Stevie Durag - "Road Warrior" Review
Alabama based artist and producer Stevie Durag dropped their project "Road Warrior" in September 2023 and in this Music Mondays article we break down this body of work after letting it settle. Don't miss this detailed analysis of a one of a kind project.
Stevie Durag is an artist and producer based in Alabama, with wide-reaching collaborations throughout the underground music scene from smaller acts such as New Jersey’s Big Ouee to artists teetering on the mainstream such as the PNW’s own Astral Trap. Born in Minnesota, Stevie Durag began making music ten years ago, building his own unique brand of dark trap-influenced production and eventually beginning to share said music a few years ago. The initial growth was slow, but since the late 2010s, Durag has been making a name for himself in the underground community with his versatility and chameleonic approach to working with artists of all styles as well as his frequent coverage from the UK-based blog 108MICS. Tapes such as ‘The Stevie Files, Vol. 1’ and the excellent collaborative tape ‘Return to the Slab’ with rapper Cybernetic Snake showcase both his musical prowess and adaptability, with the former featuring a wider range of styles and influences and the latter being a master class in artist-producer collaboration. Durag’s versatility is further shown in his latest EP, the six-track ‘Road Warrior’, where he assembles an international ensemble of artists to feature on his magnificent homage to the ever-growing Michigan rap scene.
Inspired by Michigan mainstays such as Trapboy 3k and Danny G, Durag wanted to encapsulate the wide array of sounds within the Michigan scene, weaving the darker, horror-inspired style he’s perfected through each city's unique brand of uptempo trap. Each track takes influence from one of many dialects of the subgenre– while they’re all mutually intelligible and recognizable as the “Michigan sound”, some incorporate the fast pianos and synth basslines of Detroit trap while others put emphasis on the haunting pads, slower keys, and gritty 808s of Flint’s growing scene. To further explain the differences and nuances between each track on ‘Road Warrior’ and their relationship to the local Michigan scenes, a closer look will be taken at the production throughout the EP as well as exploring the plethora of features that the artist has brought together.
On the first song, ‘Bout It’, Detroit-based rapper Blood Money acts as the lone feature over a menacing beat; the instrumental is recognizably Michigan with a slightly slower tempo, accentuating the haunting atmosphere of the track. The signature thin hi-hats and thick, dreary pads with an array of glitchy accent percussion comprise the beat, underscored by a powerful-yet-subtle 808, creating a simple but effective backdrop to Blood Money’s formidable performance. It’s hard to place this instrumental into a specific local scene as Durag’s darker production style shares many qualities with both the Flint and Detroit sounds, but I would categorize this as closer to the gloomy, slower aspects of the growing Flint scene. The trench-deep timbre of the artist's voice along with the sheer confidence in his delivery immediately cement the sinister mood of the track, his verse hitting right away with a bouncy flow that alternates between short staccato bars and rapid-fire triplets. These oscillating cadences create a sense of movement and tension throughout the song, occasionally broken up by his catchy repeated refrain (“All my —-s, they bout it!”) which was immediately stuck in my head for about a week after my first listen. Despite his actually being from Michigan, I find his flow on ‘Bout It’ to be more reminiscent of some select Atlanta artists (Takeoff– rest in peace– immediately comes to mind), although still blended with the unique rhyme schemes and smooth syllabic structures born from the Michigan scene he inhabits. The mix on this particular song is clean but claustrophobic in a captivating manner, much like the sounds coming from many Memphis artists past and present, giving ‘Bout It’ quite the interesting blend of stylistic influences and choices that come together to create a spine-chilling Michigan anthem. I genuinely hope to hear a full-length album from them as I’d love to see Stevie’s experimentation with the Michigan style and Blood Money’s inherently tough performances develop further.
The following track, ‘Mad Max’ (featuring Big Ouee and DJ Lucas), brings out a significantly heavier version of the production style Durag showcased on ‘Bout It’-- the melodic structure is quite similar, tense pads opening up the track as Stevie’s signature tags play. The rhythm of the drums is less dense, but the resulting rhythmic space only serves to add more tension as the thundering bass immediately occupies the low end to its limits, giving Big Ouee the platform to steal the show right away with the first verse. His delivery is relaxed, each bar floating over the beat in a controlled manner much like many other rappers from the scene, but with his own signature disaffected cadence that fluctuates in tone between each punch-in. Big Ouee’s performance on this song reminds me somewhat of certain plugg/plugg-adjacent artists (curiously enough, RXKNephew comes to mind) where bars overlap in certain areas and clash with backing vocals at times, but between his sharp lyrical content and catchy flow, it doesn’t detract from his verse or the song as a whole. While it’s not the most precise style of rapping I’ve ever heard, the personality comes through so strongly that it becomes great in its own right and provides a unique contrast with the unnerving atmosphere of the beat and his carefree, braggadocious bars. Stevie Durag states that he crafted this instrumental for Ouee to accentuate his “raw and gritty” style, and it does so exquisitely. About halfway through ‘Mad Max’, Ouee’s final bars lead perfectly into the verse from Massachusetts-based artist DJ Lucas as the latter artist adopts a similar flow– for about five seconds on my first listen, I thought Ouee was performing in a different vocal register, but DJ Lucas starts turning up right away with a raspy delivery packed full of raw energy. Bars like “I used to take fitteds from the lost and found!” can come off as humorous at first but in the context of his full verse, it just ends up sounding insanely hard. You can hear Lucas’ hunger just through the way he belts his bars; at times, he can slide off of the beat just due to the aggression in his voice, but it never distracts from the song or makes his performance feel lesser. Instead, like Ouee, it just adds to their grittiness and spirited styles that Durag wanted to showcase and adds a level of intensity to their bars– without the pinpoint vocal rhythms of a lot of mainstream MI rap, the instrumental takes a different role in the structure of the song, moreso setting the mood and tone of the track rather than being the glue that holds it all together. That being said, ‘Mad Max’ is a rare breed of banger that I’ve had on repeat since I first heard this EP and fits really nicely in the sequence of the project, retaining the chilling atmos and lyrical content that ‘Bout It’ initiated while offering a bit more humor and personality throughout both verses.
Oakland’s own SMB Blurr features on the following song, ‘Interstate 40’, sliding more into the Bay Area’s sound which shares many characteristics of the Michigan scene; many artists from the Bay and Michigan tend to collaborate due to these similarities. Blurr slides immediately over the Durag-produced instrumental, with his double-tracked vocals floating over the beat in a similar manner to Ouee and Lucas although with a bit more cohesion, broken up by the slightly-altered cadences between each vocal track. His flow is laidback, reminiscent of other modern Bay artists, but I’m hesitant to compare him to anyone in particular– like the other artists on this EP, Durag has found an artist that pulls from their regional influences while creating a style of their own. Blurr never really deviates from his delivery from the top to the bottom of the track, but due to the brevity of ‘Interstate 40’ (coming in at a tight minute and thirty seconds), it never gets repetitive. The placement of this song in the tracklist vaguely reminds me of Earl Sweatshirt’s interlude on the Vince Staples LP ‘FM!’, where the artist comes to deliver a hard-hitting verse over an absolute earworm of a beat. The subject matter follows the same lines as the last, with the refrain towards the end of the song exemplifying Blurr’s authenticity in a scene full of less-than-serious artists. The beat itself has quite an ambient structure; droning pads dominate the melodics of the instrumental while light, bellish keys add movement. The drums fall further into the background than any other on this song, making Blurr’s voice the highlight of the song much like many of the cuts on Veeze’s 2023 album ‘Ganger’, a creative decision that I find smart due to the subdued delivery shared by both artists.
‘LCBD’ takes inspiration from the Mchigan scene in an even deeper sense– Danny G, a well-known Detroit producer who’s worked extensively with major MI mainstays such as the massively popular BabyTron, flipped a Goldeneye 64 sample some years back in a subgenre that does not tend to pull from video game soundtracks too often. Durag is familiar with the host of sampleable melodies and moments throughout the G64 OST, having pulled from it himself extensively in the past as he explored other styles, but the unique twist on one of these samples with the regional MI style influenced Durag to do the same, leading to the insanely tough beat on ‘LCBD’ (an acronym for Looks Can Be Deceiving). Punchy kicks, tight snares, and a light bell melody punch through as the drums return to the forefront of the instrumental mix, offering the perfect foundation for both featured artists to glide over during this brief cut. ‘LCBD’ features artists BB Dizzy and BoutaBank Glizzy from Benton Harbor, MI– the BB in Dizzy’s name is short for BoutaBank if you were wondering about the similarities in flow and name– who appear twice on this EP, each artist offering solid performances on both tracks. On this particular track, Glizzy and Dizzy come with the hardest vocals since Blood Money, with deliveries from both artists holding much more conviction in each bar than the past three artists we’ve heard, riding the beat with higher proficiency and belting out each word with a hunger that is rarely heard in the Michigan scene. None of this is to detract from the performances by Ouee, Lucas, or Blurr, however– all artists featured on the EP thus far have offered brilliant contributions to ‘Road Warrior’ to the point that I couldn’t hear another artist on each of their songs. The punchlines from both artists hit hard, even offering some very light introspection (“Bitch, I can’t trust me, how I’ma trust you?”) while maintaining the signature brand of humor-tinged lyrics that is characteristic of the regional scene they inhabit. As mentioned before, this is another very tightly-packed song, with a single verse from each artist wrapped into a minute-and-a-half banger courtesy of Durag. The brevity once again prevents the instrumental from becoming repetitive with its lack of structure, which it makes up for wholly with its massive catchiness.
‘From Birmingham to Birmingham’ features artist Unruly based in– you guessed it– Birmingham, UK. Durag’s signature tags kick off the song, punctuated by a synth bassline that establishes the base of the rhythm for the song, followed shortly by a rapid-fire hi-hat line and a quiet kick that mainly serves as a vehicle for the bounciness of the beat. The intro on this song is by far the longest on ‘Road Warrior’, with a plethora of vocal chops creating tension as the listener waits for the song to fully drop. ‘FBTB’ marks the first time that I have ever heard a UK artist on a Detroit beat, and based off this song, I’m desperate to hear more of it. Unruly jumps right in with a flurry of punchlines, delivered with a level of confidence that only Superman could rival. He flows over the beat effortlessly, cadence altering slightly between bars as many Detroit artists do while maintaining a perfect match to the rhythm of Durag’s instrumental. His vocal inflections help break up the opacity of his thick accent to my American ears, and with that alone, I can easily say that Unruly is one of the most talented vocalists to appear on this EP– both in the sense of traditional rapping and also in the creative function of adding a uniqueness to his delivery and flow that sets him apart from peers across the globe. The braggadocious lyrical content treads many of the lines of previous artists, but his punchlines are steel-strong, coming back-to-back at lightspeed and with a lion-like ferocity. The mix of this song is also much clearer than the previous tracks, which adds quite a bit more cohesion to the song between artist and instrumental, allowing you to hear each element of the instrumental in full while preserving the dynamic punchiness of Unruly’s belted bars. ‘FBTB’ is also one of the few songs on ‘Road Warrior’ with a distinct hook, but you wouldn’t know until it’s repeated towards the end of the track– the aggressive flurry of bars never stops, even for a second, yet even with there being a distinct lack of B- or C- sections in the instrumental, his mind-melting performance prevents the song from becoming a bore as it is the longest track we’ve heard yet. I find this song to be the one with the most replay value on the EP and the one I added to my playlist the fastest; that being said, nearly every song on here still ended up making it to that playlist.
The closing track on ‘Road Warrior’, ‘Be Without You’, is the second of the two tracks featuring duo BoutaBank Glizzy and BB Dizzy. From the jump, ‘Be Without You’ takes on a significantly more solemn tone. A melancholic piano line accentuated by an airy, thin synth pad form the core of the melodies of this song while the drum patterns lose their characteristic density, the rhythm of the song solely comprised of open- and closed-hats playing in tandem that are only broken up by feather-light rimshots and a trunk-rattling 808 bass. The gloomy tone doesn’t singularly lie in the instrumental, as both artists rap-croon through a heavy cloud of Auto-Tune and reverb, offering a melodic side to the artists that couldn’t have been predicted based off of their performances in ‘LCBD’. Mostly retaining their street-smart lyrics coated in braggadocio, they still occasionally match the dreary tone through bars that touch on lost friends and lost love, with both sides of the coin showing throughout their heartfelt hook. The emotional quality of this song is not to be understated– despite there not being much of depth with the more sorrowful lyrical content, the vocal inflections and gentler delivery of both artists and the gloominess of the instrumental synergize to solidify the pensive atmosphere of ‘Be Without You’ and reveal a more vulnerable side of the two artists.
‘Road Warrior’, the latest project by underground mainstay Stevie Durag, is a project that encapsulates and pays true homage to the blossoming Michigan rap scene that has taken over the early 2020s and does so with genuine love and authenticity. Durag has really done his homework with the regional sounds in Michigan alone and has brought his own unique, dark twist to the plethora of sounds that are coming out of the state, from the upbeat dance-worthy Detroit bounce to the grim, grounded tones of the recently-popular Flint rap scene. Each of the featured artists, whether from Michigan itself, the Bay, or even Birmingham, are perfect examples of the strength and diversity in style that even the underground ranks of the scene carry and can bring to Michigan’s unique flavor of trap. Durag’s massive talent as not only a producer but a curator of sound and artistry has resulted in a stellar EP that went overlooked by most at the end of 2023, but I can’t imagine that eyes will be off of him for very long if he keeps putting out work of this caliber, which he has done for so long and with so many different artists. I look forward to seeing Durag explore this style more as he grows as a producer, and especially to seeing how he can further join his own personal brand of darker trap music with other growing regional styles across the US and the rest of the world (Milwaukee, please!). ‘Road Warrior’ is a brief, 6-song EP that is absolutely worth your time if you choose to listen, and his next releases will be sure to hit just as hard as this one did.
Stream Road Warrior: open.spotify.com/album/6gVbReTTc0mpsiW8jIHQ5J?si=EZQ2w7BFTTmH7fPlJ6047A
Follow Stevie Durag: linktr.ee/StevieDurag
Written By xoarctic: twitter.com/xoxoarctic