Hip Hop Collective The Outsiders Power Up with ‘O/X-2’

To be honest, when I hear “The Outsiders,” my first reaction is to say “Stay gold, Ponyboy,” a gut instinct that occurs just a hair of a second before I think about the dope hip hop collective. So this mostly speaks to the fact that I’m an English teacher who loves young adult novels before I’m a music reviewer. However, I wanted to start out my new experiments in new genres by writing about risk-takers I admire tremendously as friends and artists. The Outsiders — C4 Productions, faruhdey, EAGLEBABEL, Eli Arbor, Jae, Doza, and Jice — return a year after their debut release O/X-1 with a new lineup, new work, and new stories to tell. I was hyped as hell when Ty and fam started posting their album artwork, and they definitely didn’t disappoint when they dropped O/X-2 earlier this summer.

“#FinesseLove” (true to title) is that hella suave party crasher who grabs everyone’s attention as he grooves or rather, finesses his way onto the dance floor, as if everyone were there to celebrate him in the first place. EAGLEBABEL, backed by faruhdey’s rich production, opens up the LP with The Outsiders’ carpe-diem-with-compassion way of life. EB is the enticing Pied Piper, coaxing us to go, go, go! The world is bursting with serendipity and opportunities for adventure, so it’s time to get real high and love real hard. It’s the kind of song you blast at night with your squad packed in the car, ready for wherever the next turn will lead you.

With the assurance that it’s all love here in the opening track, “Jealous” follows up to serve some ice-cold realness. My first instinct is to recommend “Jealous” to everyone, but it’s hard to call a track full of such pain and frustration my ‘favorite.’ EB and Eli Arbor as Hyperion act like the Hyperion of Greek myth, observers of light and truth, and they switch hands effortlessly, offering what it’s like to be Outsiders not only to elite education, but Blackness in the space of elite education. EB raps, “We was pullin out backflips in the name of our blackness / We was reppin the ghettos and y’all was trippin on status / Niggas was bureaucratic, and it wasn’t just friend groups.” Eli adds, “It was a transaction, gossip was currency / Y’all made y’all decisions before you had heard us speak.” They speak of a cutthroat world where Blackness and culture are no more than currency in the game of respectability and access to privilege, where Black art has no value unless it will get you a photo op with Drake — or whoever has the most social capital in a given space. EB and Eli trade the mic with such dynamic energy and lightness that you almost overlook the density of content, but don’t miss the critiques in the lyrical mastery; these critiques are not aimed just at Stanford folks, or Black folks, or Stanford Black folks — all of us are at risk of getting lost in corporate distillations of culture.

“Last Train to Toronto” is another standout track as Eli dexterously traverses the moody, almost eerie beat provided by C4 Productions. Where EAGLEBABEL shines with rapidfire allusions that crisscross a multiverse of experiences, Eli carefully constructs a singular world and narrative. His gruff, frantic delivery conveys a sense of paranoia, an inability to shake the shadows off your shoulder as you walk around the town he vividly paints, full of people who are “here for the scratch-offs, / hoping a dollar is gon’ make me rich.” It’s a narrative sorely needed here in the Bay Area, where it’s easy to pretend that life is glitzy and full of possibility. Eli reminds us that this is what it’s like to try and find your way in a town full of deadbeats and dead ends. That some of us grew up thinking we would never grow up at all.

The second half of O/X-2 doesn’t pull as much energy as the first half, but it’s a fun listen throughout. Jae slows it down and slows it down well on the R&B tracks “D4U” and “Can’t Take It,” but I’d love to see another take on “On the Floor,” which updates 2009 DMX for the 2016 dancefloor. Her second verse is one of my favorites on O/X-2 but a harder delivery would really seal the deal. Jae shines most on “Can’t Take It,” her breezy vocals conveying a slow-burn desperation. EB’s jazz talents emerge in his piano contributions to “Corazon,” a sexy Latin-infused dance track collab with Doza and faruhdey, as well as on “Love Ballad,” which offers to us the more intimate side of the #FinesseLove philosophy. C4, faruhdey, and Doza each bring their own unique production style to the table and also maintain a unified sound for the album, an impressive feat with so many people involved. I loved the Samurai Jack and Regular Show samples on C4 and Doza’s interludes, respectively, because they made me laugh and feel nostalgic for a childhood we can’t re-live. But maybe we can make some music from the memories at least. faruhdey offers a thoughtful reflection in the middle of the album on the collective’s growth and his own journey, fitting as one hears the growth in his signature sound in the background.

I also want to say I’ve been amazed by Eli Arbor’s growth as a rapper — his focus is sharp, and he has a strong poetic sensibility. As a poet myself, I’m wowed by wordplay in lines like “Cause I’ve been overlooked and slept on / So now I look over and step on” in “AFC,” a frustrated, plaintive track about failures at intimacy; or the stacked assonance in “Pipe dreams and the white nights and the cold days and the long fight”; or the possibility of double entendre” in “Is ball really life if no one is balling/bawling?” EAGLEBABEL, aside from having one of the biggest hearts in the world, flexes his mastery across every aspect of the album: writing, singing, producing, storytelling, playing piano, mixing, and mastering. He’s a joy to hear as he works to highlight each of his teammates’ strengths.

While O/X-1 was a fantastic debut, it was also an album that brimmed with bravado, aware that it was there to make A Statement. O/X-1 was standing front row to the see the trendy new headliner, and now O/X-2 feels like walking into a house party to hang with the homies. O/X-2 offers itself with easy confidence: they know their way around the house, speak their minds freely, yo do you need any more tonic for that gin? and hug you hard as they say goodbye, until next time. The Outsiders know exactly what it feels like to live on the margins and that’s why they know exactly how to bring you into the fold. The collective has some more up their sleeves for 2016 and O/X-2 was a joyful way to get the show on the road.

Listen to and download O/X-2 by the Outsiders on Bandcamp or Soundcloud. Lyrics on Genius.