Time is Your Old Droog’s debut album, or so he claims. The Ukrainian-born rapper has released six projects since 2019, Time being his seventh. The misdirection is intentional. Time at once shows the listener sides of Droog never before seen, while also offering years-old songs and verses that had never left the vault. He revealed on Twitter that five songs here were recorded in 2016 – 2017, shuffled in with more recent recordings.
The result is an album that plays with time not just as a lyrical concept (with plenty of tracks reminiscing on childhood and school) but as the raw material from which an artist is moulded. Droog sculpts with Time to create a project that offers front-to-back gems in the lyrical department, but the lack of a singular mindset across its production is also evident as the album’s great songs don’t quite coalesce into a singular piece. Droog’s debut album feels more like his debut mixtape.
Always hip-hop’s mischief-maker, Droog’s Twitter timeline borders on performance art. He blocks his own fans for seemingly no reason. He speaks on issues more like a stand-up comedian would than a rapper. In the leadup to Time’s release, Droog would post random iconic album covers with the captions like “First listen”, “Going to see what this is all about” or “Tapping in”, in imitation of thousands of ‘Music Twitter’ profiles that do the same. The joke is on those who believed him and fumed in his replies about how a professional rapper has never heard Kanye’s The College Dropout or Nas’ Illmatic. This, it turns out, was another variation on the theme of Time, showcasing Droog’s playful and sometimes combative style, which is undergirded by an intense appreciation and knowledge of his craft, even if he pretends otherwise.
One of the oldest songs on the album is an early standout—’Dropout Boogie’ finds Droog gliding over a throttling, textured beat by eternally underrated producer Edan. Halfway through, a beat switch knocks the listener into a dizzying verse by the late MF DOOM. If Droog’s section felt like a schooltime dust-up in a dingy locker room, DOOM seems to be rhyming mid-car chase, zipping away from the draconian halls of his younger days without looking back. Hearing a new DOOM verse in 2021 is surreal, but his inclusion here isn’t cynical. Towards the end of his life, DOOM had been known to phone in years-old verses for younger artists and, as a result, many recent features have felt like off-beat re-heated leftovers.
However, it’s clear that DOOM and Droog have an intense mutual respect, as ‘Dropout Boogie’ finds the masked emcee pushing himself, experimenting with double-time flows and dropping some of his funniest recent bars. “Deserved worse for late-night meddlin’,” DOOM raps, “Villain irate, still be quite the gentleman.” It contains the comic (both comedic and comic-book) spirit of his early work in the 2000s. Droog had released two previous collaborations with DOOM—RST and BDE, both in 2019. ‘Dropout Boogie’ feels like a fitting farewell to the villain from Droog, which shows both artists on top form and unburdened by the sentimentality of a self-aware send-off.
DOOM’s influence on YOD is important to mention, as Droog’s punchlines remain his strongest asset. He taunts his fans, “Shows packed with nerds look like Comic-con” before effortlessly flipping the subject, “Make an M in a night like Shyamalan”. Perhaps less known is his penchant for storytelling, that embodies a raw honesty and surprising creative ambition.
‘The Magic Watch’ is a weighty conceptual track, where three characters revisit their pasts for only a fleeting glimpse at what could have been. The final verse sees a mugger who travels back to the first murder he committed as a young man. He leaves the man unharmed, flees the scene full of ideas for his future, having dodged a ten-year prison sentence, only to be whisked back to his interminable present. The storytelling is raw and sincere, recalling Lupe Fiasco’s most daunting tracks on Tetsuo and Youth. A shoddy hook lets the track down however, and what could have been an all-time great storytelling track stumbles in between the verses.
The other prime piece of storytelling here is on display in ‘Please Listen To My Jew Tape’, wherein Droog gets raw and vulnerable, betraying his usual cocky persona. He tells of career woes, struggles as an independent artist, and the regrets he has that he didn’t sign to a major label when he had the buzz to do so. “Waited for the person with the magic wand, but they never showed / Whole career been in “please listen to my demo” mode”. Even in dark moments, Droog never loses his sense of humour—“Feel like a never-ending audition / Probably try and sell my tape to the mortician”. The result is a moving piece that truly feels like the debut work of a new kind of Your Old Droog.
The era of New York hip-hop Droog emerged in was uncertain of its own identity—internet-borne acts like Das Racist and eXquire felt unmoored from regional styles, the A$AP Mob was taking more inspiration from the South than the East, and Roc Marciano was only starting to reinvent the boom-bap sound. Droog was too late to fully ride the wave of early 2010s ‘internet rap’ from which acts like Danny Brown and Run the Jewels were mainstays. He was also too early to catch the rise of Roc Marciano and the Griselda collective, as they revitalised East-coast hip-hop with skeletal loops and minimal drums.
Seven years on from Droog’s debut EP in 2014, the terrain of NY rap has changed. This change has not been to accommodate him, but in a time where lyrical artists are no longer mere “throwbacks” to the ’90s but a promising new movement, he may find himself more comfortable.
The only issue with Time’s status as a debut is that it downplays the immense body of work Droog has released since 2019. He put out four solo albums in 2019 – 2020, each one unique in concept and sound. It felt like a career’s worth of growth released in rapid-fire. If anything, Time falls short because it’s concept is more patchy than that of Transportation, the 2019 album that treats Planes Trains and Automobiles as lyrical fodder, a true heir to DOOM’s treatment of the the supermarket aisles of MM.. FOOD. Time also lacks the sonic cohesion of 2020’s DUMP YOD: Krutoy Edition, where Droog recounts his childhood from his birth in the Soviet Union to being the “Russian” kid in an American classroom, all over beats sampled from Soviet-era music to grounding, commanding effect.
Were the average listener to take Droog’s word and ignore his pre-Time releases, they would be missing out on the some of the best rap of the last few years and settling for a project that wouldn’t break the top five albums of Droog’s discography. This writer’s recommendation? Tap in. Tap in to all of it.