I will be frank: I am not an expert connoisseur of nerdcore. Though I do sometimes find myself enjoying the musical flavorings of Mega Ran, Lex the Lexicon Artist, and others, this creative subgenre of hip-hop has never found its way into my regular listening. Exploring a rich tapestry of niche references is wonderful fun, but it also can create pause. This is the delicate game we play as artists, and it is true of any subgenre. However, I think nerdcore is uniquely… well, unique. This is a major appeal, and once one does their necessary research, they are rewarded with a barrage of clever and intricate references they do not hear very often.
Why is this disclaimer important? Today’s review centers on Swell Rell, Tampa’s self proclaimed “nerdcore Kratos” (Order 66). In fact, Rell takes a direct approach and makes it very clear where he stands, telling listeners: “ya’ll gonna have to see me, nerdcore” (Crown Me).
Rell plants his flag firmly in Crown Me, practically demanding listeners see him at the top of the ladder. As the title suggests, it is here Rell makes his claim to the throne. Whether he is claiming to be the king of nerdcore or the king of hip-hop is ambiguous. What’s crystal clear is that Rell IS a king when it comes to the rapid fire simile. In this song, and throughout the album more broadly, listeners are constantly moving from one simile to another, sometimes so fast that it is difficult to keep up. This is one of those times that I wish I had the lyrics to the album so that I could count the total number of comparisons, because I would. I imagine the number is staggering. Rell’s come so quick that listeners must pay attention every second. One quick moment of distraction and you have missed two or three similes. Though I personally think this style would benefit from a more layered building of metaphor, there is absolutely no arguing the intense skill it takes. There are hundreds of thousands of rappers on this planet, and many of them simply cannot do what Swell Rell does. To just come up with so many similes is a major accomplishment. To have them all make sense and fit within the confines of a song or verse is another step entirely.
One thing Rell could improve on is a narrower performance of concept. To explore this, we need to look at Order 66, the second song of the album. In a song called Order 66, wherein the hook emphasizes Order 66, I would expect the lyrics of the song to emphasize things like Star Wars references, ideas of treason, or things related more directly with the title. Instead, the closest relation is two lines in the hook: “I’m a bad boy, you ain’t messin with this Sith. I’m killin’ all y’all motherfuckas, Order 66.” We have references to “nerdcore Kratos,” and “Nerdcore Bezos,” which are great in their own right, but they seem detached in this particular song. There is no unifying factor within the lyrics;l because thematically, it is extremely broad. The only connection I can find is that Order 66 would, if successful, kill the Jedi, and here Rell is “killing” other rappers.
The polar opposite is true for Do or Do Not (The Yoda Rap). Everything from the wordplay to the cadence relates back to Yoda, introduced by the title, even going so far as to add impersonations between verses. This is the level of emphasis I prefer. Every piece of the song cooperates with the other.
Skipping forward to More Geek than Street (Remaster) brings me to my second suggestion, and this is not exclusive to Rell: repeatedly reminding listeners that you are part of a niche genre, no matter what it is, comes off as trying to convince the listener rather than believing it. This is especially true when you write lines like “Yeah I’m nerdcore but also fuck your labels” (More Geek than Street) This line is especially contradictory because until this point, Rell has put consistent focus on the identifying with and being part of this label. The self-identification is important in the overall conversation, but it’s overemphasized. This is the same advice I would give any rapper who continually points out their affiliation. For example, if a rapper spent time calling himself a gangster, it would have the exact same effect. It is clear, based on song titles, concepts, and lyrics, that Rell is a nerdcore rapper. It does not need to be said, much less in several songs.
The artwork of the album could be better, but it could definitely be much worse. There is a direct correlation between the title and the imagery, which is always an effective strategy (le Funambule is a sweet/dessert buffet in Bruxelles, Belgium). The picture, a diagonal photograph of the restaurant, is well shot. By itself, just the picture is impressive. The green hue works as a natural highlighter, and it appears to be an attempt at creating a colored theme. However, I am not a fan of the font itself or the choice of green. The text of the title and name create friction with the embedded text in the picture, and the color does not match the lighting. This disconnect makes the album art too busy.
I wish I knew the connection between the album and this particular choice of food, no matter how tangentially related. This is the risk we take when naming our albums and songs— sometimes listeners are not going to get it. This does not negatively impact the album in the slightest from my perspective, but knowing that information would benefit it. I will say that it made me think, which is a lot farther than other album names take me. The relationship or lack thereof made me focus on it.
Another great thing about Swell Rell? There are not many rappers who sound like him. Originality is a category I take very seriously, and it is one of the greatest gifts a rapper can have. Could Rell be more complicated with his cadence or flow? Sure. Could he be more intricate with his rhymes? Everyone can. What is more important, in my estimation, is the question “Could Swell do anything to stop sounding like other rappers?” The answer is no. Perhaps it’s because I do not listen to nerdcore, but listening to this album now, I cannot think of a single rapper Rell could be mistaken for.
Will I relisten to this album? Absolutely. With the sheer volume of interesting similes combined with topics I am unfamiliar with, I foresee that I will be examining this album with a fine tooth comb. There is much to be gained in listening to an artist and learning, which is something Rell forced me to do throughout this review.
Is this album for everyone? No. But do not let this dissuade you from taking a careful listen. The truth is, no album is for everyone, and that should not be an excuse. Even if you are not into “nerd” or “geek” material, this album has enough good content for any hip-hop fan to listen to, and you will be glad when you do.
You can listen to Belgian Waffles in Belgium on Spotify, YouTube Music, Pandora, Apple Music, iHeart, and Deezer.