & Thirty Times” features the record’s most energetic vocal performances, in which Neph breathlessly runs circles around the beat, cycles through flows, and cooks up absurd punchlines like “pussy trash like peaches out of a can,” but it just abruptly ends a few stanzas in. It’s still an enjoyable, hilarious listen, but it lacks the themes or poetic devices that ground songs like “B.B. Belt” and “Black Ice.” When you’re as introspective as Neph, it helps to keep a foot planted in the real world.
Using Rude One’s barebones, sometimes melody-free production as a blank canvas, Neph’s latest album ditches his eclectic taste in cloud rap-adjacent beats to put full focus on his mic presence: blemishes and all. Though it’s a bit too small-scale to rank among some of his most ambitious works like Slitherman Activated and Till I’m Dead, finishing The ONEderful Nephew will leave you with a renewed appreciation for the rapper’s ingenuity as a vocalist—not just a lyricist. Though it may not be the absolute best work in either collaborator’s discography, their chemistry as a pair makes for a fun, infinitely replayable experience.