Yes, Pro Era is a group of revivalist teenagers nostalgic for an era they never truly participated in. Thankfully, they never complain about how things have changed for the worse, instead proving the past’s superiority by adopting its sound and style with no concessions to the present. This is the hip-hop equivalent to kids in high school rocking Led Zeppelin shirts and playing Les Pauls. Thankfully, all of these kids can shred like no one’s business.
It’s common for people to gravitate towards a single member when they stumble upon a new rap crew. Sometimes this is because that member is pretty much the only thing the group has going for them (Earl Sweatshirt for Odd Future, and A$AP Rocky for A$AP Mob), but other times it's simply because people are lazy. As much as Pro Era’s most famous MC, Joey Bada$$, deserves the attention he’s getting, he is by no means the sole voice worth hearing. Every member of Pro Era that shows up on PEEP: The aPROcalypse can rap extremely well, and have approaches and styles as diverse as the generation of hip-hop that they emulate.
Outside of Joey Bada$$, Capital STEEZ* packs the most variety and star power. The two make a great team; Joey’s deep churning mumble serves as a fantastic foil for the high energy and excitable STEEZ. Cj Fly and Ala Sole serve as the group’s speedsters, supplying the shortest but most verbally dense verses on the tape. Cj Fly is the smoother of the two, his voice carrying a swing that’s equally reminiscent of Big L and jazz drummer Tony Williams. Ala Sole is closer to Raekwon’s mini-me, attacking each verse with unrelenting ferocity that occasionally seems out of place next to the jazz and soul tinged samples the Pro Era DJs supply. On the opposite end of the spectrum are Dessy Hinds and Dyemond Lewis, by far the most relaxed members of the crew. Lewis’s silky laid back flow in particular brings to mind the sound of early Outkast more than the technical east coast sound the rest of the crew favors. All of the MCs do share one flaw however, which is a lack of a coherent subject or message in their lyrics. This is somewhat excusable given that this is only a mixtape, but it is worrying that the two songs with consistent topics (“School High” and “Overseas”, dealing with smoking weed and girl problems respectively) are the ones with the most forgettable performances.
On the production end, Pro Era are much more homogenous. The beats here are direct descendents of the jazz and soul sampling creations of Lord Finesse, DJ Hi-Tek and DJ Premier. There’s plenty of scratching, warped vocal clips, electric piano and crisp swinging drums. Despite being deeply entrenched in this style, it’s unlikely that any of these beats could have been produced in the late 90’s. Instead they could only come about in retrospect, upon absorbing the totality of that era’s ethos and aesthetics and tunneling through the lens of hindsight. The only song that deviates from this is “Buns N Cheese” where skittering hi-hats and bass heavy half time sound a good 10 years younger than the rest of the material on the tape. As a result, most of the MCs sound utterly out of place and confused over the beat, except for Cj Fly, who jumps into a delirious triple time flow without batting an eye.
At its worst, this mixtape is a collection of solid verses over beats that actively avoid innovation, but at its best it’s one of the best cases for revivalism in the hip-hop sphere. But beyond being technically adept nostalgia slingers, Pro Era also capture the joy of hanging around on a stoop during the summer while your friends trade verses. There’s a great moment on “Vinyls” where Nyck Caution leaps into a freestyle after finishing his written lines before falling apart into giggles after a few bars. With all of the darkness in the modern hip-hop scene, it’s important to remember that spontaneous moments of joy like that are still valuable.
*Four days after the release of this mixtape, STEEZ tragically passed away at the age of 19. I didn’t want to discuss this in the body of the review because I feel it is more important to celebrate the achievements and creativity of a young artist. To me, it would be offensive to let his death stain this release, and STEEZ’s work in general. My thoughts and condolences go out to his friends and family.