(Note: This review also appears on national hip-hop blog abovegroundmagazine.com.)
Grayskul are the Northwest’s proudest bastions of hip-hop non-conformity. Unlike many other left-of-center groups that constantly remind listeners of their otherworldly origins, Grayskul’s genesis is rooted more firmly in earth’s terra firma. They’re too human to be aliens, too lively to be zombies. Think of them as creatures more highly-evolved than their fellow rap brethren. Emcees JFK and Onry Ozzborn have mic cords for tendons and kick-drum rhythms for heartbeats. It’s as if they crawled from hip-hop’s primordial ooze in a slightly more advanced state than other humans. A freaky genetic mutation of the hip-hop gene have allowed them to represent a true artistic advancement in the genre.
The last two Grayskul albums (Deadlivers and Bloody Radio) were so consistently excellent it’s hard to put their newest release, Graymaker, into proper context. Listened to end-to-end, the three albums blend together into an extended experience rather than separate distinct collections. Deadlivers remains their most fully-realized conceptual achievement, a sprawling descent into hip-hop madness and the dawning of the emcees’ dark superhero antics. On Bloody Radio, the group returns to daylight, a little less abstraction on their minds and on a mission to rid hip-hop’s landscape of its perceived wackness. And now, on Graymaker, the duo flashes signs of even more normalcy (though I use the term loosely), with what amounts to probably their most consistent and well-rounded album to date.
All of the production on this go-round is handled by Maker (hence the album’s title), a Chicago-based producer whose dark, moody soundscapes immediately reflect the cold, stony winter weather and Gothic architecture of his native Chi. Not surprisingly, the music matches Grayskul’s rhyme aesthetic perfectly. It’s a match made in hip-hop heaven (or hell, as the case may be). “Mars Voltage” takes a crazy horn lick and makes sense of it amidst an ominous bassline and live-sounding drums. “Bread And Wine” hypnotizes with hazy, layered vocals, lackadaisical guitar plucks, and a soul-sample turned eerie. “Bloodwork” is an addictive head-nodder, but in an atypical RZA-esque fashion. The most interesting track is “Machine,” which sounds like the organized ambient noise from an assembly-line plant. It churns and spits and goes in different directions, but never loses focus, much like the entire album. Maker’s production is perfectly anomalous, never veering into total weirdness, yet never boring.
Best of all, Maker lets JFK and Onry do them. One of Grayskul’s defining characteristics has always been the two rappers’ drastically contrasted styles — a This Is So Crazy It Just Might Work-type experiment in hip-hop chemistry. JFK’s controlled rants make him seem perpetually on the verge of a vocal meltdown, whereas Onry’s delivery is so understated that when he says some crazy sh*t, the listener begins to nod and understand that the rapper just might be so crazy. The standard Grayskul fare is here on Graymaker: vocal abstractions spit at rapid-fire pace so as to sound like the blustery ravings of lunatics (“Crazy Talk”), and sh*t talk elevated to such an extraordinarily advanced degree that other rappers might as well not even try to respond (“In the Know”).
The secret of JFK and Onry is that they are experts at narrating the horrors of this world with a poets’ trenchant. What sounds like free-associative wordplay, might actually be social commentary. What sounds like outright dismissal of religion and positive acknowledgment of the occult, might actually be a suggestion to find commonality in our ideas about who God is. The challenge for us listeners is to transcend our tendency to indulge our ADHD (which a lot of hip-hop encourages) to the point where we can recognize Grayskul’s sly wit. When that happens, you can see those sneaking rays of optimism that shine through the group’s pessimistic cloud. Listen closely and you might understand that the joke is on all of us. Souls so dark couldn’t possibly be responsible for hip-hop with this much life.