Lots of legends have paid their respects to Phife Dawg over the past two weeks. But to me, the greatest tribute comes from current hip hop artists putting out work that builds on Phife’s legacy. And that legacy is obvious within the first few seconds of 22-year-old Tunji Ige’s new EP, “Missed Calls.” “Mic check, mic check,” he mutters, before yelping, “Can I kick it!,” as the beat drops with a nervous, ahead-of-the-beat snare and some punchy low end.
But “Missed Calls” is not some Native Tongues-conscious tip-throwback tribute. It’s a fully forward-thinking project that shows a young talent who’s internalized Tribe’s lineage—through Black Star, through Kanye, through Kid Cudi, through Drake, and even through Future—and created his own swag.
Ige, who is Philly-based with Nigerian roots, is still developing as a rapper—there’s a good share of corniness and cliche. Where he really shines is as a producer—he produced almost all of the album himself along with Noah Breakfast (who’s worked with Ellie Goulding, Big Sean, and Wet). The textures on this EP are carefully and immaculately drawn, and the song construction is sharp.
The best example is the gorgeously-mixed “War,” led by dreamy, swelling strings and some melty Jeff Buckley guitar. Ige’s double tracked voice comes across mesmerizingly in stereo for the chorus, and bleeps cleverly serve both to hide expletives and add a bit of prickle. Equally impressive is the song’s patience and understated confidence. “Quiet music, in the best cases, heightens the possibility of acceptance. It puts you on heightened watch,” Ben Ratliff writes in his new book, “Every Song Ever.” And Ige lets this quiet, downtempo song breathe; it makes you listen a little bit harder before letting you in with ease.
The specter of the man on the moon, Kid Cudi, hovers over this project. Ige slips comfortably into Cudi’s brand of casually melodic sung-rap, as well as his aggressive use of vocal distortion. He even mirrors Cudi’s garbled enunciation, particularly on “All Night.” But where Cudi’s music was often shrouded in a haze, the instrumentation on “All Night” comes through crystal clear–notably the crash cymbal at the start of verses and the blaring synth riff.
Ige proudly embraces that lineage: “post-backpack, post-swag rap, the end of trap” he says on “Fired Up.” But, really, there’s more trap influence here than he might want to admit, particularly on the project’s banger, “On My Grind.” The tempo, cadences, lean-induced autotune are all straight from the Metro Boomin playbook. Which is dope, because if you’re a rapper on the rise not paying attention to Atlanta, you’re doing it wrong. Moreover, “On My Grind” is a peak example of cross-pollination. The outer structure of the song is trap, while the inner fillings are closer to indie rock production: there’s Deradoorian-style wordless vocal work and Tame Impala bass. The result is one of the chillest vibes of the year.