Cactus Jack/G.O.O.D. Music/Interscope Records

There’s a soothing quality to the blunt and straightforward spirit of New York City. Its fiercest dreamers are explicit in their needs and wield that power with an undeterred finesse that’s part survival mechanism, part force of nature. The title of Sheck Wes’ debut project, Mudboy, distills that uncanny drive in simple terms. “It's the hustling stage. It's rising out the mud,” he told The Fader. The sentiment is inspirational for a generation built on the idea that endless side hustles and talents are the new reality of modern life—flex them or risk getting buried. Who better to lead the multi-hyphenate masses than Harlem’s former basketball player turned model turned Cactus Jack Records/G.O.O.D. Music/Interscope Records rapper, Khadimou Rassoul Cheikh Fall?

Sheck Wes is an enthralling, riotous, and spirited character, who raps with distinct thrust and momentum. Short bursts of that combination are lethal, but the Harlem rapper’s lack of narrative and vocal direction over 49 minutes makes Mudboy a project that builds its foundation purely on style and energy at the expense of everything else.

Mudboy’s beats are its unrestrained force. Dark, fat and lush, Sheck’s debut overflows with layers of otherworldly synths and rattling bass. Yunglunchbox shepherds the album’s sound, handling six of the album’s 14 songs. “Live Sheck Wes,” “Gmail” and “Jiggy On The Shits” form the backbone of the project and help bolster Sheck’s inherent strengths and subtly mask his weaknesses. The Harlem rapper has two distinct voices: the guttural yell that he employs on the bulk of his hooks and the monotone drawl he wields during his verses. The latter is the obvious drawback to an otherwise winning formula and the twinkling, video game blips on a song like “Live Sheck Wes” build a world where the more technical aspects of rapping aren’t necessary to the enjoyment of the whole.

Wes is aware of this fact and has admitted to it. “If I played the ‘Live Sheck Wes’ beat right now, it would sound like an EDM beat—all the sounds in the beat are EDM sounds,” he told Pitchfork in July. “It is amped-up, turn-up music. But I hate ‘Live Sheck Wes.’ Because people get lost in the energy and not my message. I’m talking about some shit!”

Mudboy stalls when Sheck Wes is forced to do the dirty work of rapping—writing coherent stories, spitting engaging verses, changing cadences and rhyme structures—basically anything that isn’t adlibbing the word “bitch” or saying his name incessantly. In spurts, he tries to spin a compelling narrative and repeatedly sounds confounded by the process. He gets close on the WondaGurl-produced “Never Lost”: In a tight space, Wes details the story of his mother sending him to Touba, Senegal, as a teenager to study Islam.

“My cousins' behavior startin' to rub off,” he sings in a noticeable strain. “I'm pickin' up on their bad habits/My mother said that she don't like it at all, she sendin' me back 'cause she can't have it.” Yet as quickly as the personal sentiment creeps in, it dissipates. Groan-worthy lines like “Add on to the killings like Michael B. Jordan, in Wakanda on the Black Panther” and “Bitch I'm darker than a motherfuckin' Waka-Wakanda,” take its place.

There is a balancing act seething below the surface of Mudboy. Sheck stumbled into a viral sensation with “Mo Bamba” and much of his debut sounds like a songwriter working backward, learning how to solve an equation under duress when he so easily produced its answer only a year ago. On songs like “Kyrie” and “Gmail,” he briefly lives up to that raucous potential. Unfortunately, the missteps—the thin singing voice used on “WESPN” and awkward yogurt references of “Danimals”—hamper much of the promise.

Music doesn’t need to matter. Most art isn’t important and someone’s work can exist without needing a reason. In a world of more—more art, more music, more content—the bare minimum of an album isn’t being good, but being good enough to care. There are many reasons to care about Sheck Wes and his struggles, even if he’s not able to wield the full extent of his power yet. Sadly, the same can’t be said for his debut.

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