“The Whiteboard is an allusion to a moment,” Sweatshop Steve will you tell you with an eager spark in his eyes. Before he and Owl Green began the year long journey of creating their debut album, they sat down with a pack of expo markers and figured it out; that's the kind of focused energy that the Bay Area duo brings to everything they touch, and it's the determination a debut LP requires.
But it's only one approach from the tag team's deep and ever evolving playbook. The dog-eared page Sweatshop & Owl Green return to most often - their Pick-and-Roll bread-and-butter that'll lead the driven pair to a championship some day - doesn’t contain any profound secret play or desperate trick shot. “Just make music,” Owl Green repeats often, earnestly. Lots of it. All the time. And keep growing, keep trying new things, keep pushing the creative envelope outside of your comfort zone.
That consistent dedication to creating has spurred remarkable growth in the fun-loving, boom-bap inspired act over the past few years. It’s also the engine behind the organic birth of their latest EP, Spring Cleaning II.
From the first track, the two-part “Those Guys,” it’s clear Sweatshop & Owl Green are better conditioned for that deep playoff run than ever before. Owl opens the joint with trademark kaleidoscopic imagery, flexing a swirling melodic flow that integrates a wide universe of references as seamlessly as an Andre Iguodala left handed lay-up after an open court drive to the rack. His power as a storyteller lies in those deceptively nuanced abstractions; even if this is your first time with Owl Green in your ears, it takes less than two minutes of his buttery rhyming for the California MC to stroll out of your headphones and across a vividly projected landscape unique to his artistic world.
When “Those Guys” fades to a beat switch, Sweatshop is ready on the perimeter with a Klay Thompson-esque textbook release, diving straight into a rhyme scheme that’ll put a smile on any fundamentals minded rap fan’s face. He’s a student of the Beautiful Game, and Sweatshop’s deep connection to hip-hop’s bar-forward past is on full display here. But there’s nothing about the patterns or diction on “Those Guys” that feels dated or derivative; you can love and pay homage to the classics while still throwing sauce on each line, every championship team in every generation needs an anchor who’s devoted to studying his own shot against footage of the greats.
“Half the time you actin like you satisfied to pass the time /
I’m at it with an ax to grind, actions of a mastermind”
On “Save Your World,” Owl rides another chilled out, swung beat while reflecting on everyday experiences as disparate as coffee and freshmen dorm room nookie. It’s easy to “take a look into his soul” as Owl Green asks of his listeners in his opening line; each successive couplet’s descriptive prowess shines a little more light on the MC’s esoteric personality. And melodically, “Save Your World” sports a restrained swankiness cut from the cloth of the golden era of Vegas Showroom singers and big man post move dominance, each expressive note gliding through the lane with just enough flash to catch your eye without burning your retinas.
“Roger Clemens,” Spring Cleaning II’s lead single, finds Sweatshop & Owl Green teaming up in the booth collaboratively again, with both spitting some of their most ear-worm inducing lines to date. The beat’s got more bounce than a Draymond Green highlight reel dime, and the whimsical chorus showcases the pair’s well-honed synergy, which translates so well to a one-of-a-kind live performance. At every stop on their recent international “Whiteboard Tour,” audience members were singing along to that emphatic “whip!whip!WHIP!” by the time the last hook hit. Turn the system to 11 and crack open a 40 of Colt and you can pretend like you’re there while drinking in your living room.
Lyrically, there’s a ton of plays here worth picking apart and analyzing. Punchlines on punchlines (OG: “Coin phrase like laundromat,” SS: “You can smell the sauce on my breath,”) plenty of wordplay (OG: “Kill for love, that’s a heart attack”) and splashes of storytelling (SS: “Weed in my pocket, my papa he like my profit”) all beg for listeners to hit that rewind button. The more times you run it back, the more nuggets you’ll find buried; what comes across as a lighthearted anthem of nonchalant mischief was constructed with the care of a two points down, six seconds on the clock, game seven of the finals inbound play. And neither Sweatshop nor Owl Green is in the habit of dropping the ball when there’s a chip on the line.
With “Prototype,” Sweatshop stepped way outside of his comfort zone. And like the rare moments when Steph Curry pulls off a dunk, it’s hard as a spectator not to jump out of your seat and celebrate. Simply put, this song is a hit, or very well should be if music sales were a meritocracy. The beat feels trappier and more ambient than anything Sweatshop has touched before, and he brings a more spaced out, melodically inflective flow to match. Content wise there’s nothing here that isn’t authentic to the rapper’s heartfelt, “put in the fucking work” aesthetic, though the celebratory swagger is amplified a bit to match the track’s smirking alpha-gilded suavamente. Someday, a record exec might dig this one up and kick themselves for not finding Sweatshop & Owl Green before their first international banger.
“Goes Down,” the last track on Spring Cleaning II, brings us right back where we started. Objectively (if there is such a thing in music) it’s Owl Green’s best; a clear pinnacle of his songwriting talent, “Goes Down” parades Owl’s strengths before listeners again and again until they’re undeniable. His charmingly sporadic syntax is more focused themataically here than ever before. His sing-songy melodic flow is the most versatile and expressive it’s ever been. His singing on the chorus reads as effortlessly evocative. Each rhyme lands as equal parts unexpected and comfortingly inevitable. Like KD on a scoring streak, it truly doesn’t matter if you’re a fan or casual viewer; tune in and you’re witnessing concentrated, naturally born, highly refined beauty in motion.
“That sunshine gleamin, and I’m California dreamin, lime-light for the evenin”
Right back where we started; “Goes Down” is likely Owl Green’s best song to date. And it damn well should be. “Just make music,” Owl repeats often, earnestly. But make that music better than the music you made yesterday, push yourself, add new tricks, sharpen old ones, deepen the authenticity, evolve the perspective, chase perfection, grow, learn, move forward. That’s the trajectory of Sweatshop & Owl Green so far, career wise and musically. “Goes Down” is such a fucking beautiful song, it packages all of those sentiments into a three minute tour de artistry that will leave you both deeply satisfied and hungry for what comes next.
The music industry is so fickle, it’s impossible to predict what that “next” will look like for the young Bay Area duo. But here’s where I’m putting my money; dynasty. Five years ago, the Golden State Warriors were scrappy underdogs, making the playoffs with a roster full of rookies and liabilities. Base your picks for greatness on what everyone else is talking about, and Kyrie Irving should be the most elite player of his generation; in reality, he’s not even a top ten player in the league, overshadowed by the Draymond Greens and Stephen Currys who put in work and kept their heads down until their time came to prove it all on the largest stage.
That’s where I see Sweatshop & Owl Green someday; under the brightest lights with the most satisfying set of rings on their fingers, earned from tireless work and constant progression. Spring Cleaning II may not be that champion season just yet, but it very well could be the 2012 NBA draft, the start of something truly monumental that the world will look back at and try to recreate after the game’s changed and the Kyries of the world are all exposed as more talk than talent. Don’t wait for Sweatshop & Owl Green to three-peat before you start cheering; jump into the stadium now, give Spring Cleaning II a spin, and when you hear your kids singing “Goes Down” or rapping “Those Guys” someday, tell them you were courtside to witness the moment when greatness became inevitable.