Album Review: ANKHLEJOHN x Big Ghost Ltd. – Van Ghost

by Rajin

van ghost

9/10

Since delivering his official debut album in 2017, ANKHLEJOHN has remained one of the most interesting emcees in the current underground scene. He has a tendency to switch things up for each project, an artistic choice that continues to keep him fresh and engaging. He has released countless EPs and mixtapes, each of which has its own identity that sets it firmly apart from the rest of his discography. In June 2018, he released what he touted as his second album, Van Ghost, with legendary blogger turned full-time producer Big Ghost Ltd. Ghost has worked with Ankh before, supplying him with the most dynamic, cinematic beat on the entirety of The Red Room (“Original Man,” a chilling song that features Hus Kingpin). From their very first time working together, it was clear that Ghost had a deep understanding of who ANKHLEJOHN is as an artist. The chemistry that these two obviously had gave way to further collaboration, eventually culminating in an incredible album, inspired by Vincent Van Gogh.

Big Ghost initially made a name for himself as a producer on 2015’s Griselda Ghost with Westside Gunn and Conway. He took a fresh approach to the sound that Daringer had crafted for Griselda and made it his own, resulting in one of my favorite projects to ever be released by the label. From there, he’s continued honing his skill and developing his own musical identity. His distinct drum patterns and ear for samples make his beats instantly identifiable. What sets him apart the most, however, is the way he adapts his production to fit the rapper with whom he is working like a glove. While his sampling techniques generally don’t vary, the sources from which he draws change depending on the style of the emcee he’s producing for. This practice creates an entirely different sound for each project while maintaining an unmistakable production signature. Through his subsequent work with Vic Spencer, Hus Kingpin, and CRIMEAPPLE, he proved himself to be one of the most reliable producers in the game.

With this in mind, to say he outdid himself on Van Ghost would be an understatement. The production on this record is without a doubt the most unique and awe-inspiring music Big Ghost has created thus far. It’s actually quite difficult to describe; while still very obviously boom bap, the aesthetic brings to mind the image of a chapel designed in the era of Baroque architecture. Tracks such as “The Church at Auvers,” “The Starry Night,” and “At Eternity’s Gate” feature elements including pianos, angelic vocals, and harps that sound nothing less than godly, for lack of a better term. The majority of the production work on this album ultimately leaves the listener astounded at how Ghost pulled off what he did. In a moment of sheer brilliance, he bridged the gap between past and present on “Almond Blossoms,” another track featuring Hus Kingpin. The production weaves between sections with harpsichords and sections with bassier, jazzier sounds that recall the luxurious vibe of Cocaine Beach. It’s incredibly seamless, and it is just one of many examples that demonstrates level of creative ingenuity displayed by Ghost throughout this album.

Truly, the only rapper who could have done this production justice is ANKHLEJOHN. Anybody who is familiar with him knows how dramatic his style as an emcee is. The dark, creepy ad-libs that he throws into the mix serve as a stark contrast to the heavenly sounds found among the instrumental backing, and his gruff voice offers an often frightening element to otherwise soothing music. He elevates the already cinematic instrumentation to an entirely new level; on just the first track, which opens with some very melancholy pianos, Ankh soulfully recounts a story of past trauma, before switching to a threatening growl as the beat takes a turn for the horrific. This is representative of his performance through the entire album; he brought the best out of every beat with how he adjusted his vocals to match and compliment the feel of the instrumentals. The production on this album seems to have inspired Ankh to show more variety in his delivery, and as a result, this is potentially his most vocally diverse project to this day. Lyrically, Ankh has always been fairly blunt, and he doesn’t deviate from that here. Some songs serve as violent displays of blunt lyricism while on others he instead opts to drop knowledge, displaying the dichotomy often found within his music. In general, his style felt looser on this project than others, which ultimately served to benefit the final product.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the features on this album as well. Ankh shares the mic on only two tracks, on the previously mentioned “Almond Blossoms” with Hus and the posse cut “At Eternity’s Gate,” and each time it worked wonderfully. The latter is by far the greatest posse cut I’ve heard in years; with a lineup of features that includes Eto, Fly Anakin, and CRIMEAPPLE, one would think the track could never live up to the potential those names alone set. I’m happy to report that it likely exceeds anything anyone could expect.

With Van Ghost, ANKHLEJOHN and Big Ghost crafted the most original rap album I had heard in a long time. The care that went into it is evident even from the surface; each track is named after a Van Gogh painting, and Big Ghost himself painted the artwork in a similar artistic style that Van Gogh painted in. I’m going to acknowledge the obvious: this review is many months late. This is because I honestly had a hard time describing this album in a way that would do it justice. Everything came together in such a unique way. There was no precedent set for it, so I didn’t know what to say about it. In many ways, this album is peerless. You’re unlikely to see another project offer what this one does, in the same fashion that it does. For that reason alone, it’s worth a listen. It is detailed and layered to the point that most people are going to walk away having picked up something that others haven’t. In that sense it hits its mark entirely, acting as an equivalent to a fine painting.

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Rajin Rambles: Time to Defend Dust Again…

by Rajin

dust

Despite what the title may imply, I’m not gonna spend any time or energy speaking about music I don’t like in this piece. I’m sure I’ve done that enough, and it would probably look tacky at this point (it was actually probably always tacky). However, I really don’t like the attitude that I’ve seen some people carry, about the past belonging in the past and being irrelevant. Right now, hip hop is at an “age,” so to speak, where it’s made an incredibly long journey from its roots. There’s very little now that resembles the music that artists like Run-D.M.C. were making when rap music was just first exploding onto the scene.

For this reason, I feel like some “dated” sounding material being released could be constructive. The argument that I’ve seen come up is that we’ve seen certain styles of music done before, so there’s no real reason to see them again. While I understand that point, and even agreed with it to a certain extent until fairly recently, I don’t think it necessarily has to hold true. I’m just barely over half of hip hop’s age and while I don’t have any official figures or statistics, I don’t think it would be inaccurate to say that a huge chunk of the audience is in my age group. I also don’t think it would be inaccurate to make the claim that most listeners in my age group really don’t give a shit about what was happening 30 years ago. While I think it’s irresponsible for writers and media personalities — who are theoretically supposed to have respect and knowledge for the history — to approach hip hop with that sort of attitude, I don’t think I can blame a casual listener for feeling that way. There’s so much music being released these days that if you’re not somebody extremely passionate about it, it’s hard to find the time to both keep up and go back in time no matter how accessible everything is now. The pool of music just continues to grow, which makes the task of wading through it all that much more imposing.

This is why I feel like what LL Cool J is doing on his Rock The Bells radio show is so essential. It offers a quick and easy way to take a look back through the history of hip hop and rap music. You get to listen to the hits that came before your time, and build an understanding of where the music been and how it got here. All coming from someone who everybody recognizes for one reason or another, who also happens to be someone who took part in solidifying this music as something more than just a fad.

With where hip hop is now, I strongly believe that there could be some benefit in revisiting styles and sounds without tailoring anything to 2019. It’s clear that there’s room for anything in hip hop. We have seen boom bap, a style that most people consider to be outdated, make a powerful comeback in the last few years. Granted, it isn’t generally the type of boom bap you would see in the ‘90s. It still exhibited a bit of evolution; at this point, boom bap today is far from being “throwback,” and I find it a little annoying when it gets relegated as such (I can’t say for sure, but this more than likely contradicts stuff that I’ve said in the past). It quickly picked up where the ‘90s left off, and is now sonically something very different than it used to be. It feels like a natural progression, but it doesn’t necessarily bring anything from the past back.

I would love to see someone from the ‘80s come out and make something that sounds like what they were making back then, but brought into 2019. Kool G Rap is still around out-rapping people over 30 years into his career, but that’s not necessarily what I’m talking about. I want to hear something like EPMD rapping over funk samples and bringing back the feeling they had on their music before their first breakup, or LL shouting boasts over loud minimalist production. I feel like it could be interesting to see music like that released in this day and age. Such a large portion of today’s rap fanbase has no idea what hip hop sounded like before the ‘00s. I find that gaining an understanding of what happened in the past could add to one’s overall understanding of the music in general — at least that’s how it’s worked for me. Re-examining what’s happened in the past could open up new pathways in the future, possibly to styles that hadn’t happened in the past due to technical limitations and such. In a way, I feel like it would almost be like taking a few steps back stylistically to attempt a net movement forward. At worst, it would end up just end up reinforcing that the past should stay in the past.

You kind of see that with artists, in a way. I’m going to use Cypress Hill as an example. They came onto the scene with a very dark, hazy sound, courtesy of DJ Muggs drawing from psychedelic rock as a source of inspiration and samples. This remained the case, for the most part, through their first four albums; their formula was seldom changed. They essentially just made the same sort of music for four albums (which isn’t a criticism – those are four of my top five Cypress Hill albums). However, by the time Skull & Bones came out they largely abandoned everything that they had built their brand on and moved on to other styles. They messed with the current trends going on in west coast hip hop at the time as well as, regrettably, nu-metal. In the years to come, they would also try out reggae-influenced sounds, and even have an album without any Muggs production at all. Cypress Hill decided that they wanted to try new styles out after spending the better part of a decade using what was essentially the same style, and that’s fair. An artist/group is at full liberty to make whatever creative decisions they want to. Last year though, they decided to go back to their roots for their latest album, Elephants on Acid. This saw them returning straight to their Temples of Boom days of making dark, murky, and psychedelic music. They felt more at-home making this sort of music than they had in 20 years. From here, they can go in whatever direction they want to, but it’s clear revisiting what was familiar revitalized them for the most part.

I feel like this same sort of thing could go for rap music as a whole. The genre has been exploring many different sounds for decades now, and I feel like the time may be right for it to take a second and revisit its roots. While in general, music has become a lot more complex and detailed since the days I’m talking about, I believe it would still be worth exploring.

I don’t know. These are just some stray thoughts and I don’t think I really even said anything here. But I’ve felt like this for a while now. For the first half of January I was listening to almost nothing but ‘80s rap. I wanted to get familiar with the history of rap music and see how it developed. See how regions outside of New York developed their own sounds. Observe how rappers who would be considered vets by the early ‘90s had to adjust to the rapid innovation and change in the landscape, and compare that to how vets do it today. So much has been left in the past with no trace of it around now, which is understandable enough. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that in a time where accessibility is at an all-time high, it seems like the history of hip hop is focused on less than ever; for that reason, I feel like it wouldn’t be the worst idea to try reminding people where things started. I’d like to see some older artists show everyone what gave new artists a platform to begin with.


Final edit: Dustin

Album Review: Daniel Son x Asun Eastwood x Futurewave – Physics of Filth

by Dustin

pof

9.25/10

The current East coast boom bap revival has certainly been interesting to say the least. It’s seemed like a rap fan’s dream, yet has seemingly flown under the radar beyond Roc Marciano’s smooth pimp rebirth of New York. That’s not to say it hasn’t been fun to witness that sound sinking its hooks into the ears of listeners, because it definitely has been, but it’s lacked the snarl 90s dope boy emcees tended to carry. Roc and his offshoots have all leaned heavily into a buttery smooth coolness, and — by no fault of his own whatsoever — it has gotten slightly monotonous at times. The climate has been perfect for a mould breaker to come along and present something with vigor and attitude. Shockingly, three such men have arisen out of the frozen North and banded together to create something monumental. Physics of Filth, a project consisting of the ever powerful Daniel Son and Futurewave combo, while throwing in the king of raw potential in Asun Eastwood for good measure. Basically all the ingredients for an unforgettable feast, the likes of which the Canadian hip-hop scene has never seen.

Oh yes, the audience ate well.

As a pair, Daniel Son and Asun Eastwood are incredible to a degree beyond comprehension. While both are fantastic emcees solo, they elevate each other to new heights on the same track. They balance one another out, with Asun’s calm coolness providing the exact foil Daniel Son’s hyper aggressive bite called for; however, there also seemed to be the perfect amount of competitiveness between the two to create a spark. The clear desire to not be outdone was evident, and it became exciting to try and predict who would push themselves the furthest on any given song. Topically the album was as the name and cover implied, immensely grimy drug dealer rap. Certainly a topic that has seen its fair share of play in hip-hop, but rarely is it done to the level of Physics of Filth. Asun and Daniel are quite talented writers when it comes to cheeky lines and unique phrasing. With that amount of flair, they were more than able to keep the content fresh and engaging. Coupled with a delivery match made in heaven, they were able to put on a near flawless performance on this release.

There was also the Futurewave factor to consider. Recently it has felt as if there is genuine reason to consider Futurewave as one of the best active producers alive, and Physics of Filth did nothing but bolster his impressive portfolio. He’s seemingly mastered the art of percussion, as the beats on this album hit hard enough to make the forefathers of boom-bap scrunch their faces. The sample selection spanned a wide variety of genres and were brought together seamlessly to create this intensely gritty atmosphere; moreover, his work found a way to boost the already undeniable chemistry of Daniel Son and Asun Eastwood. Even more impressively, he did so without repeating the sound established alongside the aforementioned Daniel Son on Pressure Cooker earlier the same year. It was similar in the sense that it was also a treasure trove of modernized 90s hardcore hip-hop, yet also clearly its own very unique thing. Frankly, Futurewave’s production performance made it impossible to simply shrug him off as a faceless man behind the boards because he was an integral part of the record’s DNA.

Physics of Filth was for all intents and purposes the total package. Enjoyable collaborative albums are not an easy feat to pull off naturally, yet when the stars align they can be something truly special. That’s what happened here. It would have been easy for Futurewave’s production acumen to serve as a crutch, propping up otherwise mediocre verses. Asun Eastwood and Daniel Son are not just any old rappers however, and their desire to live up to the standard each instrumental set was spectacular. Physics of Filth listened like the product of three budding elite talents holding a genuine excitement to be working together, and the interpersonal respect was audible. While the aforementioned chemistry was certainly important, this release would not have been what it was without the enthusiasm it carried. It could have simply been a solid side project, and that would have still been wonderful. Instead, it ended up being perhaps one of the best group releases in the better part of a decade, and one that would be a shame for any hip-hop junkie to not at least try once.


.Final edit: Emily – Preliminary edit: Rajin – Additional direction: Isaac