Richard Epic Wallace
  • Courtesy of Richard Wallace
  • Richard “Epic” Wallace

Local hip-hop outfit BBU set a personal high with its second mixtape, 2012’s bell hooks, so it was sad to see the group call it quits before that year came to a close. Fortunately it was more of a break than a breakup, and last November BBU reunited and started working on more music as a unit. Its members have also been making music apart, and late last week one of BBU’s three MCs, Richard “Epic” Wallace, released his solo debut, #OPRAH.

The hashtag-styled title is actually an acronym that stands for “Ordinary People Recording American History.” The title reminds me of a quote credited to Public Enemy’s Chuck D, that “rap is black America’s CNN.” The concept of “OPRAH” is a continuation of Chuck D’s comment, but it’s also an allusion to rap’s current position, wherein recording equipment has become increasingly cheaper and more people have access to tools that allow them to document and share their experiences on some of the most popular websites out there.

Of course an ordinary person doesn’t have nearly as big a megaphone as Oprah Winfrey, who is a reference point for #OPRAH. By combining these two poles—regular people and one of the most recognizable names in media—into one acronym Wallace hints at some contradictions he circles around in his album. Wallace has an unflinching desire to shine a light on those who struggle to get by in our democratic society. In the first couple lines in the title track he addresses the demolition of Chicago’s housing projects and the state of the city’s public schools; his blunt descriptions and resounding delivery illuminate the stark state of affairs he covers throughout #OPRAH.

Wallace’s strongest lyrics draw upon the political and personal, and his most piercing lines about race occur when he raps about his perspective as a young black man, be it in his ongoing grief over the death of Trayvon Martin or his struggle to deal with the environment he lives in (“The world is a piece of shit / I know cause I’m a piece of it / But I can’t find no peace in it”). As heavy as his material can get Wallace’s bold delivery works well with euphoric backing tracks, and he weds his fierce rapping with surging instrumentals on songs such as “Gadaffi” and “DoDatAt.”

The tune I keep returning to is “Family Tree,” on which Wallace delves into his lifelong education in black history and culture, tracing his road to discovery over a sample of “Eleanor Rigby” that is paired with a rapid, shuffling beat. “Family Tree” begins with a sample of an Oprah Winfrey Show episode in which a neo-Nazi discusses his views on race (I won’t repeat the offender’s perspective, but you can see it here). Wallace drops other samples of Winfrey facing questions about her race—including a clip from an Entertainment Tonight interview about Paula Deen’s troubled 2013—and all of them show how one of the most praised media figures faces racism that many folks encounter daily. These samples flesh out Wallace’s vision for #OPRAH, a document inspired by unfortunately common struggles that’s anything but ordinary.

Leor Galil writes about hip-hop every Wednesday.