By TIM MARCHMAN
Twenty years after it ended, the golden age of New York hip hop is now like any other golden age, a subject of nostalgia felt by people who weren't even there when it was happening. Some bright young people just know they should have been drinking in Paris bars with Gertrude Stein, others that they were meant for North Beach in the late 1950s. 2wo 1ne (who is 22 years old) thinks he was born about 20 years late, and that if the universe were in order he would have been ciphering with Jeru the Damaja, Inspectah Deck and Greg Nice in their primes.
"Post '90s, it's back to the old feel/'90s—that feeling was so real/I feel like I should have been 21 in like '94…" he rhymes on "Cut Throat," the fourth track on his debut mixtape, "Th3 #Post90s," and you believe him. The shame of it is that because as Iman Shumpert he plays guard for the Knicks (for whom he wears jersey No. 21), you're going to write this off as a dilettante's exercise, which you shouldn't, because this guy has skills, and an idea.
That idea, more or less, is that hip hop needs to get back to root basics: grimy drum programs, trebly strings filched from who knows where, the odd driving horn or guitar lick in the midrange, and a guy rapping on top of it all who doesn't care half so much about what he's saying as he does about slant rhymes, internal rhymes and consonantal phrasings—about, basically, how he sounds. A magpie's nest of allusions—for instance, "Necessity" riffs on RZA's legendary verse on "4th Chamber" before swiping an effect from Rakim's "Microphone Fiend"—his work is work done by someone who's spent way too much time wearing headphones and listening to the classics on loop. Anyone who's spent way too much time wearing headphones and listening to the classics on loop will appreciate it.
The danger with this kind of project is that it will devolve into cosplay, which in lesser moments—like "Th3 Connect," a slightly unfortunate tribute to Run-DMC's "My Adidas"—this one does. There is a thin boundary between refining the best of what's come before and recapitulating it. Even moves like sampling the Eddie Murphy classic "Coming to America" or Arrested Development (the three-quarters forgotten band, not the TV show) come off as a bit cute. What saves 2wo 1ne are three things—his ear, his town and his personality.
The great thing about his listening is that it's obviously too capacious to leave him locked into rote rehearsals of any one style. For all of the explicit and implicit tributes to the days when Nas ruled the mike and John Starks ruled the court at the Garden, i.e., you get the sense that this guy has listened to a lot of the Bay Area-based Hieroglyphics set. There are moments where his slurred enunciations eerily parallel Del tha Funkee Homosapien's to the point where you want to get him away from his thoroughly competent production team and hear what he'd sound like if he, like Del, hooked up with Dan the Automator. Hearing that, or early Outkast, creep in does a lot to keep this from being a rigid application of one sound at one point in place and time.
That 2wo 1ne reps the shores of Lake Michigan helps, too. A mere recreation of early 90s New York hip hop would be full of allusions to Linden Boulevard, Fort Greene and Gray's Papaya; a thoroughgoing Chicagoan, 2wo 1ne shouts out Oak Park, claims to be a disciple of the Winner's Circle and chastises Wayne LaPierre types by pointing out that "The streets is on beef…The teachers won't teach and we blame it on Chief Keef/That's why people scared now," which sums up the situation on the South Side better than some of the local papers do.
What makes it all work, though, is personality. As noted, this is a guy seemingly more concerned with how he says what he says than what he says, and his subjects are mainly limited to not letting fame and money go to your head ("Life is scary better when your money match your mindframe," goes his best hook), how much he likes music, and women, which is fine—masters like Kool Keith and Guru didn't have a much wider range. For all of that, though, he comes off as immensely likable, which is the trickiest trick any self-obsessed MC can pull, let alone one who plays for the Knicks. It's hard not to be impressed with a cat with his fame who thinks "I'm eating scallops with dudes that won't watch sports/Sponging information" counts as a boast. Especially since you believe him. If the backcourt doesn't soak up too much of his time, 2wo 1ne has a future.
A version of this article appeared December 27, 2012, on page A21 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Iman Shumpert's Debut Mixtape: A (Positive) Review.