“Everybody wants to be a star/ but everybody don’t shine the same,” raps Mullyman, formally Kevin Muldrow, on this month’s all-in, ferociously individual mixtape Mullyman vs. the Machine. The disc is long, almost an hour on the mark, and it’s the idea of what it is to blow up or get big in the game that makes up Machine’s soul. “Sometimes I wonder what it’s all for/ why, the spotlight/ star warz,” he continues almost wistfully on that same track, the standout “Star Warz.” It comes across almost as a reflection on a rap career that’s been one long and weird flirtation—or maybe even bridge—between the underground and, if not the mainstream, then the rap big time.
Mullyman dropped his first record, Mullymania, in 2005, on his own label Major League Entertainment. Guests on it include heavies such as Ghostface Killah, Clipse, and Freeway, sharing space with local street guys like COMP, Annapolis’ Cell Spitfire, and Mullyman’s sister Nik Stylz. On Mullyman vs. the Machine, he’s skipped guest MCs almost entirely. Hooks are rarely nicked or sampled, and neither are beats: DJ Booman and MBAHlievable do most everything, and it’s an everything that slinks between Baltimore club, new-school club/electro hybrid, uptempo R&B, and straight-up hip-hop—which Mullyman dances between like it’s nothing.
The point is that it’s Mullyman’s show on Machine, but it’s less certain what that means in terms of just how he wants his star to shine, and on whom. Unlike the other big mixtape to drop this month, Rye Rye’s RYEot PowRR, Mullyman’s mix isn’t boosting or selling anything: He name drops last summer’s album-proper Harder Than Baltimore, but that’s it. Weirdly enough, the mixtape feels more like a manifesto on stardom than it does a (or another) grab at stardom. Like, Mullyman still wants to be the biggest, but what does that even mean—or, more accurately, what does it mean if the game of getting to be the biggest is rigged? Well, you take on the machine.
“All you need is one big song, they say,” Mullyman raps sarcastically on “Greatness,” in which he asks, “What makes a great man great?” and then proceeds to offer up himself as an example— and for the first of several times goes into way over-the-top, parody-level bravado. On “Nobody Likes Me,” he stacks up all the ways the game’s rigged against him, but makes it plain that it doesn’t even matter: “But if you believe you can fly with a wing and prayer/ God willing, you can make it there/ I’ve been banned from radio/ politically blackballed/ beef in the street/ but the money still stacked tall.”
The message is windshield-clear by the end. Mullyman’s stardom has everything to do with doing it yourself: no big-name guests, no marquee beats, no big label, no radio hit. There is, in fact, one guest on Mullyman vs. the Machine and that’s the Doo Dew Kidz, which is really another way of saying that Mullyman’s turned the track, “I Like Money,” wholly over to DJ Booman, who turns out this weird Baltimore club meets heavy-electro banger/goof. It rules, and, like the best club music, is way too weird for the machine to even begin to process.
There’s at least one exception to that, however. It’s odd to say, but Rye Rye, the hyperkinetic dancer turned viral Baltimore club breakout turned “MIA protégé” turned major label rapper, is probably gonna blow up in a way without many or any parallels in recent Baltimore rap history. And that really doesn’t have much to do with the “machine” either—or, more accurately, has a lot to do with it, but manages to short-circuit it.
The story is known well enough by now: A teenage Rye Rye hits big with the Blaqstarr-produced “Shake It to the Ground,” gets picked up as one of MIA’s touring dancers, and a couple of years later announces a record on MIA’s Interscope imprint N.E.E.T. That disc got sidelined for nearly two years due to Rye Rye’s pregnancy, but in the past year she’s spit out a pair of mixtapes, 2009’s Blaqstarr-produced Blaqout mix, which was loaded with future album material but still managed to be Blaq’s show, and then this month’s RYEot PowRR.
The new mix comes courtesy of Philly club powerhouse DJ Sega, and all of the mix of straight rap, new-club, old-school banger, witty pop remix—not piggybacking via a hook, but more mowing totally over the original—and Mad Decent globetrotting is pretty cool. But what strikes the ear is that Rye Rye’s rapping through the whole damn thing (with a couple of notable breaks for guests/DJ antics). Not club chanting, but gushing a sort of street-corner sassy flow it wasn’t totally clear she had until now, or at least in the volume it takes to keep the pace up for an hour-long tape, or a rap career.
If anything it belies the idea, which seems to have circulated, that Rye Rye is a hanger-on or is coasting on a free ride on the MIA train. That’s probably the risk of hitting the jackpot in the star machine without actually bowing to it, or fighting through it. But still succeeding, whether that’s via the fighter-stance defiance and brute independence of Mullyman or Rye Rye’s sharp left, esoteric turns and backdoor stardom, is fresher the further it is from the machine.