January 29, 2014

Test Spin: Starvation III, Ace Hood

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“I’m the one you should fear,” growls Ace Hood on “Fear,” the opening track of his latest mixtape Starvation III. Ace backs it up — tales of gunplay, drugs and death pervade the tape’s over-capable, post-Lex-Luger-style production, done mostly by The Renegades. Together, they form a dark backdrop for Ace to paint the finer nuances of survival on the streets. But it is ultimately Ace’s fixation on God and family, along with his unrelenting energy, that gives the tape enough depth and relatability to merit mention ahead of the dozens of other thematically similar projects that drop each year.

Ace is an industry veteran at this point, having released four albums and a diverse array of free projects, but he has never managed to gain the attention of the hip-hop elite. “Bugatti” had the potential to be his breakthrough, but it was hijacked by Future and Mike Will, relegating Ace to a footnote on his own song. His 2013 album, Trials and Tribulations was generally well received, but was lost in a fast-moving summer that was instead dominated by the likes of A$AP Ferg and Migos. Despite these setbacks, Ace has stuck to his grind, refusing to switch his flow or subject matter — all three of the Starvation mixtapes are more or less interchangeable but none have lacked for quality. Instead, they have lacked the marketing and the attention-grabbing features that have allowed the likes of Meek Mill to generate a larger following. They also lack the inherent absurdity and recklessness that elevated Waka Flaka and Chief Keef enough that they championed the rap blogs (however briefly).

Ace does not waste time establishing the tone of the mixtape. On “Fear,” Ace raps with full force, mostly shouting put-downs at unnamed offenders in between proclamations of his talent and wealth. “Everyday” establishes Hood’s hustler persona and is a solid rap song with the exception of the hook — whomever showed Ace how to use autotune needs to be banned from the studio. Dancehall crooner Mavado thankfully steps in for “Buss Guns,” a violent track that includes a lot of guns and the first mention of snitching, a subject of disdain for Ace (“Rule number one, we don’t talk to the police, never to the Feds”). “Jamaica” works on similar thematic material, with Ace waking up (albeit not in a Bugatti) and proclaiming, “I swear to God I woke up on the gully side /and all they know is motherfuckin’ homicide.” None of this is lyrically impressive, but Ace’s relative confidence belies the daring hyperbole of his claims.

“Boyz N Da Hood” is an appreciated change of pace, with Ace expressing concern for the younger generation and detailing the gritty conditions of his own upbringing: “Projects livin’ with his cousin / Mama on drugs and his daddy don’t care / Got a dirty glock boom he bust it.” This is all in stark contrast to the fetishizing of street life that occurs in the first few tracks and helps protect the project from inaccessibility. “Brothers Keeper” continues this introspection, as Ace discusses the death of a friend in a drug deal gone wrong and pledges to protect his own family. This is probably my favorite track, largely because of the production, which uses a dark piano loop and sparse, clicking percussion over a sample of Juicy J’s “Yea Hoe” ad lib. Trust me, it works.

On “Fuck Your Favorite Rapper” and “Hip Hop,” Ace talks about his dissatisfaction with and his love of hip hop, respectively. As hard as he tries, neither really works — material like this is better left to artists more lyrically proficient than Ace. “Home Invasion” is about exactly what you think it would be, but I really disliked the painfully slow Notorious B.I.G. sample (from “Playa Hater”). It kills the vibe after every verse. “Save Us” has Ace again expressing concern for society, especially the young, displaying a maturity that is generally absent in mixtapes aspiring to be street anthems. The final track, “Skip the Talkin,” borrows Drake’s “Trust Issues” beat and a Kevin Cossom hook to help Ace make a love song. Ace absolutely steals Drake’s flow, and that is probably a good thing, because Ace is obviously out of his league here. It is not the song I would have chosen to close the project, but it is better than I thought it might be.

Ultimately, Starvation III is a solid and satisfying mixtape. Ace demonstrates depth and presents himself as a complex character, carefully walking the line between hood warrior and devoted father. In doing so, he broadens his appeal and distinguishes himself while maintaining his reputation as a voice from the streets.