“One of my buddies said, ‘If you’re not fucking with Rittz, you’re not top of the line’ – meaning that when I write songs, I write to the highest standard,” says Rittz. “When it comes to rapping and this style that I do, it’s as good as it gets.” The title of Rittz’ new album Top Of The Line came from an unlikely source – a friend’s passing ad-lib on his 2014 LP Next to Nothing. And at this point in the Atlanta rapper’s career, few would disagree with this assessment.
In 2012, Rittz began his ascension by touring with rising star, Yelawolf. Wolf then sang the rapper’s praises to Tech N9ne. Tech, never one to let a good opportunity pass him by, quickly signed Rittz to his Strange Music label. Two successful releases, The Life And Times Of Jonny Valiant and Next to Nothing, followed – as did a show-stopping appearance on the 2013 BET Awards Cypher. Since his last album’s release, Rittz continued to prove his mettle on the road. He toured again with Yela, as well as Kxng Crooked (formerly Crooked I), and headlined shows all over the country. The ups and downs of life on tour are a big theme on Top Of The Line. While raising hell for months at a time was fun (as documented on the rousing “All Night”), it wasn’t without consequences. The powerful song “Just Say No” chronicles how the tour with Yelawolf went wrong.
“I came back home from the Slumerican Made tour with a knee injury from partying and overdoing it,” Rittz admits. “It’s so embarrassing. I had to go to the hospital in North Carolina. I had to really be like, ‘You need to slow down and start respecting what you do a little bit more.’”
That slowing down came with a five-month break from touring, during which Rittz composed the bulk of Top Of The Line. He had a very specific musical vision in mind, which was brought to life primarily by Strange Music in-house producer Seven. The initial inspiration came from a very unlikely source.
“There’s this composer, Lalo Schifrin,” Rittz reveals. “He did the music for Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon, and a lot of classic 70s movies. His music had that old kind of funky vibe to it, but it was dark at the same time. I wanted the Enter the Dragon soundtrack over down South drumbeats, with West Coast basslines. I told Seven, and he’s like, ‘Oh, I know exactly what you’re talking about.’ He started making beats that were exactly what I wanted, to a T. He really nailed it.”
In addition to Seven, Top Of The Line features music from Grammy-nominated Best Kept Secret, Heartbeatz, Kato, Wonder and longtime collaborator Matic Lee. On the lyrical side, Rittz’ patented razor sharp double-time flows are joined by contributions from Strange Music compatriots Tech N9ne and Krizz Kaliko on “The Formula,” Southern rap pioneers Devin the Dude and MJG on “Propane,” Atlanta pioneer Cheeto Gambine (the inventor of the “Northside” sign you can see Rittz throwing up in almost every picture) on “Diamonds And Gold,” and, on the standout track “Inside Of The Groove,” Bay Area legend E-40 and singer Mike Posner.
“There’s a chemistry with me and Mike Posner,” Rittz explains. “We just sound good together. That song was one of the first beats that I got, and it had the feel of the title Top of the Line. It’s smooth, it’s laid-back, it’s classy, it’s got a grown up sound to it. When I got that, that put me in the mood for what this album should be. It should be more smooth and a little bit more fun.”
True to his word, Rittz keeps Top Of The Line more hopeful and upbeat than his previous work, which frequently focused on his personal struggles as he attempted to make it to the top of the rap game. Now that his place is secured, he can bring newfound positivity to his fans.
“I’m known for having some depressing songs and talking to the people about struggling and life kicking their ass,” he admits. “I still do that on this album, but even when I do, there’s some kind of positive twist of hope at the end. I’m not in as bad of a space as I was, so I wanted to celebrate that and be grateful for where I’m at, and have that reflect in the music as well.”
That celebration comes through on “KISA” (short for “knight in shining armor”), a “couples’ anthem” dedicated to Rittz’ now-fiancée, a woman who has been by his side both in life and in many of his songs. It also shines on another single, the boastful “Ghost Story.” “‘Ghost Story’ is a hard song showcasing rap skills,” Rittz says. “You keep hearing people saying they want to hear bars and metaphors. I can do that. I can do it all. I just feel like I’ve risen above the competition. I don’t even see them.” Rittz proves this over and over again on Top Of The Line. Whether it’s on the dramatic title track, the rolling and smooth “Back To Yesterday,” or the party-starting “Pull Up,” the album showcases an artist at the top of his craft, and finally in a better place after the struggles he documented in such vivid detail in his earlier songs. The album also continues the trend of Rittz making songs with his idols. Last album, it was fast-rapping pioneer, Twista. This time, Memphis’ MJG and Houston’s Devin the Dude show up on the single “Propane.”
“MJG, to me, is responsible for the way so many Southern artists have rapped for the
last twenty years,” says Rittz. “Devin the Dude is one of my favorite rap artists of all time, period. I used to ride around and study his syllables. The average ear might not pick up on Devin’s clever word play at first, but the way he raps has always had a huge influence on me as an artist. To be on a song with these guys is like being in the ring with Hulk Hogan. I never would have thought it would happen in a million years.”
Top Of The Line shows a Rittz who deserves that kind of honor – an unparalleled rhymer who has reached a place where he can finally revel in having reached the upper echelon of the rap game. “This is the top of the line,” he explains. “This is the top tier of this type of music. And that’s what I aim for every time I make a song.”
For an artist with serious mainstream aspirations, Decatur, Georgia's Jarren Benton has spent his career going against the grain. One of Funk Volume's premiere acts, Jarren admits, "I love the music I do now. I do it in the safe-mode." That's rather shocking for an artist whose last album, Freebasing With Kevin Bacon lived up to its name, at least in attitude and style, evident on single "Skitzo." He continues, "I want to take it a lil' further. I just haven't had the balls to go all the way there yet, 'cause I presently want to keep a foot in the mainstream too." However, courage is not something Benton's music or live show is lacking. Studied in the anything-goes showmanship of Prince, Marilyn Manson and Method Man, Jarren shares, "The essence of giving of a good show is not givin' a fuck," he says, while pointing to stage-diving, beer-chugging and more depending on the night's particular vibe. This type of authenticity, balanced with intricate, golden ear-informed lyricism has attracted attention from Erick Sermon (EPMD, Redman) to No I.D. (Common, Kanye West) in courting Jarren to potential major label deals. However for the father and family provider, only indie juggernaut Funk Volume really voiced his biggest concerns. "All I was asking for was progress. I just wanted to know that what I was doing was the right move – especially chasing a dream with a family." Funk Volume offered what Def Jam and the others weren't – and in recent years, Jarren has been able to support his family and his dreams simultaneously. In addition to Funk Volume, which Jarren refers to as "family," the rapper maintains strong ties in the Atlanta community, such as Rittz, Playboy Tre, Spitzwell and his SMKA affiliates. "It's the best of both worlds," says Jarren, of playing a significant role in a respected collective of talent, as well as being an artist in one of the most powerful new labels in Hip Hop. "We all still came from that era about lyricism, even if you were making Southern music." After two successful digital releases and a video fast-approaching one million YouTube plays, Jarren is hard at work on what will inevitably be his biggest album to date. Following the star-filled supporting cast of Freebasing With Kevin Bacon and Huffin' Glue With Hasselhoff, the comedic emcee promises to break from the series with a purpose in mind. "This one has a different vibe. It's a lot more personal stuff so people can learn who Jarren is," he says, also suggesting more refined production that translates more to his ambitions of being a household name. In the same vein, that courage Jarren felt was missing is brewing on his upcoming work. The vet points to "Heart Attack" and "Smells Like Murder" with R.A. The Rugged Man as some of the most conceptual, dazzling work he's recorded to date. "From my ranges of influence, I think a lot fans appreciate my personalities, but they don't really get into the music… yet," admits Benton of his available catalog. The stakes are high and the time is right for the man who has pursued a dream for a decade. "I love this. I'm not driven by money, but I'm conscious of making music that can be universally appreciated." It is coming to life for an artist closely connected with the tenants of Hip Hop: style, skill and absolutely not givin' a fuck.
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