On a brisk Tuesday evening in Plaza Midwood, a line of eager folks eagerly craned their heads toward the front of the line at the door of Social Status, the neighborhood’s streetwear and sneaker hub. A casual observer might assume that such a large line, stretching back almost a full block to Fuel Pizza, would only gather for a highly anticipated sneaker release.
What else would drive that many people to wait outside on a cold January night? This line, however, was not packed with hypebeasts, but with fans of Charlotte rapper Reuben Vincent, eager to get an early ear on his anticipated debut album, Love Is War.
After the 22-year-old artist, who hails from east Charlotte, had to turn dozens of people away at the door for his preview listening party at beSocial, the creative hub and community space located inside Social Status, he decided he owed his fans a bit more. Vincent made a few calls and, on Friday, Jan. 27, he hosted Reuben Vincent & Friends, a concert and celebration of the new album with plenty of talented Charlotte performers in tow at Neighborhood Theatre.
While Reuben remained on stage for the duration of the event, he brought out performer after performer for two songs each. It was a spotlight on some of the city’s up-and-coming talent, as well as some familiar faces. Rappers Swank & Draft, soulful songstress Heather Victoria, R&B artist Cyanca, rapper Mavi and Dreamville rapper Lute all shared the stage with Vincent in front of about 500 fans — not bad for a show that was only announced two days earlier.
The excitement surrounding both release parties, from which more than 50 people were turned away due to capacity, matches the anticipation that has been accumulating for the release, Vincent’s first drop since his Boy Meets World EP in 2020.
Vincent temporarily shelved Love Is War — originally titled Eastside Sunset, but we’ll get to that — to sign to Roc Nation at year’s end 2021. After becoming the third North Carolinian emcee to sign to Jay-Z’s label, Vincent has been writing furiously, getting mentorship from some of hip-hop’s giants, and hitting the freestyle circuit like it was 1995.
Love Is War, the result of two years of intensive labor on the part of Vincent, is the emcee’s most personal release yet. Vincent eschews the name-dropping, rippity rap delivery of his earlier releases for a much more intimate take on love and relationships.
Whereas Vincent’s earlier records like “If I Die” (2020) consistently referenced his influences, only the first track on Love Is War, “Butterfly Doors,” retains this style. In a way, “Butterfly Doors” signifies the transition of Vincent’s style on this album, locating listeners in Vincent’s hip-hop universe with references to Snoop Dogg, Big Daddy Kane, LL Cool J, Ye, and many others.
It was at the behest of one of his mentors, Terrace Martin, that Vincent decided to drop this referential style and begin to write more personal records. Martin, who has written and played horns on storied records like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Dinner Party’s self-titled album, encouraged Vincent to get more intimate in his writing.
“When I talked to Terrace about playing him the album, he was like, ‘These records are dope … but the people want to know who you are.’ And when he said that, it made me just realize, like, yes, I’ve been showing people I’m such a great rapper. But I want people to know me first,” Vincent told Queen City Nerve.
He went into that interaction thinking the album, then-titled An Eastside Sunset, was nearly complete, but Martin’s feedback ignited a desire in Vincent to start over, rewriting many of his current songs and penning brand-new ones. Rather than an album detailing his career rise in Charlotte, Love Is War transformed into an exploration of the tumult of love and relationships.
To this end, after “Butterfly Doors” establishes the emcee’s return, “Geechie Suede” introduces a young man’s bravado that will lead to later relational trials. “I know you really want it baby/ I just gotta flaunt it baby/ I’m still out here calling all the shots,” Vincent boasts with a kind of soft-voiced, self-assured tone we hadn’t yet heard from him. “Geechie” is the kind of talk-your-shit record that you’d expect from a man who got a major record deal by the age of 21.
However, Vincent immediately complicates this tone in the following song, “Just Like a Dream.” The track is sonically expansive, featuring a hook sung by collaborator Ant Clemons and world-creating production from Taneruno and Christo. This track embodies the soft-burning intensity of desire: desire for a better life, desire for love, and desire for belonging. If “Geechie Suede” was like a young man talking his shit outside, “Just Like a Dream” meets that same man in his bedroom, examining the intensity of his hopes.
“Mon’e” follows this emotionally vulnerable meditation, introducing the oft-repeated trope of the seduction of money. Vincent personifies the pursuit of wealth in the form of a woman named Mon’e, having a conversation with her about her “pleasure principle” in the style of Kendrick Lamar’s personification of Lucifer as Lucy in To Pimp a Butterfly.
Up to this point in the album’s narrative, Vincent has established the dizzying pressures of finding love as a young emcee. He spends all but two songs of the rest of the album detailing the toxic cycles of love, desire, and loss. For Vincent, intimacy is clouded by the pursuits of money, fame, sexual desire, and a long-lasting love.
This cycle begins with “2ime Flies,” produced by 9th Wonder. Vincent, getting the chance to trade lines with Janet Jackson through the sample of her 1986 track “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun),” narrates how he and a hookup partner toyed with one another over time, using each other for the fulfillment of desire when there was a real connection to pursue.
Then, “Feb 13th” declares that heartbreak is the only result of this kind of gameplay in relationships. Vincent and labelmate Rapsody lament lost relationships, full of the kind of regret that would fill a lonely lover on the eve of Valentine’s Day. “We had a foundation that you just can’t make up with sex,” Rapsody sorrowfully reflects, “though I tried, I cried so much/ Mary J would be upset…”
Searching for a balm to calm the intensity of heartache, Vincent recruits LA rapper Reason to help him turn to the bottle on the next track. Vincent numbs the heartbreak on “Bottle Service,” encouraging himself not to “think about it/ just drink about it…”
The listener can hear this cycle spiraling out of control. And indeed, with help from Raleigh R&B singer Sonny Miles, Vincent shows that coping with loss in the bottle will lead nowhere on “Look What You Did.” Vincent wits with the intensity of pain as he tries to trust a new lover, “Cut the grass low, I’ll never judge your past though/ I’ve got a past that I hope you never ask for…” We hear the emcee grow in real time, learning the hard lesson that trust and vulnerability are mutually affirming pillars in the journey to finding true love.
That lesson, however, isn’t internalized for long, as the cycle begins again on the Andre Mego-produced “Trickin’,” in which emotional vulnerability is replaced by the kind of game playing that led to the regret in the first place on “2ime Flies.”
The album concludes with a search to break this vicious cycle in “Levi Jeans Interlude” and “Point of View,” produced by Vincent himself and Niko Oroc. It’s clear that, though Vincent is trapped in this cycle, by the end of the album, he’s looking for a way out. He’s trying to grow up and grow out of this toxicity.
Although some of the themes explored in the album certainly aren’t new, Vincent displays a virtuosity in album sequencing that seems almost anachronistic in the age of the shuffled playlist. The story coalesces, building toward the final introspective tracks. Vincent’s pen reflects an intentionality and work ethic that seems increasingly rare in the industry at large.
To this end, Vincent does an exemplary job of balancing his voice with his features — almost all industry stalwarts — which he attributes to the work he’s put in to build authentic relationships with his fellow artists.
“I think the reason why I still stand out voice-wise because I didn’t force none of these features,” Vincent reflected. “I didn’t sit in the office and ask, ‘Hey, can we go get this person.’ They all happened through pure relationships and pure organic love.”
Out of these pure relationships, the young emcee’s relationship to longtime Jay-Z engineer Young Guru is particularly remarkable. After Vincent accompanied Rapsody on a trip to L.A., he met Guru, and the two immediately clicked. Soon, Guru invited Vincent to stay in his extra bedroom.
“The place that Guru stays became my second home, and a place away from home that I can kind of get my mind right, kind of create, kind of getting a new feel,” he told Queen City Nerve.
Vincent lived as sort of a hip-hop monk, releasing himself from any “distractions” including substances, relationships, and other vices. ‘
Love Is War reflects the focus that Vincent found in LA, and the result is a finely textured, sonically complex, and emotionally vulnerable narrative that feels simultaneously old and new. Through this process — honing his craft, receiving laborious mentorship, and deep self-reflection — Vincent has found a voice that rings clear of many of his peers.
No longer can journalists and critics comment on Vincent’s youth and relative growth to contextualize his releases. Love Is War declares that the emcee is here. He has found a voice that is distinctly his. The only question is what he will do with it next.
Jeff Hahne contributed reporting to this story.
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