Dayvon Barrett, known throughout Chicago as rapper King Von, was shot dead outside the Monaco Hookah Lounge, Atlanta in the early hours of November 6 when, according to police, an argument between two groups of men “escalated to gunfire.” He was 26 years old. Von—one of three men killed in the incident—leaves behind two children and a catalog of music that’s stark and uncompromising in its depiction of street violence. Yet at the time of his death, Von appeared motivated to escape the trappings of a troubled past. “I like the people more in Chicago, but it’s just smarter to live at where I am now,” he told Passion of the Weiss earlier this year.
Atlanta might have been his adopted home, but Von was Chicago all the way to his bones. The title of Welcome to O’Block—released exactly a week before Von’s death—references the tough 6400 block of South Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive on Chicago’s South Side. Dubbed O Block after murder victim Odee Perry, it includes the Parkway Gardens apartments, where Michelle Obama grew up, where Chief Keef used to hang out. Von’s music is heavily indebted to drill pioneers, and bears many of gangster rap’s timeless fundamentals. His verses are unapologetic about the violence that rippled through a life marked with stints in prison, delivered with an unpolished flow distinguished by its sense of tension.
Welcome to O’Block has been pitched as Von’s debut album after a series of mixtapes and his “origin story.” The tragedy that has followed its release means the project shoulders more of his legacy than Von could ever have intended. Thankfully, it delivers a concentrated dose of the rapper’s burgeoning style. Von was not Killer Mike, broadly covering America’s social ills, but when he raps about committing burglaries at 13 years old (“I Am What I Am”) and asserts he has “bodies from way back” (“All These N****s”), it comes with not just a captivating belligerency but sobering honesty. The opening lyrics to opening track “Armed & Dangerous” immediately give the album a sense of edginess: “Police steady watching me/Everyday they clockin’ me.” Von’s voice is the sound of tense muscles impossible to unwind.
Welcome to O’Block is a more nuanced set than Von’s last tape Levon James, which traded almost totally in hardened gangsterisms. On “Can’t Relate,” Von makes it clear his life can only be viewed through glass, insisting we can never appreciate the gravity of being on the run from authorities or sitting in jail away from your children. The album’s best section is its final three tracks, a painful hint at what Von’s future as a recording artist might have held. “Ride” sees him give thanks for a partner who stuck by his side during a trial. Punctuated by an AutoTune-doused hook, “How It Go” offers a vivid telling of his legal troubles, while closer “Wayne’s Story” depicts a 14-year-old trapped in a cycle of violence.
Primarily produced by ChopsquadDJ, the beats are uniform in their presentation: eerie piano keys, humming basslines, skittish drums, a palpable sense of menace. There are occasional divergences from the formula—“I Am What I Am” places Von in the Brooklyn drill scene alongside rising regional artist Fivio Foreign—but by prioritizing heavy atmosphere, the music scores Von’s words with the appropriate sense of gravity.
There are moments when an artist notable for his raw style shows a lack of polish. “Mad at You” shows Von somewhat churlishly decrying a woman who left him, with Dreezy playing the role of his ex. The generic “Back Again” features a strangely lackluster appearance from Von’s mentor and label head Lil Durk. Much better is “All These N****s,” a short, energetic shot of drill that showcases the pair’s musical chemistry. (Both Von and Durk’s recent work has been in the backdrop of charges faced in connection with a February 2019 shooting outside of Atlanta restaurant the Varsity. The case is still open.)
Becoming laser-focused on flaws perhaps unfairly sidesteps the importance of Welcome to O’Block in the broader Chicago rap narrative. Recontextualised in terrible sadness, it serves as the most complete document of Von’s artistry, tinged with the sting that he was still getting better. King Von wrote about a world that was bleak. His passing just makes it all the more so.
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