When Hunter S. Thompson began his career at Time magazine, he retyped the entireties of The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms with the hope that replicating the processes of his favorite authors would improve his own writing. It’s a practical concept – in order to develop as an artist you not only learn how your heroes did it before you, but you try on their proverbial shoes and walk for a while. Get their style in your bones. In the Internet age, emerging artists have found new ways of getting the fruits of these exercises out there, as evidenced by the overwhelming amount of original hip-hop content on SoundCloud.
Johnny Astro, one of the founders of Marcato Republic, is absolutely at the top of that pile. His new project, Zeus: Chapter 1 Astrology, perfectly showcases his developed talents for production, lyricism and vocal performance. Though these eight tracks can, at times, sound like highlights off the cutting room floors for Take Care and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Astro’s precision and spirit often absolve him of how boldly he wears his influences on his sleeve. Real talk, this isn’t copycatting – at his best, Astro expertly weaves an immediate sense of familiarity and nostalgia for the present directly into the spine of his listener’s experience. If anything, Zeus proves that Astro knows damn well how to use the same tools of the biggest names in hip hop today. He is possibly one of the most gifted young producers of 2014. His hooks on “Angels On The Floor” and “(Interlude) Bloodstream Remix” inspired my own Googling frenzy that only reinforced how keenly tuned his ear is for recreating the sounds of major label giants.
Unlike other producer-rappers, who tend to focus on the technicalities of their aesthetic to the detriment of their natural charisma, Astro has tight command over both the mix and his vocal performance. While his flow and lyrics follow paths already paved by Drake and Kanye, what sets Astro apart from these touchstones is an energy that’s wholly his own. Sure, the ‘Ye snarl makes its way into harder moments of Zeus and the “Stay” sample in “Athena” is a little heavy-handed, but Astro often flips these familiar echoes in a way that services his own strengths.
Most importantly, Astro brings a sense of continuity to his writing that sets him apart from his mixtape contemporaries. Instead of spitting stream-of-consciousness in service of the rhyme, Astro knows how to tell a story, much like the best of his predecessors. And goddamn, what a story. In these eights tracks (or seven with a very well-used ‘Shameless’ clip), you really hear the man’s struggle to keep his head above water. He brings a lot of passion and clarity to a branch of singer/songwriter hip-hop that is still figuring itself out. Unfortunately, the album’s lowest points are when his loyalty to his influences becomes a crutch – there are a few too many Drake nods for a clean listen. Sure, Jay copped a lot from Biggie‘s lyrics, but if Astro is going to be a leader in his field (which he is primed to do), he needs to push further.
The album’s high-note closer, “Sweet Satisfaction,” strips away the smoothness of the preceding tracks and it may be the closest we get to hearing the true Johnny Astro. It’s a straightforward track with a powerful feature from Marcato Republic family member Richy Rott, but it also serves as a palate cleansing preview of what might come on Chapter 2. In light of this, Zeus: Chapter 1 Astrology might be best seen as a high-level research paper than a Master’s thesis – Johnny Astro has clearly found his voice, but his citations occasionally muddy his unique perspective.