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Monday, May 23, 2022

Spin Doctor: Dope Game Stupid

Released in March 2021, “Dope Game Stupid” is the debut album from enigmatic rapper Bruiser Wolf. Wolf is a member of Bruiser Brigade, a new rap collective and independent record label based in Detroit and named after an easter egg from an old X-Men video game.

Like a video game, the narrative of “Dope Game Stupid” is fast-paced and hyperreal, with Wolf at the center of its hero’s journey as he describes the moral dilemma of finding himself reliant on drug-dealing to support his family. The overall message of “Dope Game Stupid” is one of optimism, but the album gives unflinching detail in describing the harsh realities that can undercut life-long dreams, even when they are achieved. The production is crisp but warm, full of dreamy retro samples and crackling static. At the same time, industrial drones and synthesizers lend the album’s sound a queasy edge as the songs stumble into each other like a drunk walk home.

“Thank God” is a jubilant opener, with Wolf crowing about what he has overcome and taunting those who doubted him. It’s a great peek at what he has to offer over the rest of the album. From the start, one of the record’s greatest strengths is the rapper’s distinctive voice — he proclaims on “I’m A Instrument,” another song on the album, “Nobody sound like this/ I got my own sound, I’m a instrument.” Wolf’s vocals are at times coarse, crooning, dryly humorous or heavy with emotion. The other quality that makes “Dope Game Stupid” so compelling is his ability to land a joke. Transitioning effortlessly between growls and yelps, Wolf delivers punchline after punchline. His raps are packed with double entendres and puns — my favorite of his one-liners (that can be in print) is “I’m doing well/ like Shamu.” Although by the end of the album the imagery can feel repetitive, Wolf employs an ever-changing set of analogies, drawing on a dictionary’s worth of synonyms for cocaine. His array of metaphors and pop culture references is dizzying, sometimes only revealing themselves on the second or third listen.

“Use Me (I’m Dope)” is a prime example of Wolf’s multi-layered approach. While the refrain, “I’m dope/ And I know you just wanna use me (I'm used up)/The one that they love…I'm drugs,” at first comes across as self-aggrandizement, it also references Wolf’s role as a dealer and the loss of agency he felt as he got caught up in the drug game. He continues to dismantle rap tropes about the glamor of dealing on the album’s centerpiece “Dope Game $tupid.” Wolf’s rapid flow over a jazzy guitar riff is irresistible, even as he delivers one of the album’s most cynical, world-weary statements: “The dope game stupid, but the boy still do it.”

Wolf usually follows moments of darkness with levity, like when he closes out cinematic fifth track “Whip Test” with the zinger “I should start a ‘keep it real’ challenge on TikTok.” “Middle Men,” while referencing details of the drug trade in vivid specificity, also pays homage to Wolf’s influences by interpolating 50 Cent. Although he never stops cracking jokes, all bravado falls away on “Momma was a Dopefiend.” The album’s closer and most vulnerable territory, Wolf lays out how his mother’s drug addiction affected him emotionally from a young age, and eventually drove him to dealing in order to support her. The track grapples with his complicity in the social issues that harmed him and his family and the cyclical nature of trauma.

Bruiser Wolf’s account of his path from drug dealer to label rapper drips with dark humor and irony without shying away from emotional depth. At just under forty minutes, “Dope Game Stupid” is dense and oversaturated, with recurring themes, imagery and instrumental motifs that help tie the album into a satisfying whole. The story Wolf crafts by drawing on his lived experience and gift as a rapper is equal parts triumphant and cautionary.