punchnello: Demon Youth
I have truly missed punchnello. Every time he releases something, there's a part of me that rejoices. However, there's also a part of me that girds itself for a bit of disappointment. Not because he doesn't deliver... per se. More that my expectations of him are so (probably unfairly) high, that when I do hear the final product, I find myself wanting something... something more.
Demon Youth has that same sort of "expectation vs. reality" effect. If my love of Pharoahe Monch and Schoolboy Q is any indication, I love me some aggressive-ass, violent-ass, dark-ass hip hop. 'Nello has gotten this urge to "out-profane" himself. This is how he's opened his most recent albums. Unfortunately (and as is the case with most "rappers" from South Korea), I don't buy it. But as the saying goes, "They had us in the first half, not gonna lie."
What sells the majority of Demon Youth is the production. Lyrically, 'Nello doesn't do too much in the beginning. Just adds in a bit more profanity and references to drugs and sex to masquerade as something more hood than he actually is. The delivery does even less. Opting for what I constitute as mimicry of trap, with a lot more white-boy affectation than is indicative of rappers who are about that trap life (meaning grew up in and around it and ended up being more than a passing observer of the lifestyle). But this production! I know that ''Nello is a very capable producer in his own right (at 5:43am is proof enough of that). The jagged roughness of this album reminds me too much of XXX, namely dynamo producer FRNK and his Kubrick-Dilla hybrid production.
That being said, there are shades of the punchnello I fell in love with years ago. Track "Back" is a more fitting reintroduction to the rapper. All bravado and tough talk that's less about attempting to put on a tough-boy façade and more about owning his actual talent and pen. 'Nello is a young man with a flow so precise you could mistake him for an assassin. He wields words like a concealed knife: primed with a sharpness you wouldn't expect in such a small package, then brandishing it with such easy swiftness you've already bled out before you realize he's sliced your neck. The production on "Back" is simpler, less aggressive and subversive.
The following track, "Run It" does a better job of showcasing what this comeback, I imagine, was supposed to be: production that leaves you feeling objectified in its ferociousness and a delivery that matches pace. An assault on the ears and the body that's frightening, but somehow exactly what you want.
Though the album doesn't deliver this mixture consistently, something must be said for the fact that Demon Youth is wall-to-wall aggression. 'Nello doesn't let up or give you a chance to breathe. Though throughout much of the album that's more of an annoyance than it is an oppressively sinister and exciting return, I can't deny that it's a fascinating approach to take. So much so that when he reaches back for tenderness in "Mayday" and "Don't Leave Me," it's jarring but not necessarily in a bad way. The softness does act as that breath we need to collect ourselves and think about what the album was actually about. The album's closing tracks are a more accurate depiction of a man working to resolve who he is with who the world wants him to be. Simpler production that's no less effective and melodic vocal delivery. While at this point it's become the tropiest of tropes, it's still endearing considering the rest of the album.
As with 2019's Ordinary, it takes until almost halfway through the Demon Youth for 'Nello to hit his stride. Whether that's a matter of how he placed the songs on the album or whether he really needed some time to pick up steam is irrelevant. When we do get there, to that sweet spot where he dominates with more earned arrogance and less feigned bravado, it's most certainly a welcome return.