Album Review: City Morgue – CITY MORGUE VOL 1: HELL OR HIGH WATER

by Dustin

citymorgue

7.5/10

Though time has seen the gradual erosion of definitive regional sounds within the landscape hip-hop, New York has always seemed to exist on the cutting edge. The state has produced some of the sharpest and most unique artists, each carrying the drive to lay claim to their slice of the east’s illustrious history. The results of this progressive spirit have been, at times, shockingly unpredictable. Case in point: City Morgue. Formed by ZillaKami and SosMula, the enigmatic duo wasted little time in working to establish themselves. Armed with the production talents of THRAXX, they began working on music a mere three days after SosMula’s release from prison. Ultimately City Morgue landed on a hyper-aggressive punk and metal inspired sound and dropped a couple of singles notable for their extremely explicit lyrics and controversial videos. This, along with ZillaKami’s impressive feature on Denzel Curry’s TA13OO album, garnered a good deal of attention for the group. A full-length project to capitalize seemed inevitable, and it came in the form of CITY MORGUE VOL. 1: HELL OR HIGH WATER on October 12th.

Absolute facemelter.

While it became apparent from the early stages of City Morgue that the bulk of both ZillaKami and SosMula’s appeal would be in their energy, they did make this project lyrically interesting. As expected, their writing throughout was graphic and often painted a picture of an extremely gruesome lifestyle. Whether it was drugs, murder, gunplay, or physical violence, there were no punches pulled; moreover, in spite of the fact that HELL OR HIGH WATER never went full blown horrorcore, it did blur the line between reality and fiction just enough to make it pleasantly uncomfortable. Both artists had such a degree of conviction behind their vocals that it made even the most outlandish lines seem believable. It truly felt like a rap snuff film at times. On top of that, they played off of each other’s styles incredibly well for such a young group. ZillaKami’s rock inspired semi-melodic scream rap was balanced out perfectly by SosMula’s much more traditional hip-hop grounding. At surface level, it would have been easy to declare Zilla the standout on most tracks due to his impressive hooks and loud delivery, but the release would not have worked nearly as well without his counterpart. Additionally, they created a dynamic in which both had ample opportunity to shine. Occasionally one member would contribute to a song in a much smaller role, such as providing a refrain, to allow the other a solo moment under the spotlight. Good chemistry is an important intangible for any group or collective, and City Morgue proved rather quickly that they have it. It elevated the entire listen, turning what could have been a bland assortment of bangers into a wildly fun slugfest of dissipated living.

The aforementioned THRAXX provided the bulk of HELL OR HIGH WATER’s production, with Ronny J tagging along for spot duty. The instrumentals could have easily been described using only the words loud and angry, sounding more like something out of Florida’s underground scene than New York. Featuring distorted guitars atop of heavily bassy trap, there was a certain industrial flavor to this album which fit the prevailing themes quite well. Matching ZillaKami and SosMula’s relentless rage fueled vigor was no issue; however, where the production did lack was in its range. There were definitely standout tracks instrumentally — “Gravehop187,” “So What,” and “SHINNERS13” in particular were monstrously hard hitting — but a lot of the deeper cuts sounded very similar despite being consistently solid. This didn’t hurt the listening experience per se, but some variation may have allowed for the more notably truculent songs to be more impactful. That being said, a debut project having had no blatantly bad beats was rather special in itself regardless of any nitpicking.

Laying the foundation for a new wave in a genre as fluid as hip-hop is never an easy task, but City Morgue did admirably with their freshman effort. Openly admitting in their “The Way Out” documentary with Mass Appeal that their sound is “a work in progress,” the potential for growth within the group was palpable. What was really astonishing though, was their ability to a bring an accessible familiarity while still being a breath of fresh air. For example, some of the SosMula focused moments on this album harkened back to early Three 6 Mafia, yet they were different enough that it felt entirely new. The lack of variety was noticeable and problematic to a degree, but it didn’t totally take away from what was accomplished here as far as instituting a groundwork. They’re self-aware artists, and it’s evident in the way they speak that they know this was the starting point and not the finish line. City Morgue’s genuine ambitious nature and confidence may just make them a force to be reckoned eventually. They may not be there quite yet, but HELL OR HIGH WATER was very much a best foot being put forward.

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Think Piece: The Problematic Nature of Modern Music Reviews

by Dustin

rsz_1f-minus

I haven’t written a think piece in a long time, but as Rajin and myself have continued to develop Extraordinary Nobodies — both in terms of the content we wish to produce and our individual skills as writers — there is something that’s sort of been nagging at me to discuss. While it’s a topic that is hard to write about without sounding holier-than-thou, I do feel a certain degree of disappointment in the lack of respect shown by many media figures toward the pieces of music they choose to review. I don’t mean this purely in the sense of slamming artists’ work for being unenjoyable either. I see it as more of a multifaceted problem, with symptoms spawning from the disease of clickbait driven publication motives. The focus has shifted from writing well fleshed out musical discussions to serving up Hot-N-Ready style one listen think pieces masquerading themselves as album reviews. It’s insulting. Not only to the artist, but to the art itself, the reader, and ultimately to the craft of critical assessment.

Eight years ago, the now deceased Scott Miller wrote a book in which he pondered some of the issues he saw with music critics. In a particular section, he stated that he believes a good critic should be able laud an artist for their musical work while separately acknowledging moral objections without confusing the two; moreover, he seemed to express that he felt as if this was something many struggled to achieve. Moving into the present, I would argue that this has become an increasingly troublesome trait of music media, particularly in the realm of hip-hop. Kanye West is, unfortunately, a prime example of this in action. I’ll preface this by saying, I am absolutely not defending Kanye as a human being. He has done and said things that I find deplorable. They do not line up with where I stand as a person; however, I find it equally disgusting that those who have chosen to analyze his work opt to spend more time focused on his antics rather than the music. Not only does it indignify the reader by tricking them, but it draws attention to questionable behavior without offering any degree of meaningful insight as to why it should be looked down upon. There is a ton of room to have constructive conversation about why the things (and I’m using him again purely due to it being relatively recent) Kanye West does are harmful. With that in mind, it’s not going to be accomplished within a review that is effectively saying “this album is bad because Kanye is bad.” Either focus on the music, or focus on the moral issues of the individual and present it appropriately.

That’s not to say that I subscribe to the idea that the social context of a release should be ignored entirely. Some of the greatest hip-hop critics of all time focused heavily on race, gender, political unrest, and other nuanced socioeconomic troubles. What set them apart is that they looked at the music in relation to these things, rather than rating the value of an album based purely on an artist’s personal beliefs.

A lot of this circles back around to sloppy writing in general, though. With the way we consume media through the internet, there is an expectation for everything to be instantaneous, easily digestible, and attention grabbing. It sucks. It feels as if it has become commonplace to read reviews which miss even the most obvious of concepts, never mind anything below surface level. There’s no care or respect given to the art, and it’s all in the name of having the article out before other publications. I get it. Most rely almost entirely on advertiser revenue to stay afloat, and higher traffic means higher profit. Sadly, this has lead to the gradual degradation of a craft that once held in much higher regard than it is now. There was a time when writers such as Greg Tate made a conscious effort to ensure that their pieces held up to music they were discussing. They drew inspiration not only from journalists, but from poets and other talented penmen. Words were deliberate and laboured over, not simply churned out on a whim to meet a deadline and quota. While this may sound like romanticising the past (and to a degree it is), I simply long for a place in media where articles can be valued based on their content and not on their swiftness to reach publishment.

There isn’t an easy solution to these issues that I can offer up, but I think being aware of the media we’re consuming is the first step toward improvement. While the current climate is likely always going to value rapid and disposable writing, as a reader you have the ability to make your voice heard. Offering feedback can go a long way. A huge part of my growth has been tied to people making suggestions and offering constructive criticism on my work. It drives me. It drives us. Showing that support to the authors who are giving you the type of material you want to read is what keeps them going. In the same vein, if we start ignoring outlets notorious for releasing low-effort high-volume commentary it will effectively cut off their blood supply. Will it be enough to permanently fix to realm of music critiquing? Probably not, but it’s a starting point toward affording artists the type of consideration their endeavors deserve.

Album Review: Denzel Curry – TA13OO

by Dustin

taboo

9.25/10

He may not yet be a household name, but it is undeniable that Denzel Curry has been a leader of the new school for quite a while. Alongside the Raider Klan, he helped forge a new lane for rappers in Florida that had not existed previously. He shares many attributes with his contemporaries out of the state, but Denzel’s attention to detail in the art of song crafting had set him apart ever since his first mixtape dropped in 2011. His 2013 debut studio album, Nostalgic 64, proved he was a potential force to be reckoned with in hip-hop. Three years later those raw mic and penmanship skills were refined further on Imperial; however, despite carrying the poise of an artist several years older than he is, it felt as if Zel had more to give. Another gear he hadn’t quite discovered. One that would theoretically take his material from great to phenomenal. Lofty lingering expectations developed, and as soon as TA13OO was announced his fans began clamoring to see if he would rise to the occasion.

He did.

Denzel Curry has never been one to fail at being engaging behind the mic. He has brought a near uncontrollable energy to everything he’s touched throughout his remarkably consistent career. That remained unchanged on TA13OO, yet something felt distinctly different. Vulnerability. As the album progressed it became clear that Denzel had no intent in maintaining hip-hop’s hyper-masculine status quo of emotional detachment. Sensitive topics such as sexual assault, political unrest, jealousy, suicide, depression, and violent urges were all approached head on; moreover, with its creative three part structure — comprised of Light, Grey, and Dark sections — he was able to gradually ease the listener into accepting socially unaccepted subject matter. The album opened by presenting heavier content with a much lighter tone, almost as if he was hiding it behind false happiness. As the transition from the beginning into Grey and finally Dark happened, that facade was peeled away. It became increasingly honest, pained, open, and personal. Denzel executed this really well both in his writing and his delivery, making it extremely easy to feel the type of sentiments he was expressing at a personal level. Whether or not the situations he rapped about were relatable didn’t matter because it was all presented with such clear poignance. Denzel truly elevated himself, combining what made him stand out as special from the beginning with a newfound conceptual focus and further improved vocal versatility.

It felt as though he fully came into his own, which was mesmerizing as an already talented emcee.

Though Denzel was the star of the show, he carried an impressive supporting cast of very concise and purposeful production choices. J Gramm, FNZ, Mickey de Grand IV and a handful of others supplied a plethora of extremely bassy, unique sounding instrumentals. Despite the wide range in sounds, they all had just enough in common to complete TA13OO as a cohesive piece of work. Curry utilized this variability, arranging them in such a way to aid in the sonic development of the album. The lush and bouncy beginning faded to a cloudy melancholic middle, and eventually a hateful aggressive finish. While songs like “Black Balloons” and “Vengeance” could not be further removed from each other, carefully planned sequencing allowed for them to live on the same tracklist harmoniously. It mirrored his performance, boosting the listening experience to soaring heights.

The guest artists on this release did a splendid job of contributing to the overall themes and concept, while not having felt out of place in the slightest. JPEGMAFIA came through with an absolutely monstrous verse on “Vengeance,” and was perhaps the biggest standout feature. That’s not to diminish the contributions of Goldlink, JID, or ZillaKami though, as they each brought 100% effort and a needed splash of variety to their portions of the album. Nyyjerya and Billie Eilish were utilized well on a pair of hooks, and provided a bit of a break from Denzel’s aggression so the music had room to breathe. All in all, his highly selective deployment of other talents was nearly flawless, fleshing out TA13OO into a monster worthy of very few demerits.

There are times when it is obvious that an artist had a lot to say. It often results in extremely inspired music, with an immeasurable sense of belonging behind each songs existence. This album was a prime example of that sort of feeling. On a first listen certain tracks may have felt out of place with the ideas Denzel was trying to illustrate, only for them to reveal that they were exactly where they needed to be with subsequent plays. He assembled things in such a way that the presentation genuinely mattered just as much as the keynote talking points he chose to explore. He took the listener out of a place of projected stability and comfort into something more firmly grounded in real life. As many know, or will come to find out in the future, reality comes with many roadblocks that are difficult. Difficult to experience, difficult to process, and ultimately difficult to discuss without shame or embarrassment. Denzel Curry did put out a fantastic album with TA13OO, but more importantly he showed courage in the face of things that cause many to live in fear. He set an admirable example for a genre that has often struggled with remaining guarded. An example that is well worth lending an extremely attentive listen as a lesson in normalizing openness with hurt that is too frequently rendered as social taboo.