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MSQ Review: Sneeze - "River City Demos"

Before 2020 freed me from my office prison and made life feel just a little more precious and finite... I was living under a rock. My excuses included, “I’m in my 30’s,” “I have kids,” “I’m too busy at work,” etc. I was also parroting the age-old narrative of “Richmond is for haters” (if you’re from here or spent any time around the scene, you’ve heard some version of this a million times) “Even if someone is crazy hot, he/she won’t have the unified support in the 804 to make it happen.” I was living under a rock in Richmond-Rap darkness.

Even when I was living under a rock, the sunshine that is Sneeze shined through.

It was sometime in 2018-- I obligatorily attended a friend’s gig. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see my boy Corb the Don perform, he’s a great artist –and he’s my boy! But I was not looking forward to sitting through other acts I was sure I would not care about. You know how a “showcase” can be if you’re not fully into it. That night was the first time I saw Sneeze.

As the first couple acts did their thing, was simultaneously supporting the artists performing while building new or nurturing already existing relationships with everyone in the room. That takes finesse, especially for someone not yet out of high school. I wondered “Who is this dude?” I didn’t have to wait long to find out; he hit the stage early in the show.

Sneeze had plenty of energy that night, but he had something else that is extremely uncommon for anyone, but especially a teenager--- poise. Halfway through the set, the sound fucked all the way up and completely cut out except for Sneeze and the microphone. This is the type of shit that can break a young emcee. No problem for this kid. He ripped it and rocked the crowd with nothing but bars and God-given charisma. I was impressed and I could tell I was not alone in that.

Truthfully, I was already awakening out of my local indie Hip-Hop slumber at that time and preparing to move out from beneath my rock, but the excitement of a FUTURE in Richmond rap instead of that same-old woe-is-us narrative sped up the process for me greatly. I have thanked Sneeze for this.

In the years following this first encounter, Sneeze proved myself and his many believers completely right in our belief. He has delivered a steady stream of excellent music including popular, acclaimed singles like 88, Detached, EDD Girl, EP’s like Yea, Number 4 EP, countless features, and even a full-length album in 2020 called Self Titled. Bro has been nothing if not prolific and has caught the eyes and ears of every significant Hip-Hop figure in the area. Chances are if you name them, Sneeze has worked with them. I don’t mean to suggest that Sneeze has zero haters—everyone doing it right has them, and Sneeze is no exception.

He represents a shift in the culture and in that same spirit we’re going to focus on the love. Sneeze is no longer a hunch—he’s an institution. While his sound is very cohesive, I think he’s united a lot of sub-genres of Richmond rap in support of him because he can’t be boxed in. He doesn’t make backpack rap…and yet he does. He doesn’t make trap shit, but he can and has. He doesn’t make pop stuff, but he makes pop stuff. He is equally reverent and unafraid of the old heads. He seems both firmly entrenched in his own generation, and yet floats above it. He is one of the most humble and confident people I have ever met. Sneeze is an enigma—and one we seem to all be here for.

Admittedly, this has been a very long intro to an album review. But I promise it’s been on purpose and on-brand because even though he has achieved so much for a man in his early 20’s, it has all felt, much in part due to his own rhetoric, like everything up to this point has been an intro to the much anticipated, River City Demos. The album is now streaming everywhere. It's physically for sale and currently in my CD player. Yes, I still have one.

The intro, HOLLYWOOD TO HIGHLAND PARK, immediately strikes you as vast in sound. It matches the scope of the scene that Sneeze has set for us in waiting for this project. This album feels like a major release, so it's only right that the first song sounds cinematic. As the title so aptly alludes to, he’s about to take you through the Hollywood soundscape right back to where he's from with his one-of-a-kind flow. There’s a theme introduced here that permeates throughout the work about Sneeze’s fear of figuratively drowning in the river (Richmond) before he makes it to the ocean of the success he envisions metaphorically represented by sunny California.

Please note—I’m not going to go crazy with this man’s quotables because frankly, we’d be here all day. Unlike many artists, the most appealing thing about Sneeze is that EVERY bar packs that punch. “River City Demos” has carefully curated and lavish soundbeds to be sure-- but make no mistake, the star of the show is the intention this artist puts into every lyric.

The second song on the album, KELLY SLATER, is one that in recent months has garnered the most

excitement from Sneeze himself. He recently released a video for this joint and you can view MSQ’s Blue Series for this song by clicking here. It’s definitely a wavy track and true to the song’s namesake, our narrator more or less promises to navigate his “waters” with the same skill and style that Kelly Slater did in his heavily decorated surfing career. Longtime Sneeze fans will enjoy the callback to his “Grandad’s Sweater.”

OUTSIDE features a smooth hook from South Side Yoko and in the song’s second verse (my personal favorite on the project) Sneeze begins saying “I don’t know what I wanna be, just don’t wanna be sorry…” and continues later “…my body of work gon’ last longer than my body. When I body a verse, mp3s for autopsy,” and finishes, “…got a war inside. And outside still fucking crazy. So if I lose my mind it's ok, I do it on the daily.”

FADER is where Sneeze begins to flex his versatility. There’s no escaping his very distinct voice. This is a cadence we haven’t heard from Sneeze before and this beat will remind you more of New Orleans bounce than typical Cali or VA sounds. He relaxes his typically deep content here and trades it in for a tactful, humorous take on curbing a thirsty girl that’s not about to help him on his journey.

DURLEY is the next track and the second single from the album. Sneeze lets us in on some serious

vulnerability about halfway into this trip from Hollywood to Highland Park, but he brushes it off in the second half of the song breaking into his trademark joyful exuberance flow where you can literally hear the smile on his face. He’s broken into this tone previously on past songs like EDD Girl and it's something that really sets Sneeze apart. I’m no anime expert (Sneeze is) but it reminds me of how those stories often break up their serious tones along the protagonist’s quest with montages of tearful laughter in light moments (you know the face ^o^ )—the preservation and extension of these moments, after all, are typically the motive for heroes. Sneeze rides the happy flow through the second half of DURLEY all the way through the extremely upbeat STAY WITH ME. The album’s 6th song is the most experimental and hard to assign a genre. It’s a familiar refrain; trying to coax a girl to stay, but he makes it sound brand new. And while he’s tinkering with the sonic nature of the album, he keeps the theme going, as ironically he seems to leave the lovers’ moment himself in favor of continuing his pursuit of success. If DURLEY and STAY WITH ME represent a climb up the mood mountain, the next track 804 GET AWAY represents a still happy, but steady descent back to earth. The transition between these three songs is seamless. This is musicality, intention, and attention to detail at its finest.

We’re back on solid ground and definitively back in Virginia with the Rep! produced and hooked,

“CREASED FLAVS.” This somber track is my favorite on the album because it packages pieces of

Richmond culture into a very digestible bite and remains very personal and cohesive with the theme of the album. Gio Genesis offers an amazing melodic verse in a baritone that is beautiful and perfectly compliments the well-known chemistry that Sneeze and Rep! have. Maybe sensing too much comfortability in his hometown, once again Sneeze’s fear of drowning returns on “HIGHWATER” with a down-beat yet infectious hook that showcases some of the increasing gravel in Sneeze’s voice that is quite effective in relaying his pain. It appears Sneeze outlasts the quiet storm making it to “CITY OF RIVERS” where he finally makes peace with his struggle and looks ahead to its conclusion. That moment of clarity is put on hold by “Family Drama” (isn’t it always? Very relatable.) This song was the introductory single from the project and featured a well-received video in Sneeze’s signature aesthetic. It’s placement at the end of the album, breaking the narrative and leaving the result of Sneeze's LA/RVA odyssey a mystery—is an epic cliffhanger and makes total sense for setting up a sequel.

Batman Begins was dope. On its own, it could probably be considered a classic movie, but its

ultimate legacy was that it perfectly set up what most regard as the greatest superhero movie of all

time, The Dark Knight. I had a hunch about Sneeze four years ago (as many did) when he was just a kid-- and it turned out to be true. I expected a dope album with River City Demos; something that could be considered a classic. He delivered. But I have another hunch. I think the next chapter and the results of the cliffhanger he left us on are being lived out now and for the foreseeable future. When Sneeze decides to tell us the rest of what happened it will be THE masterpiece that puts this masterpiece in full perspective.

Without looking too far ahead though, I want to congratulate all the producers on this album- Rep!,

Vzns, Joemade, M. Millz, Wetgropes, and any other contributors for creating such a cohesive canvas that Sneeze could flex his skills and weave such an intricate story on. As for Sneeze, as he says himself in the first words of 88… “Fuck Congratulations, I just do what I’m sposed to…” – he did what he was supposed to do here and we can’t wait to see what’s next. To stay in tune with his movement follow him on all social media platforms and stay glued to The MSQ Shop for more in-depth reviews of independent Hip-Hop’s biggest, best releases.

Written by: @itskirbs804

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