Pen Squad’s Marly: “Serious Business” Mixtape Review


Serious Business Cover Art

Rating: 4 out of 5


Connellsville, Pa. is not the veritable hip hop hotbed. It’s an impoverished, semi-rural town in the Appalachian foothills south of Pittsburgh, just a bit above the West Virginia border. That is, it’s far removed from New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and just about any other place where hip hop reigns supreme.

Yet, in the past year or so, two Connellsville-based MCs have done something almost unfathomable — they’ve fashioned an identity. It’s not quite a distinct regional identity, nor a hallmark “sound,” per se. No, it’s a certain human character. Honesty, idiosyncrasy, self-awareness, faith, willingness to risk and fail. These are the qualities which best describe Connellsville’s up-and-comers Money SL and, for the immediate purposes of this entry, Marly and his new mixtape Serious Business (download here).

Mixtapes are different than albums. What we ought to look for in a mixtape is not a narrative thread or a genre-bending/defining theme. We look for the groundwork, the building blocks. It may only take one or two tracks to spark the threads of the collective intuition. Intuition is the tool needed to unpack a mixtape as much as anything else. Whether we’re looking for “star quality” or artistry, the inchoate peripatetics of the mixtape usually appeal most saliently to the unspoken wisdom of our “guts,” our historically honed knack for picking out the patterns of unfinished genius.

With that disclaimer clearly stated, it should be noted that Serious Business is far from perfect. Marly drops the ball on a few tracks (“Grind All Day and Night,” “Player Like Me,” and “Brrr!!!,” for example) in which he slips into the uninspired recantations of all-too-ubiquitous radio “hip pop.” If Marly goes through the motions or gets bored on these tracks, we ought to forgive him. Again, mixtapes are by definition flawed. But, more to the point, Marly exceedingly redeems himself on a number of utterly inspired joints.

Marly, with his trademarked staccato delivery, may be his most focused on the intro, where he embodies those aforementioned human qualities, all barbed with Pen Squad’s patented punchlines such as: “Punchline rap, nah this is kung-fu/A bunch of young Machios/I’m Mr. Miyagi.” Also obvious right away is the 20-something’s ear for fruitful production — when he’s not grabbing beats from (overrated or overexposed) Pittsburgh producer Johnny Juliano, that is. Marly does hit the right tone on “Sitting on the Edge,” but other than that, it might be best if Marly relied less on Juliano in the future.

This isn’t necessarily an indictment of Juliano (well, actually, it kinda is), but an observation that “Lector” performs his best when he gets in touch with his inner-Wu-Tang. The abstract, nuanced, and gritty are Marly’s domain. Case in point: “Royal Flow.” Track 9 shines even against glimmering backdrop of the rest of the mixtape as Marly attacks each note and syllable in overtures vaguely reminiscent of GZA and Inspektah Deck. While the listener may be overwhelmed by Big Jerm’s haunting, ethereal production, Marly is completely lucid. Luckily for us, he has the ambition and courage to rip off some of his best written, most pointed, lines on this track: “Tramp whores sell their bodies for drugs/Liquor stores sell their poison to us/But we guzzle it up, not understanding the blame/Is the blond man who put them in concentration camps.” No hooks. No equivocation. This is “serious business” indeed.

“Royal Flow” is refreshingly raw and real. But Marly doesn’t leave us hanging. Near the end of the mixtape, he satisfies our nostalgic yearning once again on “Move On Up.” Keeping with the dominant mood of Serious Business, Marly is fearless as he draws on a Native Tongues vibe that is starkly different from anything going on in hip hop at the moment. Funky and cool, “Move On Up” dispels any reservations retained from some of the less successful (mostly Juliano) tracks. “Fly Away” and “Gone To L.A.” invoke the strangely blunt-heavy Pittsburgh rap scene, more or less defined by Wiz Khalifa. Marly pulls the trick convincingly and effortlessly.

The guitar-riffed “Ease Your Pain” is one part “Pimpa’s Paradise” (Damian Marley), one part “Me and My Girlfriend” (2Pac) as the MC plays the part of a young woman’s destructive cocaine habit. It’s the most poignant number on the mixtape. As he does elsewhere, Marly allows for some breathing room, letting the beat ride out for extended periods, inviting the listener to ruminate on what he or she has just heard.

Like the previous Pen Squad release, Serious Business is a triumphant debut. The soaring success of the best tracks flattens out the bumps and creates the most robust expectations for future efforts. Money SL’s C’Villain was cleaner, more refined, more immediately accessible, and more radio-friendly with more standout tracks. But Serious Business just feels more … well, serious. Raw. Human. Marly is perpetually in touch with his contextual reality, evidenced by his mixtape’s price (its available free, online here) and its subtitle (Smalltown Hustle). Formerly imprisoned, formerly a rootless wanderer from Newark to Atlanta, he gives us the impression that he will do whatever he can to ensure that he takes advantage of life’s second chances. It’s a journey I hope he continues to share with all of us.

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