Spinning L.A. rapper Nocando’s major label debut, Jimmy the Lock, is like listening to the ramblings of an articulate old friend. Some tales are genius, some are superfluous, but all are well-told with equal parts intimacy and performance. Nocando’s rhymes are clearly enunciated and cleverly delivered, his lyrics keeping listeners engrossed like the paragraphs of a mass market page-turner. Production is top-notch, with big names like Nosaj Thing, Nobody, and Daedelus providing a collection of tracks that are each intriguingly singular but coalesce effortlessly under Nocando’s commanding flow.
“21” recounts a chaotic night out, from meeting up with the boys to waking up with a stranger, and is perfectly complemented by a boozy sing-along chorus. The dirge-like “Flight Risk” tells the story of a rough breakup that ends with the rapper masturbating with a gun in one hand a picture of his would-be love in the other. “Front Left Pocket” waxes about street justice, as a richly layered soul chorus alternates with a buzzing dubstep beat: “And the cops wonder why I got this blade in my front left pocket/ I tell ’em I just got off work and I use it to open up boxes.” Although Nocando insists he’s just a blue collar stiff, he concludes that “If the cops don’t do they job in this shit/ I guess I’ll pick up one of their shifts” and ends the song by sharpening his trade tool on someone’s neck.
Criminal or civilian? Self-obsessed or self-conscious? These seem to be questions that the rapper struggles with himself, coming off as alternately blustery and insecure. Schooled in LA’s battle rap scene, Nocando’s heavy armor of bravado is understandable, but the album’s most powerful moments occur when the rapper relaxes and lets raw vulnerability shine through the cracks of his street persona. “Head Static” ends with a mind-numbing breakdown in which the rapper spits with fire: “You ever feel like you can’t fit in/ In a crowd all alone ’cause your friends are in the pen/ Or up under some bitch tryin’ to whip the pussy/ But the pussy pulled a pistol, reversed roles and whipped them?” The creative expression of alienation is authentic and endearing, a welcome foil to Nocando’s many boasts.
And then there are the tracks that fall firmly into acerbic and supercilious territory, with mixed results. The attitude translates wonderfully when delivered cold and tempered with a bit of humor, as in “You Got Some Nerve,” a take on the groupie diss elevated with delightfully brutal lyrics like: “You got some nerve/ But so does every other jellyfish/ Spineless/ Mindless/ Smelly bitch/ Ready for R Kelly’s piss/ You stupid groupies leave my wife out of your whore talk/ Keep giving Z-list celebrities the green light to take your drawers off.” However, when the jokes wane, the same above-it-all swagger becomes weighty and self-important, as with tracks like “I’m On:” “We evolved way back/ I was a brainiac/ So remember, bitch, your Genesis is Jimmy’s Leviticus,” and “Yeah Right,” which is similarly braying, as the rapper repetitively testifies to his prowess at… everything. Still, it is refreshing to hear a rapper bragging openly about his skill and intelligence rather than masking these qualities while reveling in the trappings of riches and fame that the same attributes helped buy. Nocando refuses to dumb himself down or clean himself up.
Sometimes Nocando so aggressively indulges in the roasting, boasting and toasting that it makes him seem all the more insecure. It’s worth noting that this bravado is well-earned — Nocando has put in nearly a decade as a rapper in Los Angeles’s underground, much of it involved with the legendary Project Blowed open mic, a long-running workshop that spawned legends like Jurassic 5. In 2005, Nocando recorded a label EP with his crew, Customer Service, and after the group disbanded, he self-released several solo mixtapes and albums. He participated in the World Hip Hop Championship and took top honors at the Scribble Jam freestyle battle in 2007. So perhaps even the bitterness is justified — Nocando has spent years putting out music and sharing bills with big-label names, from Snoop Dogg to Nancy Sinatra, and this is still his first solo studio release. The frustration of constantly smacking up against the glass ceiling separating underground hip hop from the mainstream would give even the most laid-back rapper a bit of an edge.
Still, even without a disclaimer or resumé of scene creds, Nocando’s lyrics are so insanely on-point that his braggart tendencies are rendered nearly moot, as he can back up all of his claims with blistering skill. Outside of a few missteps, his bitterness is well-channeled into passionate chunks of frenetic rhymes. Nocando’s songs are not only immaculately-rhymed, but they give a real sense of character, as complex and conflicted as that character may be. Whether the person coming through on the tracks is the true man behind Nocando or simply another fold in his persona is unclear, but Jimmy the Lock is ridiculously enjoyable regardless. If Nocando continues to combine his passionate anger with the right amount of emotionality and slice it all up with razor-sharp wit, he will be unstoppable. Jimmy the Lock is a real contender for a mainstream crossover.