Bells & Whistles, Vol. 7: The subtle magic of Cousin Stizz

Hey y’all, sorry for the delay on this week’s newsletter. Hopefully the announcement will help explain why: our first NTS set airs this week! Thursday at 7PM ET on nts.live, tap in. Besides that, I’ve been thinking a lot about Cousin Stizz, so here’s an essay about him. – Mano

The subtle magic of Cousin Stizz

The dreams of a dynasty had fizzled out. A year after dissolving the Big Three, the Boston Celtics sputtered to a 25-57 record in the 2013-14 NBA season. They were left with franchise point guard Rajon Rondo—a shell of his former self—and a slew of young and barely rosterable players. (Their leading scorer that season was the inert Jeff Green.) But the luck of the Irish never entirely fails: Because they were so bad, they landed the sixth pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, and on draft night, they selected a bulldog guard named Marcus Smart. 

The selection signaled to fans that Rondo was on his way out, and indeed, that winter, the Celtics traded their star to Dallas. But Smart was a different kind of player. In his rookie year, he showed promise. He wasn’t a dazzling scorer, or a traditional playmaker, but he did all the little things. He bodied players on defense. He hit his threes when they mattered. He proved he could be a starter. He didn’t win Rookie of the Year, but he won games and won the hearts of fans.

Around this time, a rapper living a couple T stops from TD Garden in Field’s Corner, Dorchester was catching a buzz. Cousin Stizz’s mesmerizing debut single “Shoutout” was making the rounds. In the summer of 2014, Complex premiered the music video, a top-back cruise through Stizz’s neck of the woods. People at the time talked about Stizz like he was Boston rap’s savior, but great music doesn’t need a narrative. “Shoutout” was a perfect rap song, a late blog era gem pulsing with the DNA of Cardo and Sledgren. The rap internet loved it; Jeff Weiss called it “ruthlessly effective.” A few months later, Drake was dancing to it at his birthday party.

“Effortless” is the word that comes to mind when I think of Cousin Stizz. His raps are so smooth you forget to check the technique. The best songs remind me of my favorite words in the English language: words that sort of sound like what they mean. The word “twinkle,” for instance, practically sparkles. “Wobble” almost undulates as the air travels across your tongue when you say it. It’s not quite onomatopoeia, but it’s a similarly tactile sensation. These words don’t just mean something, they embody worlds of meaning.

Worlds flow out of Cousin Stizz when he raps, on “No Bells,” “Who you know from out here? Your name ain’t ringin’ no bells, boy.” Listen to how his voice wraps around those words, feeling out their shape, and around the beat itself—a melody that sounds like a sonar ping from a submarine. To call him a master beat selector is almost a disservice; he understands how a beat will color his raps, how sonics will transform meaning. Braggadocio rarely sounds so cold and barren. But “No Bells” isn’t just a flex. What elevates it from a good rap song to a Boston classic is that it somehow feels like emptiness and everything at once. It casts a spell on me no matter how many times I’ve heard it. It’s a song about home that sounds like home.

I came home for Thanksgiving in 2017. The following Friday, hundreds of us huddled together in a sold-out House Of Blues Boston. Draped in a custom Celtics jersey, Cousin Stizz gave the city a homecoming show for the ages. He played the hits and the deep cuts off his twin masterpieces, Suffolk County and Monda. He brought out OG Swaggerdick and Michael Christmas and his dad. He took requests towards the end, including his closing song, the triumphant loosie “Super Bowl,” for which he was joined by dozens of day-ones on stage.

One reading of Stizz is that he’s Boston’s own Curren$y: a stable rock of a rapper, consistent as they come. For many fans, this writer included, there’s a comforting, meat-and-potatoes quality to his music. He won’t wow you with every release, but he’ll rarely disappoint. He’s reliable, he’s put out zero bad tapes, and his latest Just For You is the best he’s sounded in years. I still think about that night at the House of Blues, though. It wasn’t just a demonstration of consistency. Music experienced so deeply can’t be flattened to a clean metric or measurement. What we experienced that night was magic. When he played “No Bells,” he delivered a moment of transcendence, a rallying cry chanted en masse. He made a world out of words. He brought us all home.

Marcus Smart didn’t end up blossoming into an All-Star or even a real point guard. He’s not a walking bucket; he’s not The Guy. But he treats scrappiness like an art. He puts his body on the line, he wins games, and being the longest tenured Celtic, he’s always there for us. When I’m having a rough day here in D.C., I can always find a stream of the evening’s game and watch Smart pour his soul into hustle plays. And when I ever need to be transported through time and space to my last days of high school, or to that night in 2017, or to my first ever interview, sometimes I’ll mute the game and throw on some Stizz.

First NTS Show

Mark your calendars: The first No Bells NTS set airs this Thursday, 2/17 at 7PM ET. nts.live, channel 2. I put this mix together and we’ve got more on the way. Tap in!

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