Oddisee: To Which End Album Review

As long as he can create as he pleases, Oddisee has been content to exist on the fringes of rap. The Brooklyn-via-Washington, DC rapper-producer has treated his independent music career like a small business long before that became the norm, with pragmatic, athletically rapped songs and a busy touring schedule. You won’t find him hung up on industry credibility: “Being overlooked did wonders for my esteem,” he says on 2015’s “Belong to the World,” one of several songs about the benefits of niche stardom. Even as his youngest and boldest on albums like 2008’s 101 and the 2009s mental liberation, his swagger was tied to the reality of his humble upbringing and surroundings in the DC area. He went from simply making hip-hop cool again through pure boom-bap revivalism to boiling down politics, racism, and eventually the comforts of family life to rapping as succinctly and practically as the amorphous live-band production he’s slowly come to favor.

But the power of his early rap days lingers, driving a grudging desire for respect. On “The Start of Something”, the intro to his 10th solo studio album To what end, Oddisee walks again during a nearly 20-year career and gives himself a pep talk before the next sprint. “How I’m seen and how I’m heard is not why I work,” he says, doubling down: “I’m going to go how to make a million without going soft.” For the first time, it sounds like he’s trying to convince himself as much as the listener. To what end goes beyond being raw and honest about life, society or even hip-hop; it’s too busy dissecting the drive to do that in the first place.

Thematically, the album explores the nature of ambition and how far we will go to get what we want – a career, a relationship, peace of mind. As his work has become more refined, Oddisee has embraced being the rap game’s Sidney Poitier, an everyman who folds his own life experiences into flows that are as reminiscent of Kendrick Lamar’s wanderlust as Little Brother’s reverence. His writing was never restrained, but he was rarely so personal. Juxtaposed with the clean, peppy beats, his newfound openness makes some of these revelations uncomfortable, even jarring. “People Watching” is the most explicit of the bunch, taking an ax to forced politeness and ending with one of his most blunt confessions: “Became an entertainer to hide in plain sight…Rim is without a filter, in real life I keep it quiet. / I feel like I’ve said enough, it’s time to step back on the mic.” But gentler moments cut the deepest. Inspired by his first ever therapy sessions, “Many Hats” doesn’t shy away from talking about burnout at work and panic attacks; “Choices” confronts the uphill battle of avoiding your parents’ mistakes. It’s not particularly theatrical, but it’s the closest we’ll get to seeing him on the ropes.

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