Ascending Memphis teen rap star NLE Choppa’s August debut album, Top Shotta, was supposed to have the hits. The hour-long project had features from some of the year’s hottest talent, including Roddy Ricch, Lil Baby, and Mulatto. For four straight tracks down the middle of the record, Choppa attempts to one-up his 2019 hit “Shotta Flow”; listen to them all in a row and you’ll be out of breath too. The album as a whole is uneven at times and a little bloated, but Choppa is consistently entertaining as hell. From that groovy hook on “Make Em Say” to lines about turning his rivals’ heads into bagels (bagels!), Choppa practically bleeds star potential on Top Shotta.
Three months and one disappointing XXL Freshman Class showing later, NLE Choppa has just turned 18 and already released a follow-up mixtape, From Dark to Light. He’s also “awakened,” which he’s been documenting on a new, wholesome YouTube channel. He gardens, he’s vegan, and he says he’s not rapping about violence anymore. (He also says the COVID-19 pandemic is fake, so maybe he’s not fully awake yet.) And his new music reflects that, pulling further on the introspective thread of tracks like “Paranoid” and “Depression” toward the end of Top Shotta. Some of the lines about finding peace and opening third eyes would almost sound like a parody out of context. But, as far as he shows it on the new tape, Choppa is committed to this. “This shit that I stand for and stand ‘bout, I’d go in the dirt for,” he raps on closer “Paradise.” And if this is the new Choppa, “Bryson” is a perfect introduction.
“Bryson,” named for Choppa’s birth name, is the latest in a long list of (re)introductory tracks where rappers just lay it all out. And he’s successful at it, setting the backdrop for the rest of From Dark to Light. He’s rapping on a track with more dimension than most of his previous beats (though those got the job done well enough). He’s singing an earworm of a hook, a tune he told GQ his mom used to sing to him. He’s going through the specifics of his changed life, laying down bars about karma, giving up weed and guns, and Nikola Tesla’s “Divine Code.”
And here’s the thing: He’s still fun as ever to listen to. Despite all his and Warner Bros. Records’ efforts on Top Shotta, “Bryson” might be one of Choppa’s most radio-ready songs yet. It’s polished and catchy, and delivers the sort of lines you’ve waited months to hear from him. “I never thought I’d say this, but I’m eating on a vegan plate,” Choppa raps. “Don’t take me to Chick-fil-A, I’m eatin’ at the Grand Cafe / They ain’t open on Sunday anyway / Fuck your dinner date / You are what you eat, I’m countin’ green, eatin’ celery.” His enthusiasm, a staple of his personality and in turn his music, persists. No matter what NLE Choppa is rapping about, he always sounds in it. That was the appeal of “Shotta Flow,” and strip everything else away, that’s the appeal of “Bryson.” He’s just rapping about manifesting instead of fucking other people up, and couldn’t we use more of that anyway?
From Dark to Light is slimmer than Top Shotta, but not much more consistent. Choppa might not stick with his pivot to wellness culture forever. But he’s only (just) 18, he’s redefining his life, and strengthening his star power while he’s at it. Like he’d probably say, the present is what matters.
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