Vagabond Maurice,The Dragon Who Devoured The Moon
by Griffin Waterman
Using nerdy references as punchlines is easy. Think Lupe Fiasco shouting out Lupin III on Kanye’s “Touch the Sky.” On “Protect Ya Neck,” Inspectah Deck may be “swinging through your town like your neighborhood Spider-Man,” but this reference performs essentially the same function as mentions of Joe Frazier, the Lone Ranger, and Tevin Campbell in the same verse. They’re all clever, but it’s not as though they couldn’t be substituted for something else.
A rare few have made nerdiness a deeper part of their aesthetic, from MF Doom’s complete internalization of the Marvel character Dr. Doom to Cannibal Ox’s tales of inner city life as struggles of cosmic proportions on The Cold Vein. Comics, anime, video games, and sci-fi all contain examples of incredibly deep mythology and conceptually adventurous stories, and they are a realm that hasn’t been thematically mined enough by rappers. Chicago local Vagabond Maurice, who released his debut album The Dragon Who Devoured the Moon earlier this year, has done this more interestingly and effectively than anyone in recent memory.
For Maurice, touchstones of nerd culture such as Dragonball and Majora’s Mask (nobody’s favorite Legend of Zelda game) are lenses through which he can explore the meaning and nature of blackness as he experiences it as a young second generation Liberian American. He does so with incredible nuance and a serious poet’s grasp of meter and multilayered metaphor. Take his song “Misokazuki/Ganymede/Imachizuki/Bullet Train to Heaven’s Doorway”:
“Peace in a Molotov, calling on all black boys
Stolen from the sun
I’m in dialogue with my healing process
Making no progress, but this whiskey glass is empty, I’m
Shattering ceiling of glass, talking that jazz”
Nothing in those lines is clichéd, his internal rhymes are nimble, and he manages to be conscious without hectoring. Moreover, he is able to demonstrate his lyrical skill without falling into the “spiritual lyrical miracles” pitfall that causes so many otherwise skilled rappers to put out such boring music. As a result, Maurice is able to examine who defines and controls blackness and promote black self-love with great insight and sensitivity. He also grapples with his place in hip-hop’s lineage, interpolating Common, Digable Planets, and Souls of Mischief and putting his own spin on those lines. The few guest verses on the album, from Cise Starr, Substantial, Sage Tendou, and Kyd Wah-Lee, are generally excellent and don’t distract from Maurice’s overarching narratives.
Sonically, The Dragon Who Devoured the Moon is boom bap without being derivative or overly reverent of the past, with shades of Adult Swim bumps, Pete Rock, Dilla, and Nujabes. It seems tailor made to soundtrack late nights in smoky basements with video games and anime on the TV. The beats, made mostly by L.A. beatmaker Chinsaku and Chicago local Leyone Tracks, all work within an overall jazzy aesthetic that allows the album to flow as one, cohesive piece. The Dragon Who Devoured the Moon is a whole package rather than just a collection of songs.
In our current mixtape-driven hip-hop landscape, too many rappers suffer from a glut of material. Whereas rappers from two decades ago would only have a few guest verses or 12” singles, if anything, available before the release of their first album, much of the current crop develop their styles and abilities publicly in ways that either handicap their ability to build a following or leave an embarrassing trail of half-baked songs and abandoned styles on the way to developing a unique voice. The days of a rapper coming out of nowhere with a fully formed style on a classic debut album are mostly over (even Kendrick released several weak mixtapes before his artistic breakthrough with Section.80 and good kid, m.A.A.d. city). Maurice’s first project as a solo artist—he previously released some music as a member of the Terra Godz—was January’s six track Stray Sessions EP, and the amazing The Dragon Who Devoured the Moon followed just one month later. The Dragon is the rare debut album of the last decade that puts forth a complete artistic statement, and if there is any justice it should rocket Vagabond Maurice to the forefront of Chicago hip-hop.
Go get the album here.