Given his lengthy arrest record, it seems as if Black Rob isn’t sure whether he wants to be a gangster or just play one on wax. But his latest album, Game Tested, Streets Approved, offers enough evidence of his lyrical talent to make a post-Bad Boy bid a worthwhile venture. Although only a handful of the tracks fully encapsulate the uptown/downtown dichotomy of Rob’s baller aspirations and the dirt he’s apparently willing to do to achieve them, the record reveals a rapper unencumbered by pop packaging and yet polished enough to actually win some well-earned mainstream recognition.
“Whoa,” Rob’s first and biggest single, arrived at a time when the Bad Boy sound dominated the airwaves, and even an edited version of the lyrics lent a sinister edge to the glamorous lifestyle he championed. On “Celebration,” the first single of Game Tested, Streets Approved, he conspicuously trades in “guns for them huge super-soakers,” and advertises shameless, Fresh Prince-style summer fun over sub-Kanye beats that are largely uncharacteristic of the rest of the album’s tone and content. Thankfully, tracks like “Welcome Back” and “Wanna Get Dough,” which recount similar spoils but acknowledge their cost, communicate significantly more while also managing to be interesting musically.
Meanwhile, he gets fully grimy on the cuts “Boiling Water” and “Up North,” the latter of which features a “Whoa”-style refrain at the end of each line, and then balances out their intensity with club-ready but street-credible party tracks like “Bumpin’” and “Sand To The Beach.” And even if he hasn’t quite figured out if he wants to be a radio-ready heavyweight or underground legend, he’s at least juggling the roles convincingly, coming across like an uneasy but effective combination of the glossy gravitas of Rick Ross and the scrappy inventiveness of Grand Puba.
Of course, he also preys on a tagline from the decidedly wholesome Kix cereal for the album’s title, which qualifies as one of the single least cool references in rap history. But it also sort of fits on a meta-textual level, because Game Tested, Streets Approved is simultaneously satisfying and bland – something that whets the appetite but really only readies you for larger musical meals. For his sake (and ours), let’s hope that Rob’s cooking up something special for his next record.