Brooklyn native Harry Fraud doesn’t have the pop radio presence of the bigger Southern producers, but he’s become a recognized force in the Gothamist lane, working with New York rappers like French Montana, Action Bronson and a favored collaborator, the Harlem native Smoke DZA.
Brooklyn native Harry Fraud doesn’t have the pop radio presence of the bigger Southern producers, but he’s become a recognized force in the Gothamist lane, working with New York rappers like French Montana, Action Bronson and a favored collaborator, the Harlem native Smoke DZA. Fraud is a hip-hop classicist, spinning sample-based beats from jazz, soul and funk cuts, often over mellow, indica-drenched percussion. He handles all the production on the new DZA album, He Has Risen, assembling a deck of diamantine, jazzy cuts, the sort of beats that often get described as “dusty” but that glint and often dazzle when played.
Smoke DZA, a confident-if-scattershot rapper, has a history of being overtaken by his production. He announces on the opening track here that he’s done with being modest, and on the first couple of listens, it’s difficult to believe him. Everything about his approach, from the low-key mobster shoutouts on “Badabing’s Theme” to the consistent recitation of his smoker’s credentials, signals low stakes. The Harlem rapper’s go-to boast is calling himself Kush God, about the least ambitious superlative imaginable.
DZA’s low-stress attitude functions as a smokescreen, concealing the high quality of He Has Risen, which slowly sneaks up on you. There’s chaff here, though it’s buoyed by the cigar-lounge cool of Fraud’s beats. But on several songs, the Harlemite rises to a level we’ve not seen from him in previous runs, where he’s been content to stay in the lane of the alternately tough-talking and wisecracking stoner. On “The Plot,” he sheds that veneer for real poeticism, evoking a world of “card swipers” and “con artists” where criminality saturates the atmosphere. “Morningside Sunset” is driven by observation-laden bars layered over insolent sax lines, as DZA adds singular details (buying someone a prosthetic leg) to the familiar painting of a kingpin’s life. The closest DZA has ever come to this level of achievement was his 2014 album Dream.Zone.Achieve. But that project featured 21 tracks and almost as many producers. By contrast, He Has Risen is focused, digestible, and perfectly paced.
Make no mistake though; much of this stuff would fall flat without Fraud’s atmospherics. Squeaky brass lines on “Heard Dat” leave the track ringing in your head, while “It’s Real,” a collaboration with The Alchemist, fills negative space with a droning chorus of voices. DZA, like many latter-day New York rappers, is a mild eccentric steeped in too many traditions. Beats like these help him forget what he knows, stretching himself to stranger observations, to broader song concepts. The strange contours of Fraud’s beats on He Has Risen move him off the comfortable grid and onto new terrain.