The Photoshop effects on the Honest Cowboy mixtape cover photo make rapper Stalley look like either a coal miner, a cowboy from the late 19th century, or both. More than likely, this was done purposefully to reassure fans that the rugged, blue-collar aesthetic hasn’t changed since Stalley joined Maybach Music Group. Surely, the rapper still resembles a skinny Rick Ross, with the two men sporting beards and heavy tattoos. However, the Ohio rapper’s verses are more pensive and expressive of the downs of street life, whereas Rozay boasts of the ups more often than not. In that sense, the content of Honest Cowboy can be interpreted almost literally. Stalley essentially casts himself as a straight-shooting gangsta with a conscience.
For listeners who may be only somewhat familiar with the rapper’s previous work, the mixtape serves as a brief but very memorable introduction. Pieced together from cuts that won’t make his upcoming full-length MMG debut, Honest Cowboy presents an evolving rhymer with a flair for street poetry. Stalley doesn’t have a particularly strong voice, but his strength is in writing songs that can relate to his peers and men and women who were either raised, currently live or spend a lot of time in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.
The opener “Spaceships & Woodgrain” begins with a brooding piano riff; Stalley is well into his narrative by the time the DJ Quik and Cardo instrumental builds out with live guitar and bass, and we learn from the rapper that he makes “intelligent trunk music.” A Block Beataz-produced ode to marijuana, “The Highest,” gives way to the darker narratives of “Cup Inside A Cup” before the mixtape’s best song, the Terrace Martin-produced “NineteenEight7.” With ScHoolBoy Q riding shotgun, Stalley’s verses turn into a script as he raps, “Midwest n***a in the west/red Corvette speeding down Sunset/ski mask, black Tech pulling through the set/gang signs and palm trees/bomb weed and a b***h.” If the mission is to capture an inter-state hustler’s ethos, Stalley more than hits the mark.
Superb production and substantive lyrics continue with “Raise Your Weapons” being especially noteworthy as Stalley delves into his Islamic faith and politics over yet another instrumental with brooding piano riffs produced by Block Beataz. For “Swangin,” Stalley brings Houston legend Scarface in for a guest feature and, aside from the song being more about candy paint car lifestyle than substance, the appearance alone solidifies the Ohio newcomer’s status with veterans.
According to the artist himself, Honest Cowboy consists of leftover tracks from the sessions for his upcoming MMG full-length. Judging by the quality of the songs, however, the rapper lives up to his billing as a budding talent representing the Buckeye State in the industry. What’s even more impressive is the fact that Stalley hasn’t compromised his substance, but rather actually stepped it up. With an exquisite ear for beats, if he stays in this trajectory, he will soon join Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony as one of Ohio hip-hop’s best ever.