By Tyler Bunzey
September 20, 2021
Photo: Bosh Novart
North Carolina’s hip-hop scene doesn’t have a singular sound. As a sonic country junction, the state’s hip-hop pulls from the various soundscapes of the genre and sutures them together in a collage that is distinctly Carolinian without committing to a set aesthetic. Little Brother blends New York lyricism with soul-stirring ‘60s and ‘70s R&B samples. DaBaby pulls heavily from Atlanta’s contemporary trap aesthetic, albeit with Carolina-based producers. Mavi’s lyricism is inspired by Black Arts Era poetry and registers in the key of Tribe-era jazz and soul samples. It all sounds and looks different. But it’s all Carolina.
Clifford Owens Jr., better known as OG Spliff sits in this crossroads, stylistically shapeshifting while retaining a thick, syrupy vocal delivery. PRE ROLL, the Winston Salem emcee’s newly released EP, engages Carolina’s experimentalist style through the concept of smoking weed with your friends while musing on life, love, and belonging. A mélange that melds the sounds of New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and North Carolina, PRE ROLL is Spliff’s tightest record to date and gestures towards an even better full-length project.
The EP’s production is certainly faithful to its title. The 21-minute project feels like you’re sitting in a neon-lit, smoke-filled room. Each song features a distinct aural character but retains a kind of “puff, puff, pass” feel as you move through the album. It’s as if the listener is the joint being passed around the room, and the eight tracks are eight people’s musings as the smoke hits their lungs.
Styles collide in this room. The EP’s quietude certainly pulls from the expected West Coast weed rap influences. However, it also meshes some of the cadence and sticky vocal drip of Houston with double-time rhymes inherent to the contemporary Atlanta scene. It’s got head-snapping, dusty Detroit drums with the hair-raising soul samples that could easily appear in any underground record from New York from the late ‘90s. These styles meet at Spliff’s feet in that red Carolina clay, and, brick by brick, he builds his sound out of it.
Spliff is able to use this sonic shapeshifting ability to stitch a wide array of artists seamlessly together on the project. Significantly, the first track and a 28-second interlude are the only records on which the emcee raps alone. His laid-back delivery on “free da blocc (big ol’)” gives way to Grizzy the Great’s growling verse of classic rap boasts. His almost-mumbled soft-spoken verse on “STILL” makes space for a playful Sonny Miles R&B interlude and an introspective verse from Lesthegenuis. His verse on “LUV ME” leads us to a verse from a fellow Salemite, TiaCorine, whose breathy, cocksure cadence lends her an effortless confidence. While he is able to hold space for these stylistically disparate features, Spliff’s voice is at the center of the EP. He serves as the host of PRE ROLL, as if he is inviting the features to come in, light up, and follow the vibe.
OG Spliff’s lyrical explorations are as wide ranging in content and form as his sound. PRE ROLL features talk-your-shit drug rap (“free da blocc (big ol’)” and “ST NICK”) alongside poignant reflection on what it means to represent his community (“MUD” and “baby boy”). In songs like “ST NICK,” he switches it up to explore the contradictions of the pursuit of happiness as the pursuit of cash, rapping “Money be the root / but you can’t have the good without the evil / that’s the truth.”
Amidst all of this variety, Spliff still showcases his lyrical acuity. Flexing his pen on tracks like “baby boy”: “I feel like Donnie Trump and the Coup / dead ties, none other / the Soul Rebel.” This line is a double entendre. On one hand, his music has the spirit of innovative Chicago horn player Donnie Trumpet (a frequent Chance collaborator) and the Oakland-based, revolutionary group The Coup. On the other hand, he’s playing on Trump’s support of the January 6 attempted coup on the U.S. Capitol to illustrate the violent intensity of his political conclusions. Either way, he’s self-proclaimed Marley-like Soul Rebel, activating his politics through the vessel of his music. In lines like these, his lyricism doesn’t necessarily form a distinct narrative or rap persona. Rather, he sits in the conflicting pressures of his desire to live a happy, free life in a social environment designed to prevent just that.
In PRE ROLL, Spliff straddles the past and present, innovation and tradition, joy and pain— a liminality that has almost always marked the cultural contradictions in the U.S. South. Rather than resolve those contradictions, he’s comfortable in the crossroads, ready to sit back, light a joint, and make something beautiful out of it.
Listen to the EP PRE ROLL by OG Spliff.