Rome Streetz is used to having his back against the wall. Shortly after he was born, his mother moved the two from London to New York, an area where he’d absorb rap music and begin to fully embrace street life. By 14, he’d caused enough trouble for his mother to send him back to London to live with his aunt. Rome’s fascination with New York rap and London’s emerging grime scene in the early 2000s stoked a fire even the Atlantic Ocean couldn’t extinguish. While traveling between countries, he honed his skills, settling on a hard-nosed nasal delivery that nearly earned him a record deal. The deal fell through, he spent time in an American prison, and by the early 2010s, hip-hop had traded the steely-eyed boom-bap Rome had used to build his name for something glossier.
By the time Rome released his 2016 album I Been Thru Mad Shit, the lane he thought was closed forever had been reopened by neoclassicists like Roc Marciano and Griselda. Rome’s voice, high-pitched and nimble as a Gemstar, fit well within this new wave of rap, and he spent the next five years cutting his own path forward. On “Bible or the Rifle,” a song near the end of Razor’s Edge—the latest of at least 10 projects he’s released in the last half-decade—he sums up his ethos with a single line: “Always knew how to turn a lick into a Benjamin.” Never one to let a good opportunity go to waste, Rome reunites with producer Futurewave—who also crafted 2019’s Headcrack—to turn the line separating brash raps and stark intimacy into powder.
Razor’s Edge is the most recent in a long line of Rome projects helmed by one producer. Just this year, he tamed Cypress Hill member DJ Muggs’s grab bag of grimy breakbeats on the excellent Death & The Magician. Where Muggs’s sound is flashier and demands space next to the featured rapper, Futurewave’s style is more subdued, content to set a mood and keep the groove consistent. As an MC with a deceptively adaptable voice, Rome thrives in both scenarios. His performances are structured but elastic, conforming to the bedrock of beats instead of barreling through them.
He sounds as comfortable over the syncopated shuffle of “Same Way” as he does over the standard march of opening track “Mud Into Moet,” casually stretching rhyme schemes to their breaking point. “Moet” flows so effortlessly, it’s easy to miss the fact that Rome keeps the first rhyme scheme going for nearly a dozen bars: “The kicks I rock is made of snakeskin/from all the cobras that I killed on my lawn/They smile in your face, give you handshakes, but want you gone/Salty ’cause I’m far beyond all the shit they on/They washed up, lookin’ sick, and my whole fit Vuitton.” There’s a casualness to Rome’s ferocity, an unpredictable energy that pushes him past being the millionth copy of Nas or Dizzee Rascal.
Many songs on Razor’s Edge express a tenderness rarely seen in his catalog. The title track is an impassioned back-and-forth between Rome and an angel, portrayed by rapper Chyna Streetz; he laments New York’s poisonous street life and its gravitational pull while she reminds him how lucky he is to have survived at all. Both “Sage or Gunsmoke” and “Bible or the Rifle” play up this duality down to their titles, the struggle of having one foot in and one foot out in the world of organized crime. It doesn’t matter whether Rome is puffing his chest out or retreating inward; he’s stylized and grounded all at once, as rugged and colorful as a graffiti mural come to life.
Rome’s work had already been canonized within the modern hip-hop underground before Razor’s Edge. Guest spots on Westside Gunn songs and the aforementioned album with Muggs are their own seals of approval, enough to ensure that backpackers, old and young, will be buying whatever Rome sells for years to come. But even though this is his third album in eight months, he sounds no less hungry than he did crafting odes to Nautica windbreakers in 2019. Grit and all, Razor’s Edge is a sleek modern update to a classic formula.
Catch up every Saturday with 10 of our best-reviewed albums of the week. Sign up for the 10 to Hear newsletter here.