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Rap, Basketball, Jazz & Soul: Just Adam’s ‘Buckets III’ is a Modern Telling of Chicago’s Timeless Throughlines

Evan Dale // February 20, 2024

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Tried but not tired, hip-hop’s basketball allegory has a lot of history. The two cultural spaces are essentially one, and when being melded in Chicago – a city where both the game and the sport have as proud of a history, independently and tethered, as anywhere else – it’s symbiotic.

Just Adam’s first iteration of his Buckets series dropped in 2019, delineated not only by its potent thematic discourse and the Microsoft Paint aesthetic of its album artwork, but moreso by the meditative lyricism and simple beat pack that, too, host a symbiotic relationship within the Chicago rapper’s signature sound. A gravely voice propels a downtempo flow in and out of beats oft-sampled and always bass-heavy; through addicting hooks and old-school reminiscent skits driving toward a tendency for central storytelling.

When Buckets II dropped in 2021, it – parallel with Adam himself – was an image of growth sans the sacrifice of those signatures that have long made him unique in a modern world – and a modern rapscape especially - too tied down by trends. More organic instrumentation crept into his production, bleeding of something that still feels inescapably Chicago, while simultaneously timeless. His storytelling became more vivid, immersing a listener in the stories he tells, always from honest experience. And his flow was made immensely crisper. Having always been a lyrically leaning rapper, Buckets II leveled him up even further towards his postseason form.

With Buckets III – with the most ardent basketball throughlines he’s woven into any of the series to date – Just Adam curates an exhibition of not only his growth as a conceptually cohesive storyteller, but as a pure rapper, dynamically capable – as he always has been – of infusing his rhymes with addicting hooks. Beginning to end, the 7-track, 24-minute EP never deviates too far from its hoop dreams. Whether by way of a series of seamlessly interwoven skits, or even bar-to-bar pulling basketball-related rhymes into the EP’s thematic discourse (listen to the opening stanza of Thankfulif you need an example), Just Adam keeps the storyline prominent without sacrificing any of his creativity to upholding it in any kind of gimmicky way. It’s a balancing act that makes or breaks the idea of a concept album, and one that Adam tightropes with acute understanding of his own sound.

He also balances his own Chicago-rooted signature with that another overarching Chicago staple. A saxophone opens the project up, as do the squeaks of sneakers on the hardwood, tethering from its very start, another aspect of Chicago’s most innate cultural cornerstone – jazz – to his already premeditated aesthetics – hip-hop and basketball. That same instrumental foundation reappears consistently throughout Buckets III, interweaving itself with samples that, too, tie something timelessly Chicago into every track, And though not new to Just Adam’s catalogue, that infusion of Jazz and Soul – see especially Kiraly Payne and Micah’s melodic breakdown closing out Outkasts / Haunted –expands not only his Chicago homage, but his range as a rapper and a musician at large.

And from that perspective – by way of balancing basketball’s thematic throughlines with his skilled advances as a rapper, and his extended range with more instrumentally and soulfully fluid production – Buckets III is exactly what it is intended to be: a display of Just Adam’s growth since the series’ last iteration. But, it’s also something more: a comprehensively successful concept collection tethering a mosaic of Chicago’s most prized cultural spaces.

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