Late Devastation

The long-awaited Well$ album sets a vicious tone and exceeds expectations

Two years after bursting onto the scene, Well$ is ready to go beyond North Carolina. Photo by Tommy Coyote.

Does it feel like Well$ has been promoting his “next project” since the dawn of time? Because he has.

It isn’t 2014 anymore, the year the Chapel Hill-by-way-of-Charlotte rapper first exploded onto the scene in North Carolina, getting mentions on Noisey, Complex and HotNewHipHop for his album, MT$YD: Revenge Of The African Booty Scratcher. The scene has shifted a bit, most notably when the area’s obvious heir apparent, King Mez, switched coasts two years ago to take part in Dr. Dre’s Compton comeback album, leaving a hole for one of the next tier of North Carolina rappers and producers to grow into. It didn’t take long to see that the next artist in that succession was Well$.

Similar to Mez before him, the amount of press mentions, notable collaborators (see: Metro Boomin, Sylvan Esso) and high-profile song debuts that Well$ has racked up in recent months have amounted to a de facto coronation — it would be hard to make the case that any act within North Carolina, and certainly the Triangle, is better prepared for a run at stardom. It’s for that reason, not to mention the lengthy wait he’s put us through (it’s even delayed again, as I write this), that there was little margin for error on this project. Were two years of effort to result in a total dud, he could easily miss his window of opportunity.

And yet, rather than shrink in the face of those lofty expectations, Well$ has delivered spectacularly with his new album, The Way I’m Living Makes My Mom Nervous, a snarling, adrenaline-pumping project on which the young artist experiments with new sounds and doubles down on the aggressive, harsh tone that makes him unique.

If The Way I’m Living is a confident, recalcitrant answer to the suggestion that Well$ has spent the last couple years resting on his laurels, its opening song, “Young Man,” is the warning shot to make sure you’re paying attention. For all of The Way I’m Living’s immersive, almost suffocating backdrops, none is bigger than the Sylvan Esso-assisted opener. In the context of all the waiting that preceded this album, “Young Man” feels like more than just an intro to an album — it feels like an intro to the next chapter in Well$’ career.

Well$ ft. Sylvan Esso — Young Man

On the ensuing track, Well$ jumps into the dark, demonic world of Greensboro’s J.K. The Reaper, whipping himself into the kind of furor that is both his and the album’s trademark: “Pounds of purp off in my parka, I been on it since mama caught n — — s just bumpin’ Tha Carter,” he growls. On “Drunk Yet,” Angelo Mota and Well$ shine as a duo, showing just how much stronger the pairing is at the top of the Immaculate Taste ticket than the Republican ticket right now. “XXX” pushes Well$ to go fiercer and faster than probably any other song on the album, and the result is one of The Way I’m Living’s best, most razor-focused tracks.

For regular fans or listeners of Well$, the second half of The Way I’m Living starts to get much more familiar. Scattered between new offerings like “Lessons” and “Us vs. Them,” singles from the past few months like “130” and “Heaven’s Door” pop back up to close the album on a high. The second half of the final track — a re-working of the popular “6:08 A.M. in Cleveland” — features a RATATAT-esque backing from Made of Oak that’s so alluring you can almost tune out the “with her ass out, trying to get passed ‘round/I’m a bougie n — — , I won’t fuck her, but I’ll let her neck me ’til I pass out” line that is among Well$’ least tasteful.

“‘98 Juvie” remains one of the biggest bangers in Well$ catalogue, and the remix is likely considered an upgrade on the original for most fans, thanks in part to an absolutely bone-chilling entrance from Deniro Farrar halfway through. But it doesn’t take more than a couple lines into Farrar’s verse before this track gets into cringeworthy territory for anyone with an eye towards current events, where the specter of gun violence is playing itself out on the TV screens of America in full, vivid color. In the movement for police accountability, most Black Lives Matter and other activists call the classic “but what about black-on-black violence?” trope a distraction. Others even dismiss it out of hand. But one thing you never see them do is actually incite it, which Farrar does in explicit detail on “‘98 Juvie Remix”:

“On 85 dirty, my .40 got extensions/
Fuck the other side, tell them n — s I meant it,
If they want a war, tell them pussies I’m with it/
K got a drum and it hold a buck 50”

As more athletes and entertainers step forward to speak about the issue of police and gun violence in America, staying silent is becoming unacceptable. And by extension, explicitly promoting violence is becoming unimaginable. In the case of Deniro Farrar, who by all accounts seems very aware and heavily invested in his fans on social media, it would be good to remember that the words and sentiments of artists mean little if not matched in their music.

Throughout The Way I’m Living, Well$ foot is to the pedal almost non-stop, an obvious play to his biggest strengths, but one that comes at the expense of emotional breadth — rather than convey a full spectrum of emotions, almost every song feels like Well$ trying to rip the mic to shreds and then set fire to the remains. And despite Well$ unique perspective and the album’s tack-sharp production value, make no mistake: there is a lot of content here expressly built on the foundation of rap’s archetypal fallbacks — making more money than you, being more successful than you, having sex with your girlfriend, putting his city(s) on his back, et al. As it so happens, he sounds really good rapping about those things.

Then again, that’s partially the underlying concept at the heart of The Way I’m Living Makes My Mom Nervous, an album title that immediately casts Well$ as both reckless enough to indulge in the vices that come with the “rap life” and self-aware enough to know that that’s exactly what he’s doing. Considering how good this album sounds, there’s likely only more experiences like it to come. Why The Way I’m Living Still Makes My Mom Nervous — coming in 2017.

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