Through the years, hip-hop has given us our fair share of kid rappers. Jermaine Dupri set the bar back in the early nineties when he discovered two young teens at an Atlanta mall and groomed the duo into becoming the backwards clothes wearing, platinum selling, pop rap sensation, Kris Kross (rip to Chris “Mac Daddy” Kelly). The success of Kris Kross opened the market for kid rappers and the next few years would bring on quite a few acts looking to duplicate the success of JD and the Krises: Chi-Ali, Da Youngsta’s, Illegal, Shyheim, and the subject of today’s post, A+.
At the age of fourteen, Andre “A+” Levins would release his debut single “All I See,” and a few days before his fifteenth birthday he would release his debut album, The Latch-Key Child on Universal. Backed heavily by the production and the pen of Smith Brothers Entertainment (a production team comprised of the three Smith brothers: Elliott, James and Charles), The Latch-Key Child would peak at thirty-six on the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Charts and received mostly positive reviews. For one reason or another (probably because Universal stopped believing in the project), only one single was released from The Latch-Key Child, and it would quickly fizzle out becoming a mere footnote in the annuals of hip-hop. Universal would give A+ one more shot with his 1999 sophomore album, Hempstead High, but after that project failed commercially, A+ would fade away into hip-hop obscurity.
Let’s revisit The Latch-Key Child and assess if it’s worthy of more than footnote status.
Next Level (Intro)/Enter Hempstead – The album opens with a snippet of A+ giving shoutouts during an interview, then a dark slow-rolling mystically muddy instrumental (credited to Fabian Hamilton) drops and A+ spits a few boastful verses to warm up for the night. The second half of this (“Enter Hempstead”) starts with a couple of news soundbites about the streets of Hempstead, followed by a different beat that’s not as dope as the previous one, but sufficient enough for A+ to get off another quick verse.
Move On – Our host dedicates this one to a few of his deceased peoples. Over a melancholic backdrop that incorporates a slick Ron Isley soundbite for the hook, A+ offers up three verses that each explain the sad demise of three different young people (Black, KayShawn and Amanda), all lost to senseless gun violence. A’s sad rhymes combined with The Smith Brothers’ somberly beautiful instrumental make for a compelling and powerful listen that sends my parental anxiety through the roof.
Me & My Microphone – Buckwild gets his first of two production credits on the night, creating a dope semi-somber instrumental that A+ uses to discuss his relationship with his first love, his microphone (get your heads out the gutter, kids). A+ compares his microphone to a girl, and while his metaphoric storyline isn’t executed to the level of Nas’s gun comparison on “I Gave U Power” or Common’s love/hate relationship with hip-hop on “I Used To Lover H.E.R,” it’s decent enough. Q-Tip drops by to provide the hook, providing the cherry on top of this enjoyable record and satisfying Tribe Degrees of Separation for yet another post.
All I See – This was the lead and only single released from TLKC. Carl Carr (say that name fast ten times) interpolates Shalamar’s “This Is For The Lover In You,” creating a feel-good skating vibe that A+ uses to express his gratitude and affection for a young lady that’s got him wide-open (so much so that her love detoured him from becoming a thug). This is bubblegum hip-hop in its purest form, and the guest vocalist, Shakira Atily’s adlibs and hook are designed to make the gum even easier to chew (speaking of the hook, how bad is second part: “Give me a chance to know your name, and I’ll never turn and walk away”? Huh? Flaws and all, I still enjoyed the Shalamar flip.
Gusto – A+ is joined by fellow Hempstead native and one-half of Mobb Deep, Prodigy for this unlikely duet. Miladon (dope alias) hooks up a grimy backdrop that sounds like something Havoc would chef up, as A+ spits PG-13 rated thug rhymes and P holds nothing back, spewing his standard uncensored dark bars full of death and violence, and he takes care of hook duties. Even though this pairing feels unnatural, it still makes for a decent record.
Hard Times – The hook on this one makes it sound like a song of encouragement, but A+’s verses kind of contradict the optimistic refrain (Oh, and by the way, “Brothas are tired of being broke, so maybe that’s why they freebasin'” might be the most ridiculous bar I ‘ve heard all month). The song’s conflicting content sounds like lazy writing and when combined with the Smith Brothers’ sleepy instrumental, this one is easily skippable.
A + Z – If you’ve never heard this song before or didn’t already figure out based on the semi-clever song title, this one pairs A+ with AZ. Ike Lee hooks up a smooth mid-temp groove with a deep bass line for the two parties to exchange bars over, but unfortunately, AZ only spits about eight bars and is left to handle hook duties, while our host tries his best to justify rhyming on the same track as a lyrical monster like his guest.
Wanna Be Rich – Over Buckwild’s warm and creamy backdrop, A+ shares his dreams of being rich and successful, or as he so cleverly puts it on the hook, “turn these paper plates to silver platters.” I don’t know if he ever achieved his financial goal (he definitely didn’t as a rapper), but it makes for a dope record.
My Thing – A+ spits more “rah-rah” rhymes over a fire Brothers Smith instrumental.
Parkside Coalition – Miladon gets his second production credit of the night, providing another gully backdrop for this Parkside posse record. A+ is joined by three other uncredited rappers that sound heavily influenced by Mobb Deep, but collectively, they turn this into an entertaining record that Hempstead can be proud of.
Party Joint – As you can probably tell from the song title, this one is designed for the clubs. The Smith Bros. build the instrumental around a loop from The S.O.S. Band’s “No One’s Gonna Love You” that our fifteen-year-old host uses to rap about sippin’ Moet and baggin’ bad chicks in the club, to which I say, all of its cap. The production work is decent, but the song ends up sounding as generic as the song title.
Alpha 2 Omega – A+ uses this dope instrumental to get on some boastful battle shit. That’s all I got.
Shout It Out (Outro) – A+ brings back the instrumental from “Next Level” and raps a few shoutouts to close out the album.
Based on the album title, cover artwork and the puppy love content of the radio friendly lead single, you would assume The Latch-Key Child (I hate the way “Child” sounds in the title; “Kid” sounds and would have flowed so much better) was going to present A+ as an innocent teenager with a bunch of playful themes and light-hearted songs. There’s a reason they say don’t judge a book, or in this case, an album, by its cover. Over the course of thirteen tracks, young Andre (who sounds like a mix of Shyheim and Jamal) recites the scripts written for him (courtesy of the The Smith Brothers), which mostly cover street life tales and thuggery that our teenage host sounds way too young to be rapping about. Musically, TLKC sounds great, as The Smith Brothers and company create a thorough batch of dope instrumentals for our host to rap over, so even while you’re shaking your head in disbelief at young Andre’s street/thug narratives or laughing at his fabricated episodes of sippin’ Moet and baggin’ ladies in the club, you can still zone out and enjoy the soundscape that backs his fairy tales.