Oddisee: To What End Album Review

As long as he can create how he wants, Oddisee has been content to exist on rap’s fringes. The Brooklyn-via-Washington, DC rapper-producer has treated his independent music career like a small business long before that became the norm, with pragmatic, athletically rapped songs and a busy touring schedule. You won’t find him hung up on industry cred: “Being overlooked did wonders for my esteem,” he says on 2015’s “Belong to the World,” one of several songs about the benefits of niche stardom. Even at his youngest and boldest, on albums like 2008’s 101 and 2009’s Mental Liberation, his boasts were tethered to the reality of his humble upbringing and DC-area surroundings. He went from merely making hip-hop cool again through pure boom-bap revivalism to boiling down politics, racism, and eventually, the comforts of family life to raps as terse and practical as the amorphous live-band production he’s slowly come to favor.

But the vigor of his early rap days lingers, powering a begrudging desire for respect. On “The Start of Something,” the intro to his 10th solo studio album To What End, Oddisee retraces his steps over a nearly 20-year career and gives himself a pep talk before the next sprint. “How I’m seen and how I’m heard is not the reason why I’m working,” he says, doubling down: “I’m going off, how to make a million without going soft.” For the first time, he sounds like he’s trying to convince himself as much as the listener. To What End goes beyond being raw and honest about life, society, or even hip-hop; it’s too busy dissecting the drive to do so in the first place.

Thematically, the album explores the nature of ambition and how far we’ll go to get what we want—a career, a relationship, peace of mind. As his work’s become more refined, Oddisee has embraced being the rap game Sidney Poitier, an everyman folding his own life experiences into flows that recall the wanderlust of Kendrick Lamar as much as the reverence of Little Brother. His writing was never withholding, but he’s rarely been this personal. Juxtaposed with the clean, peppy beats, his newfound openness makes some of these revelations uncomfortable, even jarring. “People Watching” is the most explicit of the bunch, taking an ax to forced politeness and ending with one of his bluntest confessions: “Became an entertainer as to hide in plain sight…Rhymes are without filter, in real life I keep it hush /I feel I’ve said enough, it’s time to step back on the mic.” But gentler moments cut the deepest. “Many Hats,” which was inspired by his first-ever therapy sessions, doesn’t shy away from talk of work burnout and panic attacks; “Choices” confronts the uphill battle of avoiding your parents’ mistakes. It’s not particularly theatrical, but it’s the closest we’ll get to seeing him on the ropes.

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