February 2, 2014

That Time Skillz Used Up Two Of His Lives Trying To Release His Sophomore Album

In 1996, Donnie “Mad Skillz” Lewis released his debut album, From Where???, on Big Beat Records. He received this opportunity based on a second-place finish in a freestyle competition (where he lost to underground stalwart Supastition). Even with the little promotion he received (relative to actual known artists, anyway), he still managed to secure two minor radio hits, “The Nod Factor” (for the heads that like to nod) and “Move Ya Body” (a R&B-flavored song for the ladies), thanks to his need to satisfy all demographics. Donnie even secured some A-list assistance on his debut, in the form of Large Professor, Jay Dee (or Dilla, as he is better known today (R.I.P.)), Q-Tip, Buckwild, and The Beatnuts (who actually produced “The Nod Factor”).

However, mild critical acclaim and two radio hits failed to translate into a project that moved millions of units, so, branded as a failure because that's how the major labels worked back then, Donnie was cast off to be with those who hadn't ever signed record deals. So, you know, regular people.

It's important to note that at the time Mad Skillz came up, his home state of Virginia wasn't yet a major player in the music industry, so it's possible that the commute, along with the lack of support afforded to him by the big city, drove him back underground, where he still got paid to ghostwrite hit singles for better-known artists. He resurfaced a few years later with a twelve-inch single, “Ghostwriter”, on which he named the names of those whose lyrics he wrote, but the version released to the public had all of the artists edited out of the performance, so as to maintain the mystery or some shit. He also popped up on “To My”, a track from his fellow Virginia brethren Timbaland, who, alongside Missy Elliott and production duo The Neptunes, had started slowly taking over radio airwaves, the effects of which are still felt to this day. Hell, Pharrell Williams just won a fucking Grammy for Producer Of The Year (Non-Classical). Not “rap producer”, but just plain “Producer”. Timbaland is currently on tour with Jay-Z (I know he dropped the hyphen, but his rap name looks weird without it). And Missy still exists. So.

He joined forces with all of those parties, a power move that eventually scored him a record deal with indie heroes Rawkus Records, home of the likes of Company Flow, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and a bunch of other underground artists whose mere presence on the label caused most backpackers to do a double take. They offered him a chance to a cameo on the label's Soundbombing II compilation, which then led to him recording his sophomore album, I Ain't Mad No More, whose title signified a slight change in his rap moniker: this is the time that he dropped the “Mad” and became the Skillz that most of you two may be more familiar with, the guy who releases year-end “rap-ups” (except for last year – what the fuck, man?). It was preceded with the single “Crew Deep”, which also featured on the Rawkus compilation Soundbombing III, which proves that the label had faith in their guy for at least the five minutes or so it takes for the song to run.

After which time everything fell apart.

Not merely satisfied with recording a rap album intro, Skillz gives the listener actual rhymes to sink their teeth into, unleashing full verses (and some ad-libs for good measure), which prove that his smart-ass persona honed on I Ain't Mad No More remained intact during the label switch. The beat leaves a lot to be desired: it isn't bombastic enough to introduce a rap album, nor is it decent enough to anchor an actual song. But Skillz sounds refreshed, confident, and as good behind the microphone as ever, so there was a silver lining to be found.

2. S.K.I.L.L.Z.
Which immediately evaporates, by the way. Nottz's fake-ass Rockwilder-esque instrumental isn't what anyone wants to hear Skillz rhyme over, so of course our host does just that on the first “real” song on I Ain't Mad No More. Aiming for radio airplay in an alternate universe of some shit, Donnie talks his shit in a manner that contrasts sharply with the music, and the presence of a shitty hook only hinders any real progress Skillz made during the intro. The fact that he's aiming for the mainstream isn't anything new: his debut featured “Move Ya Body”, after all. The difference is that “Move Ya Body” was actually representative of what hip hop sounded like back in 1998, whereas in 2002 rap music had evolved, and thus “S.K.I.L.L.Z.” sounds like it's pandering to an audience that outgrew antics such as this years ago. Oh well.

Have you ever wanted to strangle an instrumental and toss it down several flights of stairs for being so fucking intrusive and selfish that it affects the artist's line delivery in the worst possible way? Just me then? Don't lie. Anyway, that's how I feel about the beat on “Show Love”: it's terrible. Our host tries his best to overcome every rap hurdle thrown his way, but he ultimately relents and allows the music to dictate how he should rap, resulting in an unnatural performance on a suck-ass song (one with a shout-out to Rawkus Records, of course) that is quickly forgotten about. Moving on...

The fact that this track was released as a single isn't surprising, given how popular guest star (and fellow Virginia resident) Missy Elliott (who handles hook duties and ad-libs) was back during the turn of the millennium. What does shock me today is how much this song doesn't hold up. “Crew Deep”, which, oddly, isn't about how large our host's posse is, features a Hi-Tek beat comprised solely of a slowed-down snatch of audio swiped from the Sugarhill Gang's “Rapper's Delight”, and Skillz makes the bold decision to slow down his own flow to mirror it, a tactic that fails him: by rapping at a lower speed, you can almost see every punchline coming from a mile away, and that isn't something you look forward to in a rap song. There was also an official remix that featured Skillz and Missy alongside Pharrell and the Clipse, but I don't remember that one being very interesting, either.

Skillz and his Supafriendz homey Danja Mowf Go out to the club, hitting on chicks while threatening to “knock that n---a out” (hence the acronym in the title), “that n---a” being the unfortunate soul that gets in between our host's rhymes and their intended recipient. I'm not sure what is with Skillz's obsession with the club: maybe he spent a lot of time going out while recording I Ain't Mad No More and had nothing else to write about. But his audience deserves something more substantial, not just two dudes (who, admittedly, sound alright) bullshitting their respective ways into the thongs of a select few.

Over a generic Nottz beat that sounds like one of the cutting-room-floor moments from Method Man and Redman's Blackout! recording sessions, Skillz and special guest star musiq soulchild attempt to get you excited at the prospect of being in, wait for it, a club. Donnie plays the gangsta wallflower, relishing the perks, refusing to dance, and observing all of the action around him, while his invited guest commands everyone to “get the fuck up” and “Wave Your Hands!” to...something, I'm sure (they never really bother to explain it). It's frustrating to hear Skillz waste his considerable, um, skills on a song clearly intended for an audience that he shouldn't really be aiming for, but at least he understood that actually selling records was a part of the game, so there.

Nottz's beat sucks, and the shrill vocals on the hook will drive you so insane that you'll want to break into someone's home and murder an entire family just to shut out the noise. Skillz's ear for beats appears to be worse than, oh, let's just say Nas's. Lyrically, though, he almost manages to pull this off, telling his tale about his early life as a drug dealer and how the money and success got in the way of his true happiness, before the surprise twist at the end causes the song to rethink its own message. I won;t spoil anything here, but you should at least track the lyrics down, as I cannot recommend anyone actually sit and listen to this shit.

Skillz recruited three separate guest crooners to help him tell the tale of “Suzie Q”, a girl at, wait for it, the club that plays him for a fool. Pharrell only manages ad-libs, but as one-half of the Neptunes, he actually helped produce this song for his fellow Virginia brethren, so he gets a pass. Besides, the beat sounds like old-school, blingy Neptunes, which actually was a breath of fresh air. Cee-Lo plays a much larger role, performing the hook, albeit in a forgettable way; Jazze Pha, better known for his production and general shouting, also appears. Skillz fills in the blanks admirably, and his attention to detail makes the song very easy to imagine, but as a whole, the track was lacking, mainly because there are only so many ways this particular story can be told. Let's instead marvel at the fact that, at one time, Skillz was a big enough name in our chosen genre to secure guest spots from Pharrell “Get Lucky” Williams and Cee-The Voice-Lo, two artists who are fucking hyper-successful today. Weird, right?

Yes, this is labeled as a skit, but this track is actually a goofy trifle where our host argues with himself (in rhyme form, naturally) over the phone, albeit a version of himself that is jealous of Skillz's apparent success, both in the rap game and with his girlfriend's vagina. It's the age-old argument, where an artist “forgets where he came from”, as his “friends” from “back in the day” would put it, but at least Skillz presents it in an amusing manner. This is actually decent enough to hear more than once, thanks to the entertaining lyrics and whatnot.

Did we really have to sit through nine goddamn songs before we finally hear Skillz just spitting? What kind of bullshit is that? Over a simplistic (I mean that in a good way) Rik Marvel beat, our host and Pennsylvania native Pretty Ugly trade verses back-and-forth: aside from the overly-wordy hook that has fuck-all to do with the title of the song, both Skillz and his invited guest sound entertaining enough. I Ain't Mad No More certainly could have used more tracks such as this one, since this represents exactly what our host is all about and whatever. Not a perfect song, but still acts as an oasis in the dry-ass desert that is I Ain't Mad No More. Shit, I think I just gave the rest of this review away.

11. BLOW
Why, yes, this song does do exactly that. Why do you ask?

No, I really don't. You're hiding behind a crappy instrumental and some overly-intrusive, out-of-tune crooning performed throughout. Prevents you from actually being seen, thereby invalidating your argument. Fuck this song. Also, are Pretty Ugly and Pretty Willie from the same camp, like those A$AP guys?


If you were wondering why Skillz would include an interlude where his mother chastises him via voicemail for not keeping in touch, “You Only Get One” provides the answer: our host's mother passed away, and he dedicates this track to her memory while admitting that he's still fucking up in his own life. The sentiment is heartfelt and genuine, and Skillz approaches subjects that don't typically come up during songs such as this (he laments the fact that he still isn't close with his siblings even though one would think an event such as their mother's passing would open at least one door), making this a fairly powerful way to end the album. The hook was generic and pathetic, but the rest of this worked for me. Now go hug your goddamn mothers, you two.

In 2005, Skillz finally managed to release I Ain't Mad No More officially on American soil. Unfortunately, it came in the form of the Sure Shot Recordings-released Confessions Of A Ghostwriter, his “official” sophomore album, which featured the majority of the tracks from the previous incarnation, with a few newer songs thrown in to possibly justify a purchase. If you happen to live anywhere except for the United States, you could always just buy a regular copy of it, though: Rawkus cancelled I Ain't Mad No More's American release (but not its Canadian release, weirdly) after Skillz failed to secure any radio hits (even though Rawkus was still technically considering themselves an independent label at the time, which contradicts everything they stood for, including that whole sentence about “fail[ing] to secure any radio hits”). Some lucky fans may have snagged a copy from the man himself, though: Skillz was prone to pushing bootleg copies of his own shit at his shows out of frustration.

Skillz kicks off his second attempt at a sophomore album with a ringer, as he (finally) calls in a favor from fellow Virginia resident Timbaland, who laces the beat with a banging drum sample and just enough mirth and merriment to almost completely turn you off to the track. For his part, Skillz actually sounds interested enough in the music to rhyme to it: yes, he mentions Timbo's name about two too many times, but he proves that he is capable of riding almost any instrumental, even one as, um, “Off The Wall” as this one. Not bad.


Nottz's beat implies that Skillz was at least considering taking Confessions Of A Ghostwriter in a moderately different direction than I Ain't Mad No More, at least before he padded the run time with songs from that previous effort, because it adopts a darker tone, allowing Skillz to shit-talk freely from outside of the confines a mainstream audience automatically brings with it. It isn't a very good beat, but our host seems to be at least a bit inspired, giving his all (relatively speaking) to a track with such a generic goddamn title that it may as well have been called “Rap Song”. Still, “Hip Hop” features brief flashes of what a proper second album from the artist formerly known as Mad Skillz could have sounded like.


Apparently without the exclamation mark this time around, but still the same song otherwise.

8. S.K.I.L.L.Z.
What, no acronym this time around?


Skillz uses a Hi-Tek beat to praise Tim Mosely (“I fuck with Timbaland 'cuz Timbaland's got beats!” (italics mine)), which was kind of funny, but the rest of this song was a rather childish (especially the shitty hook – perhaps Donnie needs to employ a ghostwriter of his own) take on a typical rap song trope: the “now that I'm successful, everyone thinks I owe them a favor” track, which has been done much better in the past. The first verse was alright, with Skillz justifying his working relationships with Timbo and Missy Elliott, but he never sounds all that comfortable over Hi-Tek's musical backing.

Runs a bit shorter than the version that appeared on on I Ain't Mad No More, and that transfers over to the song title, too, which is missing a letter.  Strange.

Confessions Of A Ghostwriter ends with an unconvincing soliloquy where Skillz tries to explain who he believes his real fans to be, running down a list of various types of characters who all manage to somewhat contradict each other. Which is the main problem I had with both of these projects: Skillz is trying too hard to be all things to all people, and he ends up alienating nearly everyone by doing so, especially those who would actually spend money on buying an album from a guy named Skillz. Sigh.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Weirdly, I kind of agree with Rawkus' decision when it comes to I Ain't Mad No More: the album leaves a lot to be desired, including but not limited to a host who wasn't trying to cater to all audiences. I understand the need to sell records, and apparently the best way to do so is to be as broad as possible, but Skillz just isn't that guy. He's a sarcastic battle rapper who can also relay a story when needed: I don't know of a single person who prefers his club-ready persona over his shit-talking. I wouldn't have gone as far as halting the album's release, though: I would have just sent Skillz back to the lab. There are a few tracks on I Ain't Mad No More that show sparks of promise, but nearly all of that is the result of the man's writing and not because of any of the music, as Skillz's ear for beats is almost as bad as Nas's. He's an engaging guy, and he's nice behind the microphone, but he, like many others before him that suffer from the condition known as Ras Kass Syndrome, is only as good as the music that carries his voice, and nine times of ten he's boring as shit.

Although Confessions Of A Ghostwriter stacks the deck by featuring a newer Timbaland beat alongside the previously-released Neptunes production, thereby giving Sure Shot Recordings a huge selling point to help market the project, it's ultimately the same album as I Ain't Mad No More, albeit with a shuffled tracklisting, and as such, it suffers from the same problems as before, with Skillz trying to be all things to all people, collapsing at the feet of those that give the most of a shit about him, the hip hop heads. Skillz works best in small doses: a year-end wrap-up here, a quick cameo there. But, as with a lot of folks that trade in punchlines and financial boasts that are impossible to back up, Skillz may not be the type of rapper who deserves an entire album devoted to just himself. Mixtapes, sure, knock yourself out, but an album? Something a label puts money into, expecting a return on their investment? Skillz may not be your guy. Which sucks, because the hip hop heads that read this site or write for it occasionally (including myself) constantly bitch and moan about the state of our chosen genre today, but, like everything, it's a business, and Skillz doesn't have what it takes for sustainability in the current market. I Ain't Mad No More is no holy grail of unreleased albums, and Confessions Of A Ghostwriter is only barely suitable as its replacement. All in all, neither album is mandatory. 

Skillz does have, um, skills, though. and a lot of his rhymes could be made more entertaining if they were put together with the right type of beat. Has anyone ever thought to mash up some Skillz bars with harder, fresher instrumentals? And if not, can someone make this a reality, please? I'd love to hear what Skillz would sound like over, say, some DJ Premier golden-age shit. (Those mixtapes featuring Skillz rhyming over Neptunes and Timbaland beats, along with that one over James Brown songs, are a good start, but I need further examples to justify continuing to cover the guy's career moving forward. There's a lot of people on my list, folks: artists need to earn their spots.)

BUY OR BURN? There isn't a need to own either album, unless you like having things that you were never supposed to ever have, I guess. In that case, a burn is more than sufficient.

BEST TRACKS: “Off The Wall” (from Confessions Of A Ghostwriter); “Skillz V. Shaqwan”; “PA To VA”




  1. Nice to see Skillz get some more shine as I really like him as a rapper (those yearly rap-ups are great, as was his The Wire rap-up)

  2. Anyone else seen the track list for Schoolboy Q's Oxymoron? It looks like it should be pretty good. Was disappointed that track with A$AP Rocky didn't make the cut. Those two have always made good tracks together.

  3. Skillz retired from the biz in 2012.


    His last album.

    1. I know; my plea at the end of the post was to help me decide if I should even bother finishing up with his catalog. Although he did release a 2013 sports-themed rap-up...

  4. Still waiting on that tony yayo review you promised in 2007 niccuh!