After years of shaky traveling down the rocky road to fame, spirit-filled Jamaica Queens, New York emcee Grafh (Philip Bernard) is now starting to see the wheels of his career moving faster than before. On and off labels since the early 2000s, Grafh has seen his fair share of letdowns and has paid his dues to get to where he is now. His mixtape-history is pretty rich while that of his studio albums is not, but if recent trends persist, that’s bound to change. In 2007, he released his Autografh LP on Blackhand Entertainment, and just this month, on the 15th, he dropped his sophomore, Pain Killers: Reloaded, with Stage One Music. Grafh’s grown quite a good bit since his younger days. He is still a product of the earlier turn-of-the-century hip-hop gangsterism, but his authentic rhymes and crispy delivery are still intact and more than a few times on this offering he drops some serious science, kicks accurate knowledge and facts, and spreads life-changing wisdom and edifying enlightenment. Therefore, parts of PKR are no doubt helpful in these potentially blinding, damaging times.
The smart, realized and mature portions are evident, but it’s a little too bad that the typical, wild-out gangster sections are so detrimental to the album’s health. Fans might let a small sum of these notes slide, but it’s confusing how Grafh can one moment be rapping about the modern day system controlling people and then whip up the coke and go in on expensive, overpriced goods the next. When he’s not being wise, Grafh embodies quite a few adjectives: gritty, braggadocious, cool, stylish, hard and even real. Several spots have him hurling street code and throwing ghetto mud with super charged lines that are only as good as the integrity of his subject matter. Some of his lyrics are downright clever and crafty, especially when he’s paired with a peer or out to make a statement, but they tend to regress when he subverts his power by chanting uninventive hood scripture. Now is a good time to mention the guests, and for the benefit of the project and because they’re all pretty damn good, no names should be left off the roll call. Styles P, Loaded Lux, King Charlton, Royce Da 5’9”, Wiz Khalifa, Jadakiss, Shalone, Melissa B, Bun B, Sheek Louch and Jarren Benton are obviously from varying eras but really help boost PKR‘s substantiality.
At the top and bottom is great intelligence with a plummeting free-fall into love in the middle and hustling g-sh*t filling out all the spaces in between, and there are many – the runtime is a plump hour and twenty minutes. Grafh criticizes narcissistic people plus those who go against family and disses Young Thug in “Lord of Mercy,” describes death, parting with loved ones, and how life is usually hard in “Life Goes On” and warns of TV and media dangers plus religious dogma control in “Still Pray.” He gets the opportunity to firm up a romantic bond, make it work and enjoy falling in deep love in back-to-back songs “Stay” and “The Greatest.” The sunset of the album has another solid trifecta of tracks, just like those at the beginning. Motivation and wisdom are great hallmarks of “Slow Down,” despair from being constantly plugged into the system is the theme of “Feel Again” and the fight to live right and do good despite speed-bumps fulfills the mission of “Angels.”
A half-and-half album with an equal balance of good and bad, PKR sees Grafh marching on in life and work, not galloping or sprinting, just marching. He is fortunate to have been given aid from all the great features, and from the producers, who have made a series of sound-foundations with moods that are very well in-sync with Grafh’s changing tone throughout. The beats are B-grade, and their mediocrity is offset by a large quantity of them, eighteen total. If the music-making had been stepped up, it would have faired better for the LP’s overall prospects, but Grafh might have been working with a limited budget and a small close network of connections. Basically, there are a handful of awesome, people-empowering spots that try to but can’t outshine the many more stereotypical gangster moments on the disc. Grafh’s lyricism has remained relatively sharp over the years, and he benefits from the help of many big names so Pain Killers: Reloaded is a step forward, though maybe not a very big one, for him.