A couple of years ago, a series of stickers proclaiming "Sean Price can fucking rap" started appearing around New York City. They were meant to help drum up support for "Mic Tyson," the Brownsville rapper's third official solo album, but more than anything they summarized Sean Price's singular appeal: the guy could fucking rap. He wasn't the most progressive artist in the game, and you'd never confuse the veteran MC for hip-hop's next superstar. But that didn't matter, because Sean Price could have rapped any MC under the table until the very day he died. If there's one thing you should know about the 43-year-old Brownsville rapper who passed away over the weekend, that's it.
It's hard to overstate the impact that Sean Price had on hip-hop. In many ways, Price was a bridge between old and new school New York hip-hop. It's hard to imagine rappers like Joey Bada$$, Action Bronson, Heems, or Mr. Muthafuckin eXquire—all of whom paid their respects to Price on Twitter over the weekend—would have had the lanes they did without Price creating them. Throughout his career, which started with him rhyming as Ruck in the acclaimed Boot Camp Clik-affiliated duo Heltah Skeltah and extended across the underground supergroup Random Axe and a robust solo output, Sean P stood apart. He meshed a hard-headedness with an open-minded sensibility that's all too rare in hip-hop. Unlike many of his peers, he had no problem with being silly or making fun of himself: watch this video of him trying to sell a potato to Pawn Stars' Chumlee if you need further proof of that. Though Price never achieved a massive global following, his skills increased with age, and it was through the pure power of his pen that he remained relevant in the genre, even as the New York underground he repped found itself jockeying for attention with dozens of other iterations of hip-hop bubbling just below the mainstream.
One of the problems with hardcore rap is that, much like any niche of any genre, a certain sensibility or appreciation of context is often required in order to grasp its true appeal. With Sean P, that was never a problem: his music rewarded casual listens as much as it did close readings. Though tightly written bars tumbled from his mouth like tongue twisters, his raps were never the type that required an appreciation of technical skills to enjoy. Instead, he made "lyricism"—often a skill in hip-hop that, much like guitar needling, can feel corny or needly pursued over the principle of "making enjoyable music"—sound dynamic and vital, full of personality and energy. He sounded less like a rap technician (though he certainly was that) and more like somebody's drunk uncle who just so happened to have picked up a microphone, and also happened to be the insult comic Don Rickles.
Pretty much any Sean P verse contained at least a couple lines that were laugh-out-loud funny, and a couple more that sounded like clever tongue-twisters, lifted straight out the gutter. Often, he combined these traits. Consider Jesus Price Superstar's opening track "Like You," which found Sean rapping, "Wu-Tang Clan ain't nothin' to fuck with / Boot Camp Clik ain't nothin' to Wu-Tang." His eye for detail was impeccable, his drum-tight verses packed with observations such as, "Fourth of July, Jamaican n—gas rockin' corduroy shorts" ("One Two Y'all") or, "Sean gone, no Chandon, Sean is a don, I don't wear Sean John / Army suit blackberry brandy is long johns" ("Figure Four"). Sean P had enough charisma to call someone an "onion head" and have it sound like a grave insult rather than a schoolyard taunt.
Sean Price was an avowed fan of comic books, and at his best, he made you feel like a regular dude could be a superhero on wax. He took the core of Sean Price the man and blew them up into Sean Price the rapper. He was capable of speaking essential truths about a genre that was too often caught up in needless squabbling: "I think that's the problem with some of these rappers now," he once said to The Smoking Section. "They worry about their street cred and they should be worrying about their fuckin' skills. Just because you shot somebody, or you was in jail and did this that and the third, that don't automatically make you a dope rapper. That make you a fuckin' criminal."
Price innately understood that the core of hip-hop's never-ending authenticity debate did not hinge upon arcane technicalities like who busted which gun on what block. Instead, he taught us that hip hop was mostly about making art that reflected essential truths of the guy making it.
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