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Joell Ortiz & L’Orange | Signature Album Review

Between his multisyllabic rhyme schemes, agility and penchant for piling writerly details, rapping has never been a problem for Joell Ortiz — and it wasn’t on his mostly solid 2021 album, Autograph. There, his raps were generally sharp, with the project’s main issues being indistinct production and spurts of formulaic song tropes that occasionally halted its momentum. Those issues are almost entirely erased on Signature, a reimagining courtesy of soul production maestro, L’Orange. This time, Ortiz and L’Orange cut trite mid-2000s sounds and a few generic songs for a tighter, more emotionally intense offering.

From the jump, you notice the difference, with most tracks being imbued with more left-field instrumentation or a surreal twist that prevents monotony. For “In My Feelings,” L’Orange replaces the Heatmakerz’s bland synth arrangement with intermittently stuttering electric guitar that zig-zags to match Ortiz’s start-stop flows. The Signature version of “OG” replaces a straightforward vocal loop with muted menace. It’s calm, and even tranquil, but the climactic guitar flare evokes danger — a fitting combination for a song that seamlessly juxtaposes Ortiz’s previous block-hugging with the domestic pleasures he enjoys today. He punctuates one sequence with a lucid glimpse into his past and present, threading them with a rhyme scheme that ricochets off the ominous chords: “I remember when home was looking through the peephole/Hoping the police don’t kick in my do’, reach for/They weapon and use lethal force on me and my people/Now I’m in Home Depot looking for a gazebo.”

At their best, L’Orange’s beats add dimension to Ortiz’s raps, creating a tension that acts as palpable subtext for his words. Fueled by a warped Christmas carol sample, “Uncle Chris Car” is laced with a haze of nostalgia that feels otherworldly. On a functional level, it coats Ortiz’s otherwise harsh reminiscence with a profound layer of irony; its twinkling strings and prepubescent choral vocals underscore an innocence he never had.

While L’Orange does his thing, the beat switches aren’t the only improvements over Autograph; there’s also addition by subtraction. For all the quality lyricism on Autograph, tracks like “Goin Thru It” and “Lifeline” always scanned as cookie cutter filler. With its forlorn beat, sped-up vocal sample and a “Runaway Love”-style narrative, “Goin Thru It” feels like an unremarkable attempt at making a relatable mental health anthem. An ode to his wife, “Lifeline” suffers from a flavorless beat and a hook that’s so straightforward it might as well be rewritten to read, “I love you.” “Sincerely Yours” is a tight rhyme showcase, but it’s a bit more aimless than the focused, emotional bursts of the best songs from Autograph.

Removing those cuts helps trim down on the time of the album, too, with Signature checking in at 28 minutes instead of 43. This keeps the emotions and sonic textures of the LP tightly coiled enough to maintain a sense of propulsion that matches Ortiz’s verbal acrobatics. As sharp as it is tidy, the Autograph remix edition is an exercise in efficiency and sonic imagination, with the latter being a courtesy of a production dynamo who keeps it anything but stale. In the end, L’Orange left his mark on Signature by penning his own, making this version of Autograph a lot more legible.

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