Roc-A-Fella / Def Jam; 2013
Score: 88 out of 100
Buried at the end of “Last Call”, the final track on The College Dropout, is a nine minute long interview-style recording of Kanye West recounting the crowning events that lead to his eventual signing to Roc-A-Fella Records. In retrospect this segment is probably the most captivating part of the rapper-producer’s debut album. Here was a measured, sane, Kanye speaking in endearingly giddy tones about meeting his idols — Jay, Dame, Cam, Kweli — for the first time ever. This moment symbolized the Spring of West’s pop career, a season in which his only crises were ones of the physical world: stacking enough paper to cop a Pelle Pelle and some J’s; moving sight unseen from Chicago to an apartment in Newark, New Jersey; finding enough time in his rapidly increasing work schedule to finish mundane tasks like assembling Ikea furniture. “Last Call” was Kanye at his most relatable. His most normal. His most likeable.
By comparison, Yeezus, the man’s sixth studio album, finds him at his least relatable, his least normal, and, by far, his least likeable. Mind you, this doesn’t preclude it from being a great album (more on that in a minute) but for the Kanye detractors Yeezus might represent everything that’s gone wrong since “Last Call”. It’s the culmination of a series of existential crises suffered by West that have, until now, manifested themselves in bizarre and loathsome displays in various public forums. From rapping disguised as a straight-jacketed Yeti in Abu Dhabi, to disparaging the Grammy’s and Justin Timberlake on stage in London, to the confounding mobius strip that was last week’s New York Times interview, Kanye has graduated from the cocky undergrad of yesterday’s Dropout to the arthouse enfant terrible of today’s Yeezus.
The new record is a glorious explosion of pure id, bursts of which we’ve actually seen before. But where the universally lauded My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was a calculated elucidation of Kanye West’s similar imbroglios — the trappings of fame, perceived slights by mis-projecting critics and fans, deluded romantic exploits — Yeezus is less focused, more raw, and far baser. Fantasy featured the all-star posse cut “Monster” but Yeezus is the fully realized chronicle of the beast.
The two most celebrated tracks thus far, “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead”, are either indictments or celebrations (probably bits of both) of materialism and gratuitous behavior by the new, affluent Black entertainment class. In either case, the R.P. McMurphy of hip hop rants finds his Nurse Ratched in the very corporations representing his financial interests. “Black Skinhead”, however, is the one song on Yeezus capable of transcending any enemy agent in particular: it works well as both an airing-out of racial and class grievances, and as a track to just workout to.
I’ve listened to the album nearly a dozen times since it leaked last Friday and in nearly as many moods and settings, including: at the gym, on my commute, at an unreasonably early hour on Saturday morning, after a long hot sunburned day at the beach, stone-cold sober on my way out for the night, and hung-over on the following afternoon. Yeezus doesn’t fit perfectly into any of these settings, but not once did I find it uninteresting.
In the Times article, Kanye tells how he employed the deft touch of Rick Rubin in an attempt to further pare down the complexity of sounds in Yeezus’s first mixes. It’s true the final compositions turned out simpler than West’s previous work, but the remaining elements have all been cranked up to a thousand. “On Sight” is a steroidal infusion of Bomb Squad distortion and Daft Punk electro acoustics. “I Am A God” is an industrial monolith that matches El-P and Trent Reznor levels of sonic bombast. It’s one of the most absurd songs here, provoking cheap thrills with a furious dancehall sample from Capleton, primal screams, and hashtag-worthy incongruities such as, “I am a God/ So hurry up with my damn massage/ In a French-ass restaurant/ Hurry up with my damn croissants”. Natch. But why exactly would a God feel it necessary to dine French? Doesn’t the fact that he is a God eliminate the need for waiting? Or eating for that matter? These are all questions not worth asking for the sake of bearing witness to Kanye’s own precious dilemmas as a deity.
And speaking of dilemmas, Kanye’s romantic entanglements seem to have passed from the transient, fluid groupie love of “Gold Digger” to calcified impediments that demand more time than seem worthy. Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and Chicago Drill sergeant Chief Keef try lending disparate yet helping hands on “Hold My Liquor”, but Yeezy still can’t avoid smashing his beloved jump-off’s Corolla and then getting into an argument with her overbearing aunt. Subtract the drunkenness and troublesome hint at domestic violence and you’re basically left with an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond. Far more concerning is “I’m In It”, where Kanye is so embroiled in the pussy that he’s compelled to making racially bankrupt proclamations (“Eatin’ Asian pussy, all I need is sweet and sour sauce”) and, improbably, finding a way to liken the civil rights movement to fisting. This is what I was talking about earlier when I said “least likeable”.
In the end, Yeezus is basically impervious to adequate translation, at least in steadily coherent terms. It’s too busy acting like a car crash most of the time: too chaotic, too visceral, too real. Or something. Above all else it functions as an outlier to the rest of the rapper’s discography. In that context it most closely resembles the asterisk that was 808s & Heartbreak and will likely wind up being the fussy critics’ answer to “What’s your favorite Kanye album?” simply because of its aberrant qualities. (I can’t see this being the new mode for West for any significant amount of time. It’s just not sustainable.)
Ye has positioned himself so vitally in the pop culture landscape that he can pull off these types of stunts with nary a damaging blow-back, even if this record is met with disdain — which I predict it won’t be (nor deserves to be). He is hip hop’s most petulant child, armed with the biggest shoulder chip of all and with more cultural capital than the majority of his peers. Yeezus is what happens when this sensitive, self-conscious soul commits himself willingly to the turbulent throes of an unjust America. Kanye’s best defense against unrelenting appraisal isn’t the unflinching cool of a Jay-Z or the substance abuse of a Lil’ Wayne, but rather the genius of his own musical work.
To wit: “Blood on the Leaves”, with its devastating, ghostly Nina Simone vocal sample and marching, triumphal sci-fi score, is one of the prettiest instrumentals he’s ever done, but he nearly blows it with an overwrought dose of auto-tune. That’s the whim of Kanye West. Yeezus is the man at his most weaponized and self-destructive, but he still manages to make the shit sound gorgeous.
LL Cool J
S-BRO Music Group / 429 Records; 2013
Score (Potholes In My Blog scale): 1.5 / 5.0
The winter has officially arrived for LL Cool J’s rap career; even longtime fans should don their parkas for this one. Click here to read my review.
Ghostface Killah & Adrian Younge
Twelve Reasons to Die
Soul Temple Records / RED Disribution; 2013
Score (Beats Per Minute scale): 79 / 100
Gangster and horror movie pulp explodes all over your face on Twelve Reasons to Die, the new album from Ghostface Killah and producer Adrian Younge. Click here to read my review over at Beats Per Minute.
Tyler, The Creator
Odd Future / Sony; 2013
Score (Potholes In My Blog scale): 3.5 / 5.0
Click here to read my review of Tyler, The Creator’s new album, Wolf.
Inspectah Deck and 7L & Esoteric
Brick Records; 2013
Score (Beats Per Minute scale): 80 / 100
On island life in the Golden Era. Click here to read my review of Czarface written for Beats Per Minute.
The 20/20 Experience
Score (Beats Per Minute scale): 85% (out of 100%)
The good folks at Beats Per Minute have welcomed my somewhat coherent ramblings for their album review section and, HUZZAH, I got to review JT’s The 20/20 Experience for them. Click to read what I thought.
Score (Potholes In My Blog scale): 3.0 / 5.0
Jamie Lidell makes pop-R&B/soul/funk that looks and sounds like the legendary source material by his musical heroes in their ’80s heyday. If you squint hard enough, that is. Click here to read my review of his new self-titled album.
A Breathtaking Trip To That Otherside
Score (Potholes In My Blog scale): 3.0 / 5.0
I reviewed Alexander Spit’s A Breathtaking Trip To That Otherside for Potholes In My Blog. Click on over to read it.
More Town goodness from the last 365 days.
Today concludes our year end list of the Best Seattle Hip-Hop Albums of 2012. Yesterday was the Honorable Mentions and today is the Top 10. Holler at me in the Comments section or on Twitter. Expanding the debate is part of democracy. Just remember: I’m right and you’re wrong. Happy New Year!
(Click on the album covers for links to purchase or free download, where available.)
10. Fleeta Partee – Lifemuzik
Sportn’ Life Records co-founder and OG in the Central District rap game Fleeta Partee (real name, no gimmicks) enlisted the two best area producers for the majority of Lifemuzik, an 8-song EP full of hard-worn street knowledge. Vitamin D lends board work for over half the tracks, his keyboards and drums on “Inception” and “Part of the Game” sounding bigger and deffer than everyone else’s, except for maybe Jake One’s whose “Apathy (No Love)” captures a blues feeling in boom-bap form. As far as the well-traveled Fleeta Partee goes, his free-wheeling, old-school flow rejuvenates rap purists’ earholes the way a pair of fresh laces lends new life to sneakers. Are you feeling bogged down by all the vapid swag excursions through chattering high-hats and cheap synth? Lifemuzik is the remedy.
9. Nacho Picasso & Blue Sky Black Death – Exalted
There’s a small part of me that worries Nacho Picasso’s Exalted made this top 10 because of other blogs that put it on their year-end lists. The power of group think is a motherfucker. After all, let’s face it: over the course of four mixtapes Nacho has become somewhat of a one-trick pony. But damn what a trick it is. There’s certainly no one else in the Town that does what he does: the monotonic nihilism accented with wicked one-liners, all pulled to a degenerate end by the wobbly, hazy renderings by production partners Blue Sky Black Death. For Seattle, Nacho is the vital counterpoint to the easy party-rocking optimism of the city’s most visible rap stars. Macklemore is an expert jokester, sure, but like all great comics Nacho finds his humor in the dark recesses of his own psyche. When the pathos is threatening to overtake your soul, sometimes smoking, fucking and, of course, laughing, make for the only true medicine.
On Sol’s Bandcamp page, the rapper dedicates Yours Truly to “the human pursuit of deep understanding,” an endeavor the MC is no doubt currently pursuing on a post-college graduation trip around the world. Most of this album — the culmination of a series of shorter, free EP releases — is an attempt at universal appeal, heavy on the pop hooks and R&B melodies which serve to make it all just feel very…easy. But when you consider Yours Truly in the context of the artist’s statement, it makes sense: we’re more immediately bonded together when our commonalities are highlighted, hence the depth of understanding we can find when enjoying an album like Yours Truly together. This may sound annoyingly meta and shit, but the threads that connect us through musical experience don’t exist at the surface of listening, which is true even when an album as easily enjoyable as this comes along.
7. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – The Heist
I’m super hyper-critical of Macklemore. Mostly because his puritanical rhymes are written and delivered so evidently as to diminish that vital trait which separates good poets from great ones: nuance. Then again, I agree with virtually everything the MC has to say on The Heist about marriage equality, white privilege and artistic integrity, three poignant topics that are sadly absent from about 90% of all other hip-hop I listen to. Plus producer Ryan Lewis conveys pop sensibilities in a manner that no other Seattle-birthed rap album featured so expertly this year, or perhaps ever.
I nitpick Ben Haggerty’s rap game in the same way I fixed upon every full-count, two-out, man-on-second strikeout by Ken Griffey Jr. in 1997 — you know, the year dude hit 56 home runs and won the AL MVP award. My criticisms of Macklemore are undeniable in the same way “Thrift Shop” undeniably moves butts and endears fans all over the globe. Is The Heist polarizing for a lot of rap heads? Sure. But the fact that this duo is killing the game right now while simultaneously causing haters to chatter is proof that they’re doing something right.
6. Gabriel Teodros – Colored People’s Time Machine
Seatown rappers went certified worldwide in 2012 and that’s word. But none of them in the fashion of Abyssinian Creole teammate, Gabriel Teodros. His Colored People’s Time Machine cuts a broad cultural swath with guest rappers from different countries rhyming in their native languages (English, Spanish, Arabic, and Tagalog, by my count).
While home is the central theme on CPTM, Teodros fashions the concept on his own terms, grappling with the intricacies of identity as a person of color and the realization that just because you were born in a specific place, it doesn’t mean that locale represents your cultural center. As always, the MC dons a critical, analytical cap, dropping piercing knowledge but always with love and a deft touch. As an ambassador to the rest of the rap world, Seattle can’t do much better than the homie GT.
5. THEESatisfaction – Awe Naturale
Cat and Stas of THEESatisfaction are no longer the Costco-employed “starving artists” of their earliest mixtapes, That’s Weird and Snow Motion. Both of those quirky hip-hop/R&B low-fi’s were recorded in the comfort of their own bedroom closet-turned recording studio and it endearingly showed. Neither is THEESatisfaction the little sister act of Shabazz Palaces, though the two forward-thinking groups do share a label home (Sub Pop) and a decidedly left-of-center musical spirituality. Awe Naturale was THEESatisfaction’s official debut and it garnered a ton of praise from both local and national outlets, much of it due to the quiet confidence of the group’s two members who are double threats in both rhyme and song. “Queens” is a funky, heady feminist groove that doesn’t name itself as such and was winning enough to garner a video treatment by the venerable dream hampton. Awe Naturale stands out, like Shabazz’s records, because it doesn’t sound like anything else in hip-hop.
4. The Physics – Tomorrow People
Tomorrow People reaches for a broader context than The Physics’ previous album (last year’s outstanding Love is a Business) without sacrificing any of what makes the group so appealing. Soulful, funky and beautifully nuanced, TP is 13 tracks of grown-man/woman hip-hop. MCs Thig Nat and Monk Wordsmith are thoughtful, conscious and raunchy always right when they need to be. And producer Justo and don’t-call-them-back-up singers Malice and Mario Sweet put the finishing touches on each track so they shine at just the right angles. This is a crew with a rare nonchalance that never translates to dull, a sure sign of artists who truly know who they are. There is something for everyone on Tomorrow People. You could play this album for your grandma and she would probably love it, and I mean that in the best way possible.
3. Fatal Lucciauno – Respect
Fatal Lucciauno’s stubborn refusal of the Seattle rap status quo is probably one of the most important statements made in the local arts. In a city home to the nation’s annual White Privilege Conference, it’s no surprise that the gregarious Macklemore has become Seattle hip-hop’s envoy to the rest of the world. That shit happened basically by default.
On the colder end of town, however, is where Fatal stages his operations. Hardcore and unforgiving to a fault, Respect is the other side of Seattle rap’s truth. It rejects even the militant-light stylings of acts like Blue Scholars and Gabriel Teodros, preferring to cast flickering reds and blues on the folks too preoccupied with basic survival than to be troubled with thoughts of the revolution. And in a year when we viewed all local rap through a Heist-colored lens, it’s important to ask ourselves: What percentage of those “Thrift Shop”-ers actually understood how their discovery of joy in a dirty bargain bin can be construed as yet another ironic luxury borne out of privilege?
It’s true we’re all better people when re-purposing perfectly useable disposed goods, feeding our souls with something truer than what is marketed to us. But Fatal’s Respect speaks on a different type of hunger: the one for things untarnished after a lifetime of languishing at the bottom.
2. Kingdom Crumbs – Kingdom Crumbs
Cloud Nice teammates formed like Voltron for Kingdom Crumbs, a hazy, danceable, electro-funk departure which was by far the most fun Seattle hip-hop release of the year. Jarv Dee, Mikey Nice, Jerm, and creative mastermind Tay Sean managed to find unique swag in a diverse array of funk compositions, from the hippie smoke session “Evoking Spirits” to the stuttering swankfest “Ridinonthestrength.”
Cloud Nice have evolved into one of the most diverse and reliable rap collectives in Town and much of that is owed to Tay Sean’s virtuosic keyboard and drum programming. Kingdom Crumbs rides on the strength of its accessibility (dreaded word, I know) and its musical intellect, the two factors that most often determine the level of quality in pop music. In a year when pop stylings thoroughly influenced Seattle rap, determining the best release of the last 365 days often came down to a single question: Which album would I rather listen to on repeat? More often than not Kingdom Crumbs was the answer.
1. Dark Time Sunshine – ANX
You could never accuse Dark Time Sunshine’s music of being cheery, but on the group’s third album, ANX, Chicago producer Zavala allows enough cracks in his heavy, electro-organic compositions to let a little bit of sunshine in. Onry Ozzborn’s deadpan science drops are illuminated by tad brighter synths, driving breakbeats (which were all but absent on DTS’s previous two albums, Believeyoume and Vessel), and a few well-placed cameos (vocalist Reva DeVito on “Never Cry Wolf” and a livewire Swamburger on “Take My Hand”, for example).
ANX is also less claustrophobic than its predecessors, its aesthetic welcoming well-equalized car stereo speakers rather than just the strict confines of headphone cans. Dark Time Sunshine’s music has always aurally represented the variations in weather of the group member’s home cities: the frigid wind of Chicago, the lidded grey Seattle sky. But finally with ANX we have tunes that go equally well with our Town’s de facto cloud cover and this past September’s exquisite atmospherics.
Don’t get me wrong, everything that makes Dark Time Sunshine one of the best hip-hop crews working today is still here; much of ANX still heaves and sighs like a concrete robot and Onry hasn’t lost a touch of his scathing pessimism. But that glow you see underneath an electronic heart is evidence of an evolved sentience. ANX can be cold to the touch, but the soul under the surface gives off uncommon warmth. It’s this new layer of complexity that elevates ANX above Dark Time’s great past work and places it in a superior class over every other Seattle hip-hop album of 2012.
Deep-voiced narrator: 2012 will be remembered as the year when Seattle hip-hop stepped triumphantly from the dark recesses of the underground and brazenly into the pop music mainstream light.
(Cue klieg lights and horns.)
Or something. Until this moment, surely Seattle rap had never been as prominent on a national level as 1992, the fated year Sir Mix-A-Lot squirted baby oil all over a bunch of hapless, anonymous rear-ends, thus adequately drowning out the city’s fine underground hip-hop tradition while simultaneously setting back gender equality by about, oh, I’d say ten years or so.
But I digress. Seattle hip-hop as a topic of national conversation is in a much healthier and holistic place in 2012. Thank the Internet and the burgeoning liberal youth movement for that. There are local groups operating far afield with progressive musical campaigns that stretch beyond the constituencies of the 206, 425, 253, and 360 — and if you read this blog (or even outlets like Rolling Stone, Pitchfork and Complex) then you already know who they are.
Town rap has officially entered the pop music mainstream and, aside from the glowing national press and Billboard Charts, the biggest tell that things were moving beyond our beloved local brick-and-mortars is the overarching trend in musical aesthetics. This year featured the most decidedly pop-oriented releases in the history of Seattle rap. Artists like Sol, The Good Sin, Eighty4 Fly, J. Pinder, Royce the Choice, and Fresh Espresso all put their best ear-worm efforts forward and (for the most part) succeeded in their attempts. Even EDM got a nice emissary to the rest of the country in The Flavr Blue, a trio composed of prominent hip-hop players from the Town.
Stubborn rap purists will not call this the cream rising to the top, but for the staff of an outlet like 206UP.COM who appreciates Golden Era boom-bap and 80′s Hitz! in near equal measure, brand new doors to listening pleasure have been opened. Of course that sets our critical ears askew in some fashion and attempting to shake out where the “best” releases of 2012 stood in comparison to each other was the most difficult it’s ever been in this blog’s short history. As always, though, generating a list of the Top Seattle Hip-Hop Albums of the Year was a labor of love for your loyal blogger.
So here goes: The end-all, be-all, definitive catalog of what you should have kept at the top of your Seattle rap playlists in 2012, beginning today with Honorable Mentions and concluding tomorrow with the Top 10. (Note: links are provided to purchase or free download, where available — click on the album covers.)
Kung Foo Grip & Giorgio Momurda – Indigo Children Tales From The Otha Side
Kirkland rabble-rousers Kung Foo Grip found their producer soulmate in Giorgio Momurda for this EP collaboration. Indigo Children Tales From The Otha Side is home to the region’s best beat of the year, “FVCKV9TA5”, which bubbles, exhales, rattles, and combusts in perfect muted fury. MCs Greg Cypher and F is H spit juvenile raps with grown-up flows, close to riding off the rails at times but remaining the best exhibit of controlled lyrical chaos the city has to offer.
Fearce and Bean – There Goes The Neighborhood
This release by Dyme Def offshoot Fearce and Bean was one of those high-quality “traditional rap” albums that kinda slipped through the crevices of the Seattle pop sieve in 2012. There Goes The Neighborhood cracks, slaps and thumps by way of Bean One’s rare ability to flip equally exceptional samples into trunk-rattling heatrocks (see: the rock-tinged “Heart Breaker”). Here we also have the thinking man’s swagger of Fearce Villain who will certainly get all up in your face, but never without a good reason. “Bully” (which unfortunately didn’t make it onto TGTN) perfectly encapsulates what the third rapper of Dyme Def is about: keeping your conscience amidst the turbulence of a hard-knock world.
J. Pinder – Careless
My main beef with Careless, J. Pinder’s official debut album, is that it often sounds like dude isn’t having any fun. And given the miles logged on the MC’s frequent-flyer card in the last couple of years that should not be the case. I’ve never met Justin Pinder, but he reminds me of a couple of friends of mine who spend a lot of time living inside their own heads, folks for whom the term “pensive” doesn’t begin to approach an adequate description. Judging by the jet-setting tales on Careless, J’s rap life is not devoid of the normal trappings of burgeoning celebrity, but he approaches it all with a wary hand and calculated measure. The fleeting balance between heedless indulgence and degradation of one’s own soul is parsed out expertly by J. Pinder over some of the most expressive boom-bap of the year.
Universal Republic; 2012
Score (Potholes In My Blog scale): 4.0 / 5.0
The Weeknd’s major label debut is simply a compilation of 2011′s three heralded EPs: House Of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes Of Silence. While there are still thrills to be discovered by those unfamiliar with the group, there’s not much new for the already initiated. The Weeknd’s devoted fans are left with the question: What’s next?
Click here to read my full review.
good kid, m.A.A.d. city
Interscope Records / Aftermath Entertainment; 2012
Score (Potholes In My Blog scale): 4.5 / 5.0
Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city is one of the best hip-hop albums of 2012. But you already knew that. Click here to read my review at PiMB.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
Score (PiMB scale): 3.5 / 5.0
Seattle rap superhero Macklemore and his production partner Ryan Lewis released their debut album last week, The Heist. Read my full album review at Potholes In My Blog, here.
Score (Potholes In My Blog scale): 4.0 / 5.0
Click here to read my review of Bambu’s new — and, according to him, final — full-length, One Rifle Per Family.
First Of A Living Breed
Stones Throw; 2012
Score: 3.5 / 5.0
Super lyrical Homeboy Sandman drops more left-of-center knowledge on his first LP for Stones Throw Records. Click here to read my review at Potholes In My Blog.
Independently released; 2012
Score (Potholes In My Blog scale): 4.0 / 5.0
The Physics deliver yet another well-rounded and accomplished album in Tomorrow People. Read my thoughts here.
Life Is Good
Def Jam; 2012
Score (Potholes In My Blog scale): 4.0 / 5.0
Def Jam; 2012
Score (Potholes In My Blog scale): 5.0 / 5.0
Channel Orange is as good as advertised. Go here to read my review.
Del The Funky Homosapien & Parallel Thought
Attractive Sin; 2012
Score (Potholes In My Blog scale): 2.5 / 5.0
Del has already secured an esteemed place in hip-hop, so that Attractive Sin doesn’t deliver the top-notch goods fans hope for will leave a relatively miniscule smudge on the MC’s accomplished resume. Click here to read my review over at Potholes In My Blog.
Live From The Underground
Def Jam; 2012
Score (Potholes In My Blog scale): 2.5 / 5.0
Was I the only one wholly disappointed by Big K.R.I.T.’s “official Def Jam debut?” Let me know! And click here to read my review over at Potholes In My Blog.
Fin Records; 2012
Score (Potholes In My Blog scale): 3.5 / 5.0
J. Pinder makes rap music the opposite of what he titled this album. Click over to Potholes In My Blog to read my review.
Cancer 4 Cure
Fat Possum Records; 2012
Score (SSG Music scale): 9/10
I wrote over 1,140 words exalting praise on El-P’s third solo album, Cancer 4 Cure, and all I got was this damn crick in my neck. Click here to read my album review over at SSG Music.
Unimpressive Records; 2012
The strangely edifying thing about Art Vandelay’s grey-skied, tongue-only-partially-in-cheek, depress-o art-house rap, is that the MC responsible for setting the gloomy table (that would be one Ricky Pharoe) is loathe to admit the rock you — and all your fellow busy-body, oxygen-depleting friends — crawled out from under is probably the one located right next door to his own. In a musical genre where the primary goal of every MC is obtaining as much genuflection as is required to begin believing in one’s own hype, it’s nice to come across an outfit like Art Vandelay. One that relishes basking in a deafeningly melancholic solace, preaching to each empty and occupied space that everyone’s shit does, in fact, stink. Human nature is a motherfucker, isn’t it?
At least that’s what I took away from the crew’s most recent project, Face Tattoo, which can be had for freebies at the group’s Bandcamp page. Likewise their previous release, 2011′s They’ve Got My Number Down At The Post Office, which saw Ricky and production partner Mack Formway preaching to no choir in particular about dark days and wanton human nature from the comfort of their own raggedy sofas. Actually, “preaching” is probably the wrong word as those in religious affiliation often find themselves the victims of lyrical beatdowns (see here: “Vitiligo” and it’s blasphemously comedic video).
Then again, the degradation opined upon throughout Face Tattoo is not exclusive to human spirituality. Art Vandelay hesitate even in placing their faith in empirical evidence, concluding on “What Is Matter?” that the only sure thing in scientific experiment is the addition of further questions. Pharoe is an expert at deconstructing both the questions that drive human exploration and the minutiae of a daily stationary existence. And that’s before he even tackles the kinetic doomsday machinations of crooked government and broken social systems (“Presidents And Prime Ministers”). Ultimately, the man is revealed as an MC trapped inside his own head, the hip-hop medium being his only reliable form of release and, dare I say, salvation.
The dense and vital soundtrack to Pharoe’s firing synapses is Mack Formway’s well-executed production. Guitar-laden sonic frameworks, moody samples and rugged breakbeats are combined to darkly atmospheric (yet often traditional) effect. This is not top-down, cruising-in-the-ride summer music. It’s far more pensive than that. “Hey Zeus!”, for example, is a sort of post-Grunge futurist meets El-P dance track. That might mean little to nothing on paper but in execution it sounds unlike anything currently spinning in Seattle hip-hop.
Art Vandelay’s threat of branding us with face tattoos finds its genesis in Pharoe’s standard MC desire of blemishing rap marks with his proverbial dopeness (which he possesses in spades). But it also seems to reference the consigned shroud that we and our neighbors persist to carry on under. Beneath all of Face Tattoo’s spoiled ink lies the notion that the world has sadly vacated the strive for something better. That maybe if the human race just moved the hell out of its own way, things wouldn’t be so constantly fucked up.
Plug Research; 2012
Score (Potholes In My Blog scale): 4/5