Even in this day and age, where album sales mean littler than ever, many rappers will consciously give chase to an outmoded definition of stardom. But Chiraq rhymesmith Twista is past the point of the blind leading the blind. The Speedknot Mobsta—nicknamed that for his effusive, quick-paced cadence—is one of hip-hop’s most self-possessed practitioners, making music on his own terms. Twista has plenty cake, but he’s never really gone for the brass ring, commercially speaking. (Without question, he was David to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s Goliath in their feud years ago.) His fondest-remembered hits, like “Get It Wet” and Do or Die’s “Po’ Pimp,” were funk/gospel hybrids that mined the Chicago soul music he grew up on. In doing so, they bestrode the transnational plasticity of commercial hip-hop.
Twista’s daring and refusal to compromise have always set him apart. On 1997’s Adrenaline Rush, he gave shiny-suit rappers a tongue-lashing in perhaps the most entertaining flow since Fu-Schickens. Now a tenured pimpology professor, Twista has still yet to mellow at the relatively ripe age of 40. He drops ample science on the seven-song Back to the Basics EP.
“Intro (Freestyle)” starts things off with anticipatory trumpets and nightmarish pianos. Although less than three minutes in length, the track makes as strong a case as any for Twista’s parabolic flair and singular breadth of knowledge; he weaves together seemingly disjointed references (W.E.B. Du Bois, Socrates, the ’60s rock hit “Age of Aquarius”) in his trademark “intergalactic flow.” “Beast” is a scholastic doozy with Canibus-style rhymes about astrology and quantum physics. It’s not everyday that a street-certified MC schools the young’uns on the niceties of the Periodic Table.
Twist blacks the fuck out on “Ferocious,” rapping in triple-time over the Legendary Tracksta’s eruptive violins. “Swagga Like a Dope Boy,” meanwhile, is a haunting, naturalistic portrayal of Chicago trap life on par with Dayton Family’s “79th and Halsted.” “Them Windy City dreadheads / Will spray up your house and leave your bed red / Lay out your casket with your bedspread,” warns the North Lawndale native. A decade and a half after Adrenaline Rush’s “Korrupt World,” Twista still raps with stomach-turning detail.
Any product of those terroristic West Side streets will come by hyperactivity naturally, but Twista does have an off switch: Back to the Basics slows to a seductive crawl on for-the-ladies cuts like “Put It Down.” “Just Like That,” with its finger snaps and malleable funk percussion, is a clement callback to 2004’s babymaking Kamikaze. Compared to the moonlit Kanye collabo “Overnight Celebrity,” though, this newer batch of girl songs is somewhat stiff and lacking. “Want My Love” has a Codeined-out, Auto-Tuned hook from Future wannabe DJ Victoriouz that does it no favors—if nothing else, Twista has lost his ear for slow jamz.
There’s a certainly a shortage of radio fodder on Back to the Basics: the hooks are modest, the beats conservative. Technique is Twista’s weapon of choice and foremost priority. We listen to the Rust Belt legend for stuttery but graceful thickets of rhyme, verses that wind like a labyrinth and smoke like black powder.—M.T. Richards