Often as a society we overvalue natural talent. As Malcolm Gladwell illustrates so beautifully in Outliers (I’m assuming; I didn’t read it), so-called “God-given talent” plays a far lesser role in success than we typically tend to imagine. Sometimes it’s privilege that really makes the difference; sometimes just pure luck. And occasionally, as in the case of Brooklyn rapper Maino, it all comes down to drive. Hip-hop is filled with stories of rappers who’ve made a way out of no way, but perhaps no one in the genre’s history has overcome greater hurdles than Jermaine Coleman, who after serving a ten-year bid for a drug-related kidnapping (!) threw himself into rapping as his only ticket out of the streets. Last month, after numerous setbacks and one shelved album on Universal, his debut If Tomorrow Comes… finally saw release, and I’ve had it on repeat for the last two days. As rappers go, Maino is competent at best, but that’s to be expected from someone who had never rapped before going to prison, and who took to hip-hop more out of necessity than from any natural inclination. What really make this album memorable are his passion and artistic vision, which provide a context in which his weaknesses as an emcee actually contribute to the album’s power.
Structured like a movie, If Tomorrow Comes… tells the story of Maino’s rise, starting with his release from prison in 2003, and culminating with his signing to Atlantic records. (That’s right, it’s a CONCEPT ALBUM, released on a MAJOR LABEL in 2009.) Several skits tie together the songs, whose themes reflect the different stages in Maino’s journey to stardom. The only truly plot-driven track (a la Prince Paul’s A Prince Among Thieves) is “Back to Life” where a just-home Maino reveals his music industry dreams to a friend, only to be reminded that he’s not a rapper. “I’m not,” Maino replies, “but none of that matters though.” And though it may offend hip-hop purists, he’s right. Maino’s unstoppable determination (evidenced in his voice and bolstered by the album’s fist-pumping production) and the sheer unlikeliness of his story make it impossible to hate, despite his tendency to rhyme the same word twice or even to rehash metaphors (let’s just say he enjoys comparing “all-white” cars to various similarly-complexioned celebrities.) His weaknesses as an emcee actually make you get behind him harder (Ayo!), because you understand just how much harder he’s had to grind. Besides, think of all the terrible albums released by so called “lyrical” rappers. Sometimes talent is overrated.
For what it lacks in clever punchlines, If Tomorrow Comes… boasts a vision and cohesion rarely seen in mainstream rap, and Maino’s raw emotion succeeds in carrying most of the album’s tracks. If you don’t find yourself riding with him by album’s end, well then you might just be a hater. Because if anyone deserves your respect, it’s Jermaine Coleman. He’s definitely earned mine.
Maino—“Remember My Name”