Look. Hip-hop has devolved into a circus of mildly talented rappers with over-inflated egos giving shout-outs to themselves and their earnings. Up-and-coming acts often make the lyrical mistake of either following in those footsteps before they’ve actually earned anything to brag about or running in the opposite direction with deep, philosophical bars about social injustice. Fortunately, seventeen-year-old Dillon Carmichael, operating under the stage name Duo, has released Empathy, an album for those hip-hop fans who neither want to think too little nor too much.
Empathy is a pseudo-concept album, on which each track is meant to convey a different piece of Carmichael’s emotional spectrum. The first half of the album represents the negative emotions (Regrets, Sadness, Pity, Envy, Anger, Lust, and Heartbreak), while the latter speaks to more positive sentiments (Love, Hope, Curiosity, Nostalgia, Happiness, and Ecstasy). The two halves are separated by “Nana’s Interlude” and capped off by “Lessons Learned,” a spoken outro in the vein of “Last Call” from Kanye West’s College Dropout. The negative tracks on this album are where Duo’s lyrical self-deprecation can truly shine (“Is that what you wanted to hear? I’m self loathing/Hoping that people don’t know I’m a sheep in wolf’s clothing”), and it’s this honest humility that will draw in those of us who are tired of choosing between egotistical club jams and overly-political hip-hop missives when we browse the genre’s current offerings.
Sonically, Duo takes cues from Joey Bada$$ and the rest of the young Brooklyn hip-hop crew Pro Era. His flow is paced and articulate, and his punch lines are not over-emphasized. An admitted Kanye fan, Duo’s beats pay homage to classic ’90s hip-hop with occasional elements of the modern wave of hipster rap weaved in. Tracks like “The Truth (Regrets),” “Anything But the Rain (Sadness),” and “The Bay (Anger)” are a few of the record’s clear-cut standouts in these areas.
While Empathy is undoubtedly an impressive release, especially from such a young artist, it is not an entirely flawless album. The positive half of the album lacks the emotional depth and honesty that make the negative tracks so engrossing. The record might have been better served by a shorter selection of emotions, too, as the interest begins to wane in the late minutes of the album. In terms of production quality, Empathy is not the gold standard, and neither are the album’s many guest vocalists or Duo himself when it comes to performance. There are also some strange sampling choices, with audio clips from Good Will Hunting, a Dave Chappelle interview, and conversation between the Disney characters Goofy and Donald Duck. While the thoughts expressed by these samples may be true to the lyrical themes of the songs they appear in, the voice quality of the characters speaking does not always blend with the track in question. However, at the end of the day, this is an appropriate representation of Duo’s lyrical modus operandi, which is why Empathy is better than the sum of its flaws. Honesty at all costs, no matter how it sounds.