Charlie Smarts and DJ Ill Digitz: Charlietape | ★★★½ | M.E.C.C.A. Records & Fat Beats  |  April 28

For the past 15 years, indie rap group Kooley High has earned a following as one of Raleigh’s favorite rap groups, captivating audiences with their boom-bap sound and undeniable collective talent as emcee and producers. Whenever one of the group’s emcees drops a solo project, fans eagerly anticipate and embrace the continuation of Kooley High’s legacy.

Out this spring from Charlie Smarts and DJ Ill Digitz, Charlietape, the pair’s first release as a duo, is a captivating journey that pays homage to mixtape culture. The album artfully blends vintage elements with modern sensibilities, making it a fitting tribute to this year’s 50th anniversary of hip hop.

From the opening skit “Charlietape Intro,” the album outlines specific expectations for its listeners: “You are now about to begin a great adventure, a journey out of your mind,” a robot-like voice intones. Charlietape goes on to seamlessly blend all the expected aesthetics of a mixtape, including shoutouts.

Produced by a mélange of talented producers, including the legendary 9th Wonder, members of The Soul Council, and in-house Kooley High producers Sinopsis and Foolery, the album brings forth a soulful, nostalgic vibe, immediately drawing listeners into an immersive experience of hip-hop’s boom-bap heyday in the ‘90s. The production works as a time machine, taking listeners on a journey through hip-hop’s golden era while still sounding fresh and relevant. 

Each track carefully complements Charlie Smarts’ prowess on the mic, and his cadence is a highlight of the album. Charlie’s confident, smooth delivery showcases his experience as an MC as he effortlessly rides each beat. He’s obviously comfortable on the mic, commanding attention with his lyrical finesse and passionate storytelling. 

The 19-track list is a perfect gift for Kooley High superfans and those who appreciate genuine hip-hop artistry. Each song—from the introspective “Hater Anonymous” to the uplifting “Air Max 95”—feels purposeful and adds to the album’s cohesive shape. The skits add an extra layer of depth: The well-placed interludes elevate the album’s concept by bridging the gaps between tracks and giving listeners a more profound insight into how music was experienced during the mixtape era. 

Charlie Smarts and DJ Ill Digitz are the only two members of Kooley High to live out of state—both are now in New York City—but they returned to Raleigh in mid-July for the album’s hometown release show, and Charlietape succeeds as a testament to North Carolina’s vibrant hip-hop scene.

Alongside his legendary producers, Charlie Smart embraces the legacy of classic hip-hop while adding in his unique voice, leaving a lasting impact on listeners and proving that quality hip-hop emerges from this region. 

All in all, Charlietape is a soul-stirring journey that showcases the remarkable talent of Charlie Smart as an emcee, DJ Ill Digitz as a DJ, and the exceptional production skills of the talented producers whose innovative soundscapes brought depth and dimension to the project. Whether you’re a fan of boom-bap or a lover of quality hip-hop, this album deserves a spot on your playlist—or your cassette player. 

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