It has been almost exactly one year since I first met Gabriel Stark in person, the fresh-faced Bronx native with an eager attitude and subtle humbleness. We met in John Paul Jones Park in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn during CMJ Music Marathon, a calm day that perfectly emulated Stark’s relaxed demeanor, the same demeanor he carries through to his music. It was this first meeting that clarified how I would translate Stark’s music, as I fully understood the mentality of him as a musician, his striving passion to push forward without losing humility. He never misses an opportunity to progress, consistently experimenting and releasing new material, even recently wrapping up his first headlining tour throughout the East Coast of the States. Stark brings this passion and drive to his latest album, GATSBY, his second album of the year following January’s Starky F. Kennedy. The 10 tracks he delivers here draw from throughout hip-hop’s existence, blending old styles and new, nostalgic cuts followed by more electronic-focused tracks; Stark manages to juxtapose varying styles through consistent, socially conscious lyrics and top-notch production.
Lyricism has always been an important aspect of Gabriel Stark’s approach to music, with an intense focus on conscious lyrics that blend seamlessly with “dope ass beats”. As soon as GATSBY begins, our ears are met with a sound clip from 2004’s Daniel Craig-starring Layer Cake, the beginning of album opener “CAKE”. The clip instills a sense that Stark won’t be slowed down by the shit that life throws his way, instead delivering pulsating beats and slick verses. Right from the onset, “CAKE” hits hard. A raucous combination of pounding drums and brash horns, the song keeps your heart racing from start to finish. Following “CAKE” is the aptly named “Icing”, which ironically goes in a vastly different direction from the former. Sampling the Chordettes’ 1958 hit “Lollipop”, Stark’s interpretation is actually pretty damn good, a chill take on the upbeat original.
Great (individual) song pacing and solid production are skills that Stark continues to impress with, but GATSBY does pose one issue, that being the rapper’s juggling of influences and styles throughout the entire album. Each song embodies various aspects of hip-hop, past and present, such as “Melrose and Courtlandt”, which draws on West Coast hip-hop of the early-to-mid ‘90s, or the College Dropout era Kanye West-inspired “Danielle’s Song”. Next to that, though, are more electronic-leaning tracks, with “Lemonade Stand” being a fitting example. The song has a grimy, synthesizer-heavy production throughout, with an eerie atmosphere and sparkling notes dotting the soundscape. While each of the album’s ten songs are impressive on their own merit, the overall pace of the album is thrown off by the ever-changing style from song to song.
Despite the pace of GATSBY as a whole being off-kilter, Stark’s lyrics and the quality of his production make each song impressive in themselves. This is where his progression as a musician—in his lyrical style and production techniques—has paid off, as his passion truly comes out here. “Rumble Young Man Rumble”, for example, has Stark delivering heavy-hitting verses, one after the other, amidst a slick, New Orleans-inspired beat, carried along by rhythmic guitar riffs and an underlying, funk-laden bassline. “Kiddie Pool” is another moment where Stark’s production shines, sampling Cold War Kids’ chilling “Hospital Beds”. Stark uses the song to incredible advantage, grafting Nathan Willett’s vocals and piano keys seamlessly into this mellow, hip-hop soundscape. More than that, though, the lyrics evoke a sense of a more mature Stark, who is further learning from and examining the world—“I made a promise to my momma how I’d find a way one day”—and still learning from it.
This learning is what the whole album, inconsistent overall pacing aside, exemplifies, and what Stark continues to impress with. He is learning, every day, but what sets him apart is his insistence on utilizing what he learns. With every release, his production improves, as do his lyrics, yet he does so without an arrogant attitude found in many rappers. He strives to improve, all the while with a refreshing passion and reserve, pushing forward but capitalizing on the lessons learned from every previous experience. GATSBY represents the progression of Gabriel Stark as a person and a musician, his desire to take every opportunity and grow while understanding and respecting the past. From start to finish, the album is, through his lyrics and the influences present in each individual song, Stark’s way of exploring the history of hip-hop, a means of understanding how the genre is influenced by itself and other genres. GATSBY is a history lesson in itself, and Stark is your teacher.
GATSBY drops on October 31st, and below you can stream the lead single "Danielle's Song".
Recommended Tracks: "Melrose and Courtlandt", "Kiddie Pool", "Danielle's Song"
SCORE: 4.0 out of 5