(Context: Former Blazer Martell Webster released a mixtape called ARTT. You can listen to it here. I said I would review it, and I’m a man of my words. So here is my dead serious review of a basketball player’s mixtape.)
I think I should start by saying that I’ve always rooted for Martell Webster as a player. His inability to ever fully realize his potential as a Blazer due to inconsistency and seeming lack of confidence was always something I could relate to. I always thought a lot of his problems as a player stemmed from him seemingly being too smart for his own good. Or at least, the wrong kind of smart to be a great basketball player. It’s that same reason I actually had some real hope for his mixtape. Those same issues of overthinking things and being too self aware for your own good can often lead to compelling music.
All of which is why it’s disappointing to actually hear this mixtape. The whole thing is so devoid of a distinguishing personality or character that it’s just empty. Full of unwarranted advice, un-compelling hooks and cringe worthy lines like “cause even shit got taste” that it oscillates between annoying and tedious.
He tries to address issues, but they mostly fall flat. On “Irony of it all” he talks about people acting fake buddy buddy and asking him for money now that he’s back in town (there’s also a weird line about someone asking him how many famous people he’s had sex with, as if Martell Webster was such a big celebrity that he was hooking up with famous models/actresses). You think maybe he’ll say something about understanding where they’re coming from but he’s gotta do what’s best and feels right to him. Instead, his solution to it is “I really don’t care at all” (about their problems or wanting to be friends with him) which kind of just makes him sound like a dick.
On “Byrdi” he spends the first 40 seconds doing a half decent job of calling someone to action. He states “why are we so insecure?/we all scared to be who we are” and calls sunshine “the new grey,” and then implies that he counters this with “freedom in my speech.” He sounds like a bright spot in the middle of malaise and darkness. But then he almost instantly follows with “am I suicidal?/ cause I just took a few shots/ and I plan on losing thought on my next round?” Then he makes a bunch of connections to famous musicians who killed themselves (all done through the rap equivalent of a run on sentence). So which one is it? Is he self destructive or a savior? He says “the moral of this is to die living,” which is a nice sentiment, but doesn’t exactly match the story.
When he’s not talking issues, or balling it up, he’s sounding off on the haters. Who is hating on Martell Webster in 2016? I have no idea, and I’m not exactly sure he does either. He never gives any sort of specifics, so it feels a lot like him just trying to emulate what his favorite rappers do. I mean, making comments about the “haters” is a rap staple, so it makes sense he would go to that well, but without a public persona or any detail about said “haters,” it just amounts to filler.
There are pieces in here though that you can see potentially forming into useful musical tools. A few times throughout he uses the ad lib of “I’m new at this” in a way that is kind of a nice connecting thread throughout the mixtape, and not entirely unlike like Mick Jenkin’s “drink more water” from his The Waters mixtape. He’s also relatively slick tongued as lines like “A different type of (person) from the 2 0 6/’05 I went 6th/ but few know this” roll out smoothly and without the syllable mashing impatience you tend to see with people who are new to rapping (a la Childish Gambino). “I’m Ripe” would be a perfectly “eh, it’s fine” club song/chest beater if the hook wasn’t so accidentally gross. He talks a decent amount about Seattle, which is refreshing and leads to some relatable moments. You could see him establishing some sort of persona for the city in a way many rappers do for their home town down the road.
Overall, “Light One” might be the strongest song of the tape. if you can get past the first 50 seconds or so. At that point, the song blooms into a bit of an anthem for what Webster wants to be all about. He drops lines like “I’m probably different/ I’m proud to be different/ I’ve done come a long way/ I’m proud of the distance,” and finally tells a somewhat compelling story about his grandma giving him advice to avoid the path his uncle (who went to prison) went down. It also helps that he doesn’t do the hook.
Donald Glover is probably the best comparison for Martell at this point, if for nothing more than their similar career arcs. Both got into rapping after becoming well established in a different field. And because of this, both had their musical personas a bit warped by success in ways that up and coming rappers almost never do. It took Glover a few years to really become a musician, and not just an actor that’s not a terrible rapper, and I imagine Martell will have to take a similar path. So ultimately this is less of a real mixtape, and more of a growing pain on a public platform. We’re seeing a musician formed at a stage that is way earlier than we usually do. At this point, he’s an unshaped lump of clay that we only have a faint idea of what it will look like if it ever gets molded. By athlete-musician standards, that’s actually quite the compliment. By full time rapper standards though, his ceiling is probably a “I don’t hate this” guest verse on a Nacho Picasso song.
I give ARTT 3/8 basketballs on a scale of basketballs.