Rod Wave is an unabashed romantic, deploying a voice that blends airy pop melodies, emo yelps and guttural country rap idioms. On his fourth album, Beautiful Mind, the 22-year-old St. Petersburg, Florida vocalist gushes about love in a way that seems unusual for someone so closely identified with rap. “I don’t wanna be alone…don’t leave me alone,” he pleads anxiously on “Leave Me Alone.” He’s a complicated man, teetering between career ambition, melancholy introspection, macho aggression, and heartbroken sensitivity. And while he carefully avoids suicidal ideation, he’s aware that life is relatively short. “They say I’m crazy, I’m bipolar, I need some damn help/Why say forever if we gon’ die by our damn self?” he sings on “Sweet Little Lies,” all but admitting that the promise of living happily ever after is a myth.
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Of course, sensitive trap crooners have circulated in mainstream rap for over a decade, and Rod Wave’s growing catalog could be compared to any number of acts, dead and alive. Still, Rod Wave has managed to carve out a distinctive lane. He fully commits to the act of singing, eschewing Autotune effects and declining to flip back into a rapper’s cadence. If he still feels a part of the rap world, it’s due to subtle touches, like stacking his verses into hard, anguished thrusts on “No Deal,” where he claims, “I’m trying to ball, niggas trying to take my life,” and says he doesn’t feel comfortable without carrying a .45 automatic handgun. On earlier releases, he sometimes toggled between a soft mid-range croon and a thick, bluesy bellow reminiscent of Kevin Gates. The latter remains a prime inspiration: “No Deal” finds Rod Wave reminiscing about his youth as he sings, “I was just on the bus stop, getting higher than my brain/Headphones in, listening to Kevin Gates.”
Rod Wave’s major label work has served as emotional catharsis for a growing audience, and it’s not unusual to read online comments about people crying along as they play his music. His tough-yet-sensitive image feels substantive, and not just a kind of bland, Post Malone-like anomie. (Having said that, Rod Wave’s “Rockstar Heart” echoes Posty’s “Rockstar,” although the former questions a pills-and-thrills lifestyle instead of embracing it.) That sense of deeply informed passion not only emerges from his performances, but the varied musical references he and his producers deploy. A quiet storm radio interlude, “Pt. II,” samples K-Ci & Jo-Jo’s “Just for Your Love.” The opening of “Me vs. The World” kicks off with a slowed-down sample from the late Baton Rouge rapper Lil Phat’s “My Glock,” then dips into multiple references to 2Pac’s pre-incarceration classic Me Against the World. A handful of lyrics on “By Your Side” interpolate Plain White-T’s emo ballad “Hey Delilah.” “Cold December,” which closes Beautiful Mind and was originally released last November, uses a sped-up section from Hank Williams Jr.’s mea culpa “O.D.’d in Denver.”
Looming over Beautiful Mind is Rod Wave’s arrest last May on a felony charge of domestic battery by strangulation, the result of an alleged incident with his on-and-off girlfriend and the mother of his two children. (He has seemingly paid tribute to her on numerous songs, including his 2021 hit “Street Runner.”) The charge was dropped days later, with his lawyer explaining that it was due to a “misunderstanding.” Like too many male artists, the moment was a reminder of how these seemingly innocuous songs detailing manic, lovelorn torment are too often inspired by real, chauvinistic feelings.
As a result, Rod Wave spends much of Beautiful Mind‘s second half unpacking conflicted feelings over his partner. “In my cell all alone I still hear your cries,” he sings on “Mafia,” before comparing the way he and his team move to the Mafia and, oddly, the Taliban. (On an early, unreleased version of “Mafia” made available to press, there’s a sample of a classic The Godfather Part II scene where Michael and Kay argue violently before she leaves him.) On “Pieces,” Rod Wave admits, “I tried to find another bitch, I just look for you in her.” “Everything” soars like a Brian McKnight ballad as he sings, “This my last song about old girl.” By “Married Next Year,” he’s trying to find some kind of closure: “The only thing shorter than these love songs is life.”
Rod Wave’s brush with legal danger gives Beautiful Mind’s its structure as well as a sense that he’s charting new territory, and not just the themes of success and alienation that fueled past hits like Ghetto Gospel and Pray 4 Love. Some listeners might be wary of this chastened figure who nevertheless doggedly sticks to the “trenches” and complains on “Better,” “I thought it’d be smiles on they faces, tears coming out they eyes, hearing congratulations/But they make it no better.” Is this Southern artist who magnetizes with clear, emo-inflected melodies a true beacon of self-care, or just another man justifying his own pitiable sins? Whatever the answer, at least he’s trying to be honest.
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