NLE Choppa jokes about the pronunciation of “underwear” with his mom on Instagram Live. On Twitter, he records his emotions like he’s writing in a very public diary. He paints a distinct picture of himself across all social media platforms: a 17-year-old-kid who’s every bit the jokester and dancer and who has become a driving force in rap’s next generation. But when it comes to his music, that detailed portrait becomes a crudely drawn sketch. With an array of cartoonishly violent threats spread out across his small catalogue, it was previously impossible to know exactly who he is or what he valued strictly from the music itself. That changes with his major label debut, Top Shotta, an overly-long introduction to the man behind the maelstrom of violence he raps about. It takes a while to get to its point, but when it does, Top Shotta proves that NLE Choppa has quite the story to tell when he’s speaking from the heart.
At 16, Bow Wow was making songs about blushingly taking his crush shopping. When NLE Choppa was 16, his breakout song was about keeping a ratchet like tennis. In the short year-and-a-half since he released “Shotta Flow,” NLE Choppa hasn’t stopped cooking up inventive ways to rap about guns. His debut EP, Cottonmouth, painted him as a pistol-toting product of his environment, one who brushed his teeth with a Glock and gargled with blood. At every turn, he turned the scene into Thriller, referenced guys on the news (and wondered if you heard about them) and compared himself to a member of the Black Panther Party—all in service of establishing a villainous personality larger than his own.
Top Shotta picks up right where Cottonwood left off—with NLE Choppa’s guns cocked and aimed at the listener. He stomps through wet grass on “Daydream” and vehemently squeals about a shootout in traffic. Immediately after, he lurks in a car before spilling bullets on “Double Bacc,” setting the stage for the album’s direction like the initial missions in an Assassin’s Creed videogame.
You’ll be tempted to write the album off at face level; a lot of rappers tend to focus on enacting violence. But very few are as detailed as NLE Choppa, and his descriptions keep the LP interesting through the grating points in the first half. By the time “Murda Talk” rolls around, you’re practically an expert on NLE Choppa’s school of gunplay, but his intricate explanation of creeping through someone’s door before chasing them drops you in on the scene, peeking from behind a crack in your hands. As he’s showcased before, one of NLE Choppa’a strengths is his creative dexterity, being able to flip these angry bars into a melodic style that’s smooth and easy on the ears. This skill is best displayed on “Make Em Say” where he practically moans over the chorus as he and Mulatto describe rounds of good sex. Vulgarity isn’t really a strongpoint for Choppa, but his switched style breaks up the monotony.
By the time the 20-track album’s second half kicks off, you’ll feel lyrically spent, but it’s here where you’ll want to grab a bottle of water and dig in. NLE Choppa trades in the guns for journal pages where he is open, honest, and, at times, emotional about what he’s experienced. With a flurry of piano keys and warm melodies, “Neighborhood Watch” acts as an introduction to the second side that begins with a pistol-whipping. “Can’t Take It” follows, putting the listener in the passenger’s seat as an intense situation goes down. The attention to detail that makes his threats so filled with imagery is utilized for dramatic effect here, and, combined with the emotions he explains, the essence of who NLE Choppa really is begins to leak out.
On “Paranoid,” the album’s centerpiece, NLE Choppa is naked before a room full of strangers, spilling his deepest secrets and feelings in a way that a 17-year-old typically doesn’t. “My biggest fear is being left all alone/ I’m sincere when I admit I’m wrong,” he says, digging even further into his psyche in intriguing detail. It’s here where the album opens up, and the preceding tracklisting makes more sense. If people are into the idea of NLE Choppa at this stage, they’re probably going to be kids who look like him admiring the guns, the glitz and the glamour. But once they get that, they’re still lacking an explanation of NLE Choppa’s true self. .
If indeed the album was made to hook fans of this style early, it recontextualizes the music in its first half in a way that seeks to justify the filler. But it’s still imperfect. Four or five songs from the first half could be cut and the message would still be clear. It’s understandable that NLE Choppa chose not to lead with the introspective side in hopes of not scaring away the true fanbase, but with so much of the harshness frontloaded, it might deter people from even making it to the other side of the project. And in the streaming age where albums have little to no replayability, its long-term worthiness might be called into question.
Top Shotta proves that NLE Choppa has an interesting story to tell; it might just not be the one he thinks people really want to hear. Regardless of whether he’s actually carrying guns all the time or not, his exploration of emotional trauma is detailed, poignant and necessary. It’s clear that this is where his focus needs to be going forward. We know enough about the guns now. That same intensity needs to be brought to his backstory.
Trey Alston is a freelance music journalist who’s covered pop culture for Vulture, Complex, MTV News, Pitchfork, and more. When he isn’t writing about the latest releases, he is a copywriter and strategist for labels. Follow him on Twitter.