Odds are on any given day you can catch Nico the Beast rocking plain white tees. They're his uniform of choice. Not because he's trying to sell some D-boy image to get that Plies money.* but rather because they symbolize what Nico reps: a sort of basic no-frills, rock-ribbed fundamental rap. Or in sports terms, think him as the classic, blue-collar lunch-pail, PJ Brown-type, always hustling (no Rick Ross), willing to put his head down, take charges, board hard and lock-down scorers.
A few people sniped at Nico for dissing Lil Wayne on his "Dey Know" freestyle a few weeks back. I understood where the sentiment was coming from. It's easy to label any attack on the rapper du jour as being sour grapes, considering the salvo came from an independent rapper very much on the grind. Yet the diss seemed logical to me, the natural polarization that exists between two opposites. Indeed, few people on earth are more diametrically opposed than Nico and Weezy, the former's knuckle-nosed, blue-collar sobriety, the very antithesis of Wayne's self-aggrandizing swagger and candy-colored flash. Unlike the man who boasted he's so high that he's eating stars, Nico's a drug-eschewing, happily married father of two young daughters, a family man with an almost tribal sense of loyalty that he's unafraid to flash on wax ("Sunshine," "Loving You a Lifetime," "Be A Man.")
Ever the product of the South Philly streets that raised him (see Nerd Litter's outstanding post on "Philly Codes"), Nico's outlook and rhyme capabilities are very much the result of geography and the thousands of ciphers that find you when you're a hulking white boy rapper with a hair-trigger temper. Retaining the asphalt and dirt rawness you'd expect from a snarling ex-street fighter nicknamed the Beast, No Beast So Fierce strikes a surprising moral balance without resorting to self-righteous stridency.
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Even if for nothing else, Nico's debut record would be a success based on his ability to evince a complex, compelling personality without opting for the easy confessional rout that so many other rappers have traveled in the past (hi Marshall.) But there's more to like than mere three-dimensionality. On pure ability to spit raps, few young subterranean rhymers can in recent memory can match Nico's ability to flow. A master of byzantine internal rhyming, breath-control and the skill to kick both double-timed burners over bounce tracks and blunt, hammering raps over woozy gospel-infused moans, Nico's versatility makes him one of those quintessential "rapper's rappers."
Moreover, No Beast So Fierce makes a clear statement for the case that the Philly/Camden scene is turning into one of hip-hop's most vital, with help arriving from impressive guest turns from Reef da Lost Cauze, 2ew Gunn Ciz, Magr and Nico's partner in Clean Guns, Zilla Rocca. Of course, the record isn't without it's flaws. At a whopping 20 tracks and an hour and twenty minutes, like nearly all hip-hop albums it runs at least 20 minutes long, making it hard to get through in one sitting. **To Nico's credit, the bloat stems more from the near-impossibility of sustaining attention over such a long stretch, rather than anything being an outright dud.
It's unlikely that No Beast So Fierce will satisfy that subset of the blog-rap world that worship swag and style above skills, but both genre purists and anyone in thrall to that mid-90s school of hard rhymes spit over knocking beats will undoubtedly find something to like. In the liner notes, Nico thanks his favorite rappers, Brother Ali, Joe Budden and Joell Ortiz and with his impressive debut, No Beast So Fierce, he's established himself as being a worthy inheritor of that lineage. Or at the very least, an RA the Rugged Man or Vinnie Paz for this generation. Consider it a triumph of the power of plain white tee (no American Apparel).
*As long as the South is the only region that y'know, buys rap CDs, it will stay winning. Sort of. At the very least, it ensures that majors will always push crap like 2 Pistols over that Knux album that Interscope will probably never release.
** Rappers, I know there have to be at least a few of you reading this. Unless your name is Big Pun, stick to 14 tracks running no more than one hour. Or do we have to bring up the played-out reminder that Illmatic was about a half-hour long.