By Cameron Lee
April 12, 2023
Photo: Casha Mosley
Darren Clark, the Maryland-born rapper now based in Raleigh best known as Shame Gang, is quickly acclimating to the North Carolina hip-hop landscape. He boasts a refined production with keen lyricism on his latest album, Better Late Than Never, featuring an impressive cast of some of the state’s first-rate hip-hop and R&B talent.
Better Late Than Never starts like a daydream. The cinematic horns and ruminating keys set the tone for his most conscientious project to date. While on his 2021’s No Safe Haven, he was dealing with the tragic passing of his brother and mentor Manny, a revered rapper in the region, Better Late Than Never reveals more of his evolution.
“I felt like with No Safe Haven, I was overly transparent, you know, because I was inviting people into my pain, and I still deal with that pain. But I’ve learned to cope with it better,” Shame said. “And with this project, it’s just showing people that you can be yourself and still chase your dreams, even though you have to clock into a nine-to-five.”
Shame is extremely intentional with Better Late Than Never. It’s told from the perspective of a mechanic laboring through life’s traps and pondering a better life as a full-time “made it” rapper. While the story may seem like an Ice Cube-directed movie, this is Shame Gang’s real life, and it’s quite honestly a compelling listen that plays much like a film.
On the opening track, “Feel,” Shame speaks on life’s daily challenges and repeats the mantra, “hustle hard to get a mil, tell me how you really feel.” Then, an alarm clock disrupts the reverie as his “boss” humorously leaves a voice message advising him to “put the f*ckin’ mic down, and pick up a wrench.” With production by North Carolina saxophonist Juran Ratchford and the script voiced by longtime Little Brother music manager Mischa “Big Dho” Burgess on the track, the song and most of the album is weaved together by North Carolina’s hip-hop fabric.
But Better Late Than Never, which also features guest verses from Skyzoo, Smoke Dza, Lute, Rapper Big Pooh, Cyanca, Oswin Benjamin, and Kas Da God, is far from just a flex of Shame’s musical friends. He’s still dealing with his pain, reflecting, and seeking clarity in his life. Still haunted by the tragic loss of his brother on the dreary canvas of “Stones,” featuring the stirring voice of North Carolina’s Sonny Miles on the chorus, Shame is starting to find solace and a deeper purpose.
“I’m living his dream for me and him. It’s not just me right now. I feel like he’s still motivating me still, like he’s still here living through me,” Shame said.
The album isn’t all agony and mournful introspection though. “Million and One” is a booming track with Shame getting more off his chest, declaring his purpose is deeper than just money and fame.
Accompanied by seamless contributions by Charlotte rapper/singers Erick Lottary and DEVN (who are also featured on “Save You”), “Million and One” is a standout track, intricate with its hooks and vocal cohesion of the three proficient artists.
On “Ghetty Green,” Shame is in his pocket, rapping over the haunting track and “talking his shit,” conversing with his own sinister persona. He weaves through the fetching beat, showcasing his ability to switch his flow while staying focused on the target:
“Ain’t know way you can keep me boxed in, smoking on a quite a few top tens / You aim for the top and you cannot be modest, I know a few rappers who used to be mobbers.”
Better Late Than Never is held together by several comical skits that give the listener a glimpse into Shame’s life and perspective– from angry customers to fake cronies to the corporate office complaining and criticizing the burgeoning rapper. Rarely do we see this candid of a presentation in rap, but it paints a genuine portrait of an accomplished artist who still has to work to survive and maintain his music career. It’s refreshing and takes nothing away from the superb lyricism he exhibits.
The final song on the album, “Reasons,” utilizes a chipmunk soul sample on a triumphant track by DJ Pain featuring the talented Greensboro R&B/soul artist Vanessa Ferguson singing: “What’s the reason for it all [It’s my time now, watch me shine now] / I might as well keep pushing forward, because I want it all.” It details the reasons why Shame continues to push at such a frenetic but focused pace.
“Nowadays I pray through the pain, ’cause the ones you love can lead you astray / Moments that I’m with my son when I was carpooling, made me look at my life like a gun and start shooting.”
The reasons for Shame are quite simple. His family and relationships drive him daily to keep going, and his passion for rapping helps to heal the gaping scar from the loss of his closest confidant. But, for listeners of Better Late Than Never, the reason is simply because of his ability. With captivating bars over a thrilling selection of production by The Mercenaries, Scorpion Beats, Wonderlust Beats, RYU, and more, Shame displays lyrical prowess in his latest effort, rarely heard by independent artists. The theme of the album, Better Late Than Never, finds him always late to work, but on this project, he is always on time.
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Listen to Better Late Than Never by Shame Gang and watch the music video for “Get It Started,” shot and edited by Woosy.