Central Standard, the latest release by the Topeka-based rapper Stik Figa, chronicles the struggles of a man begrudgingly beginning to accept that his musical career is unlikely to yield fame and fortune.
With stoic dignity and ingratiating humor, Stik Figa (the alias of John Westbrook, Jr.), on his new 25-minute EP, repeatedly acknowledges that his dream of becoming a prominent rapper will probably remain unfulfilled.
Stik Figa is accustomed to being overlooked. He’s been a compelling yet underappreciated presence on the regional hip-hop scene for more than ten years. But while his talent has long outstripped his stature, Central Standard indicates he doesn’t intend to go down without a fight.
Rather than suggesting that his base in Topeka is an unfortunate obstacle to be surmounted, Stik represents his hometown – a place he calls “Top City” – with pride.
That's certainly the case in his video for the triumphantly funky “Cold,” which provides a leisurely tour of Topeka’s less prosperous neighborhoods. Referencing the absence of acknowledgement from XXL, the taste-making magazine that acts as a primary gatekeeper for the hip-hop community, he brags: “No XXL but (I) excel in the (recording) booth/Beats in the coffin and nails in the roof.”
The shout-out leads to a bit of delicious irony, given the fact that XXL premiered the “Cold” video on its site in January.
And Stik's boast isn’t empty. He is one of the region’s most lyrical rappers, frequently applying his sharp wit and smooth flow to assessments of his unheralded status, such as on the fluid “Down Payment,” where he advises: “Just know that eagles don't fit in pigeon holes.”
Such soaring wordplay is a casualty of the stylistic revolution that's transformed hip-hop in recent years. So-called “mumble rappers” like Future are in vogue, while artists such as Stik Figa, who place a premium on eloquent social commentary, have become passé.
He dismisses trend-chasing radio rappers who pretend to be criminals on the abrasive "James Lemonade": "I'm just staying active/Hardly past my peak/You lack a leg to stand on/I had to speak/Laughing at these amputees/Saying that they ran the streets." The putdown may be merited, but it sounds like sour grapes coming from a man who never achieved a hit.
“Oldtown 96” is among the the compositions that might have gained traction in a more hospitable artistic climate. Over a beat that sounds like a countrified variation of Jay Z’s 2001 classic “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” Stik recalls a childhood tainted by racism: "I been black longer than I been my first name/Called nigga before a nigga ever learned names."
But that powerful moment is diluted by frustrating incongruities throughout Central Standard. Multiple producers and a gamut of guest appearances, ranging from the experimental New York rapper Homeboy Sandman to the nefarious Bay Area emcee Rappin’ 4-Tay, create a whipsaw effect that’s likely to confuse potential Stik Figa initiates.
Yet he doesn’t operate entirely in obscurity. He recently made an appearance on the SiriusXM satellite radio show Shade 45, where he tossed a telling line into his freestyle demonstration: “how you measure your success ain’t how I’m measuring mine.”
His quiet form of success may not have made Stik Figa rich or famous, but Central Standard is a minor Midwestern gem.
Bill Brownlee’s writing appears weekly in The Kansas City Star and Ink magazine. He blogs about Kansas City’s jazz scene at Plastic Sax.