Album Review: CURTA – End of Future Park

by Dustin

endoffuture

8/10

Life as an independent artist is one heavy with fraught uncertainty. Finding footing amongst industry giants and a never-ending feed of new music is challenging enough without frequent shutdowns of the few venues which cater to the scene. Many feel nomadic, resulting in a strong urge to return to a fleeting musical home. It was no different emotionally for two CUTRA and 4Digit, so they took these feelings and concentrated them into a project of musical venting. The result, End of Future Park, ended up equal parts mournful and celebratory. It served as a sort of “homage to [a] place which doesn’t exist anymore; never existed; or will maybe exist at some point in the future.” Quite honestly, it was done extremely tastefully.

As with Click-Bait, 4Digit handled the production in its entirety on this release; however, End of Future Park was gloomier and significantly more experimental in nature. The project had an unsettling dystopian vibe, cultivated within the instrumentation by selective use of glitch and electronic elements. In some ways, the production followed a similar formula to some of clipping.’s earlier material by taking the foundations of hip-hop and twisting them with blowed out noise and synthetic heaviness. That’s not to say that it was derivative though, as the production was still noticeably his own flavor. The final track was also created using a curated mix of his left-over production prior to relocating. It may not have been the headliner on the album, but it was a lovely bonus to the total package.

On the vocal end of things CURTA wasted no time in proving he and 4Digit’s chemistry as a team. His exasperated, hyper-observant style complimented the glitchy and dark production wonderfully. He displayed the ability to inspire a painful hopelessness with his lyrics and delivery, similar to an artist such as Joe Horton of No Bird Sing. He isn’t the flashiest or most technically advanced of emcees, yet he always seemed to bring exactly what a track was calling for. His vocals also had an almost live-show quality to them, which was the perfect organic contrast to the heavily computerized instrumentation.

To keep it short and sweet, End of Future Park sounded like a rap concert happening atop a busted motherboard…that’s being said in the most positive way possible, because it truly was a fun experience.

Featured artists were kept to a minimum on this release. There was however a single guest, and he was a rather interesting one. This was of course Milwaukee-based WC Tank, perhaps most notable for his involvement in the production of music videos for Busdriver. He appeared on the track “I’m So Cool” – one of the weirder cuts on the album – and was a fantastically placed feature. While guest artists can feel pointless sometimes, WC Tank was absolutely not one of those cases. He added a pleasant sense of variation that made the full listen all that much better.

End of Future Park was an album that might not be a perfect fit for everyone’s tastes. It felt more niche than the majority of indie hip-hop releases; however, through that process CURTA put together something fully realized and true to itself. Ultimately the narrowed focus allowed for a concise, very enjoyable project. There were a lot of things here that haven’t been explored sonically by many, if any, artists in the past and that alone was quite admirable. The fact that CURTA and 4Digit managed to adventure into uncharted territory and leave with music that very genuinely sounded great was the cherry on top. For someone actively engaged in the experimental and alternative rap scene, this was certainly an album worth giving some extended attention. For those less familiar, it remained accessible enough to not be an intimidating first step into the world of weird. It also certainly posed the question of where exactly CURTA will take his sound in the future. A question that should be met with excitement and anticipation, taking everything into consideration.

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Album Review: ANKHLEJOHN – The Red Room

by Rajin

ajtrr

8.5/10

Perhaps as a response to the oversaturation of syrupy pop-trap that has had hip hop in a chokehold for a bit too long, it seems like over the past year underground rap has been making something of a return to what made hip hop so appealing in the early-to-mid-’90s. We aren’t seeing artists trying to recreate boom bap; rather, artists have been capturing the essence of ‘90s rap and adapting it for modern times, effectively resuscitating an approach to the music that appeared to be extinct for two decades. For the most part, artists have been looking to early material by artists such as the Wu-Tang Clan and Nas for inspiration. What we haven’t seen very often, though, is a young artist looking to Brotha Lynch Hung and Esham.

That is, until now.

Hailing from Washington, D.C., up-and-comer ANKHLEJOHN is an aggressive, menacing, raspy-voiced emcee set on creating the most intimidating music you’ve ever heard. In the third quarter of last year, he dropped his debut album, The Red Room. This album is a nice and tight 11 tracks long, and barring the last track “Wetter” (which is a fairly self-explanatory title), it is an unrelenting barrage of threats, violence, and vividly dark stories. While many young artists are making music that could fall under the same descriptions, none do so as believably as ANKHLEJOHN does here. There are times on this record where the listener could genuinely become concerned for his mental well-being, and I mean that in the most respectful and best possible way. Throughout the entire run, the listener is given no time to relax. It keeps you on edge, holding your breath the whole time.

The record features haunting, hellish production that even some of the most unforgivingly brutal rappers would have difficulty approaching. It’s got the same sort of blistering cold atmosphere that you could find on a Mobb Deep album in the mid-’90s. For the most part, the production is very boom bap-influenced, with producers HNIC, Camouflage Monk, Viles, and more utilizing the ever-trustworthy technique of chopping soul samples for a large percentage of the songs here. However, that’s not to say that this record stays in that single lane. “Leonadis” sees Ankh rapping over a fiery trap banger, produced by Montana Eclipz, composed of bells and epic orchestral samples. “Original Man” features ANKHLEJOHN and Hus Kingpin trading bars over some of the most genuinely stomach-churning, anxiety-inducing production I’ve heard in years, courtesy of Big Ghost, Ltd. Overall, the album keeps a very dark, moody, and heavy tone to it, which perfectly compliments Ankh’s style.

Lyrically, ANKHLEJOHN’s strengths mainly lie in his ability to paint vivid pictures, and to come up with face-screwing one-liners. To pair with that, his vocals are, quite simply, absolutely gnarly. Ankh’s got a voice that would not have been out of place in a group like Onyx. However, while Onyx spent most of their time screaming in everybody’s faces waving guns, Ankh chooses to speak clearly and threateningly with a rope in his hands. His vocal delivery is still quite brash and abrasive, but he never raises his voice too loudly. By opting for this sort of delivery, he ends up sounding even more imposing. He seems like he draws from his Brotha Lynch Hung influence to casually rap verses depicting ultraviolent scenarios.

Upon listening to this album, one of the most distinctive features are the ad-libs. We live in an era of hip hop where rappers overuse ad-libs to the point where their music is almost unlistenable in many cases. There’s an overwhelming surplus of rappers imitating tires screeching, gunshots, and voicing otherwise random words and sounds. It could be argued that ANKHLEJOHN doesn’t use any fewer ad-libs than these rappers, however, the way he uses them is infinitely more productive. Throughout the album, you’ll hear him growl “sick, sick, sick” as though reacting to his own lyrics. On a track like “Leonadis” the assorted shouts, screeches, laughter, and other ad-libs make him sound almost like he’s having a schizophrenic meltdown and he captured it on record. I can’t say I’ve heard anyone else use ad-libs in this way, and I absolutely love it.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find this record until a couple of weeks ago, so I’m a bit late, but boy am I glad I found it at all. The Red Room is a definitely highlight of 2017. In this day and age, hip hop needs a little more grit, and even though I’m loving what’s going on in underground rap, I feel the grit is still lacking in a lot of ways. ANKHLEJOHN seems to feel the same way, because he delivered an incredibly raw, gritty, and visceral project with The Red Room. The album is dizzying and beautifully dark, and it’s one that I strongly recommend.

EP Review: Youth:Kill – A Hunter’s Moon

by Dustin

youthkill

8.25/10

It’s that time again – another record has descended upon the world from the hellish mind of Walter Gross. We’ve reviewed a couple of Walter Gross albums in the past; this particular one is, however, slightly different. Instead of a solo record this is a Youth:Kill release, the joint project between Gross and emcee K-the-I??? (known for years of affiliation with Fake Four). It can be a mixed bag of results when a noise producer teams up with a vocalist, but Walter Gross and K-the-I??? are long time fixtures in their respective facets of music. They’ve also got a history working together so if you’ve not heard it already, A Hunter’s Moon should be perking your ears up.

To find a comparison of sound that most may be familiar with, A Hunter’s Moon is reminiscent of a more raw version of earlier clipping. work. Its harsh instrumental tones are as abrasive as a Brillo pad, forcing the lyrics to pick their pockets of space carefully when attempting to navigate the fuzzy soundscape. While this may sound daunting in theory, the actual listen is immensely enjoyable. K-the-I??? brings the necessary chaotic energy required to keep up with Walter Gross’ evil production. As an emcee, K-the-I??? brought sharp lyrics which still had a distinct amount of dismay behind them. At times falling back into the production before emerging to smack the listener over the head with a rapid succession of thoughts. The vocals are also mixed in such a way that they felt as if they became a part of the noise. Coupling that up with the overall tone of the production choices created a very anxious and tense emotional experience.

Coming into this project may surprise those more familiar with Walter Gross’ solo efforts, as the production is quite a bit different. Though it has his signature crunchy noise feel, its much more stripped back to allow room for vocals. There also was a really interesting hip-hop flair to the instrumentals which maybe isn’t as prominent in some of Walter’s other work. “Kottihood” and “Guilt-Ridden Hate” in particular have a bounce to them one may not normally expect to hear in noise based music as much. Though the production was stripped back, it didn’t fall victim to becoming too simplistic. Walter Gross in all of his enigmatic glory, has also proven to be a master of restraint on this project.

The duo of remix tracks appearing at the end are also enjoyable little listens. The WG-One-Take remix of “Kottihood” stands out as having been an incredibly interesting bonus listen after the joy of the rest of A Hunter’s Moon.

The x-factor in this project is the chemistry between Walter Gross and K-the-I???. To pull off a sound as ambitiously challenging as Youth:Kill’s without it sounding forced, there has to be a good connection between the producer and emcee. This project felt entirely natural. Neither the vocals nor the instrumentation needed each other to be enjoyable, but when combined together they elevated to new heights mutually. Really, that’s the mark any collaborative project needs to try and hit. A Hunter’s Moon was an incredibly sturdy EP. If you’re a fan of either Walter or K-the-I??? it could, and should, be considered a must listen release that will fly under many listeners’ radar.

Album Review: Uncommon Nasa – Written at Night

by Dustin

2017-10-10

8/10

To fans of the now disbanded Definitive Jux, the name Uncommon Nasa probably isn’t terribly unfamiliar. As an engineer he had his hands in the release of some of the labels most notably early works. For those unfamiliar, however, he’s also an extremely talented producer and emcee. Staying true to his roots as a musician, Nasa is a bit of a throwback to listen to. His music embodies the sound of New York’s underground scene, and his many releases show a true dedication to his own craftsmanship; however, this most recent project is a little bit different. Written at Night panned back from Nasa as a focal point and took a highly collaborative approach with other artists.

Though unconventional, this approached payed off in spades when digesting the final product.

The theme of Written at Night was relatively loose. Instead of chaining artists to specific topics, the album acted more like a diary of late night thoughts; moreover, there was “lightning in a bottle” feel to this sort of approach which was really quite interesting. The guest appearances often felt rough around the edges, as if the artists caught a wave of creativity in the dead of night and rolled with whatever came out of their pen. This is far from a negative however, and it was a massive part of Written at Night’s charm. It also made the album unpredictable. Even when approaching features with quite distinctive styles such as Open Mike Eagle and Quelle Chris, there was no real way to figure out what sort of direction they were going to take on their respective songs. This unpredictability added a nice sense of required engagement, as if turning ears away from the album for even a moment could result in missing something important.

Uncommon Nasa himself appeared on every song, but his presence was not overly pronounced. This was by design, as (like mentioned earlier) Written at Night was intended to be a collaborative release. Respectably, he kept true to this idea and didn’t force himself into the spotlight on any of the tracks save for the few solo portions at the very beginning. When Nasa did step up to the mic though, he was quite solid. His throwback New York style and enthusiasm toward hip-hop as an artform were evident. His style felt nostalgic, a throwback to the New York underground during the turn of the millennium. Being that this style doesn’t have much presence in rap currently, it was refreshing to hear on Written at Night. He may have a sound that isn’t for everybody, but there was certainly no denying the passion and thought that went into his contributions.

Nasa did, however, make himself very present on the production end of things. Handling every single instrumental on the release. He did a great job given the amount of vocal talent he was producing for. The beats were gritty, and satisfying to listen to; moreover, they were open ended enough to accommodate every artist in a comfortable way. His production wasn’t overly flashy, but it had a character and consistency which kept it engaging throughout the entirety of Written at Night.

Another interesting aspect about this album is that it seemed to gradually get more “out there” as it progressed. While a lot of albums tend to build to a climax, it was certainly a nice touch to have an album centered around late night thoughts and creativity progress in a way similar to the human mental state during the late hours of the evening. This did give the record a bit of a slow burning quality, but also a very satisfying and pleasurable complete listen; moreover, one should expect to enjoy this album more in its entirety, rather than individual songs. It was crafted in a way that lends itself perfectly to a long-form listening session.

At the end of the day, Written at Night was a compilation of likeminded artists coming together to create whatever they felt like creating. It is difficult to fairly score an album with such an open ended concept and variety of voices; however, Written at Night was undeniably solid. Nasa did an excellent job of piecing everything into properly cohesive listen. If you’re a fan of any of the artists on this release there’s probably something for you here. Incidentally, it’s also a good record to pick up if you’re looking for some new artists to dive into. Definitely a highly recommended listen.

Album Review: Open Mike Eagle – Brick Body Kids Still Daydream

by Dustin

2017-09-18

9/10

There’s not much that hasn’t been said about Mello Music Group mainstay artist Open Mike Eagle. He’s rap’s every-man, and an artist who isn’t afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. Since his studio album debut Unapologetic Art Rap at the beginning of the decade Mike has brought his unique take on hip-hop to new levels seemingly every year. His second full length on Mello Music Group, Hella Personal Film Festival, saw Mike take massive strides as an artist and was a wonderful release. A year and a half later he’s back with a brand new collection of works, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream. And, well…it’s really good. Like, really good.

With that in mind, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream is a bit of a different listening experience than one would come to expect from an Open Mike Eagle album. Gone are lines obscured by absurdist humor and hyper-exaggerated storytelling, replaced by emotionally hard-hitting honesty. It can be perhaps a little jarring, yet this sudden shift adds to the urgency of what’s being said on the album. On full listen, it feels if all twelve songs have at least one line designed to hit you in the stomach; however, his depictions of the American projects and ghettos managed to be honest without relying on shock-bait and emphasis on negativity. Mike made a point of showing the listener that through the institutionalized racism, a lot of amazing people and happy memories are made in these situations. That even though America needs to improve its treatment of marginalized individuals severely, those who grew up in the projects shouldn’t be written off as hopeless.

His personal connection to the projects and focus on the emotional aspect of the experience made Brick Body Kids Still Daydream a beautiful yet challenging listen. As it should be.

Mike also added another dimension to his vocal performances on this album. There were still plenty of moments with his familiar sing-rap soft spoken delivery; however, the energy he brought to some of the songs on Brick Body Kids Still Daydream is unmatched by his back catalogue. He sounded more inspired, focused, and confident than perhaps he has in his entire career, and it was a lovely surprise. The only song that really stood out as not exceptional was “Wedding Ghosts”, but even that sounded good and had its place within the tracklisting.

No services underground,
No sound, when I’m calling home,
City broken my brothers down,
Now I’m standing here all alone,
Sun weathered my monochrome,
My hollow bones, David Bowie told me I’m not alone,
I’m overgrown, but these model homes,
Still here if it’s hot or cold,
Still here if my body move,
Still standing on Cottage Grove.
(Brick Body Complex)

Open Mike Eagle has always had a very keen ear for production, and this release is no exception. Though it’s a bit of a sonic departure from the zaniness of Paul White’s instrumentation on Hella Personal Film Festival, the depressive tone to most of Brick Body Kids Still Daydream is exceptionally well done. The beats all fit together quite nicely as well, which is slightly surprising given the variety of influences on the album. From experimental to 8-Bit, the production team Mike rounded up for this album blended a plethora of styles into hip-hop seamlessly. Brick Body Kids Still Daydream sounds incredibly fresh without trying too hard to be different. It feels natural, and it suits Open Mike Eagle’s style exceptionally.

22 grandkids, one apartment,
Turn the stove on cause we done with darkness,
Social workers don’t want sons with fathers,
When they visit, people bite they tongue the hardest.
(Beezeway Ritual)

As an additional note, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream wasn’t very feature heavy which was nice. That being said, Sammus and Has-Lo brought excellent verses to their respective songs and deserve praise for fitting into the album perfectly.

Brick Body Kids Still Daydream may be the definitive Open Mike Eagle record. It’s somber, quirky, thoughtful, and an excellent showcase of his various styles. It’s undoubtedly too early to say anything for sure, but Mike’s ability to continually push himself forward with each new release is admirable to say the least. Whether or not you grew up in the projects, don’t be afraid to pick up this album and give it a listen or two. Relatability will vary with the listener, but the heart that went into the songs is undeniable and an excellent entry point into Open Mike Eagle’s impressive catalogue of work; moreover, this is easily one of the most unique and enjoyable albums to be released in 2017.

Album Review: Walter Gross – Super Basic

by Dustin

superbasic

8/10

Ah, Walter Gross. One of the most creative noise-based musicians alive. A little early this year we took a look at his Black Box Tapes release, Vestige. An album which was, and still is, one of the best releases to date in 2017. Moving with the swiftness of a sparrow Walter Gross has already ventured into another release, Super Basic. This release isn’t a really a follow up to Vestige, instead it is a collection of material recorded between 2015 and 2017 (according to his BandCamp page) being released completely DIY both digitally and on cassette. These sorts of beat-tape releases can be slightly unpredictable; however, when they’re from an artist known for experimenting with sound they’re usually worth checking out. They’re unrestrained and free from the need to fit an overarching sound, and usually loaded with interesting tidbits and lost cuts.

Walter Gross is exactly that type of artist, and Super Basic is a very interesting tape.

Super Basic feels like a cutting room floor of ideas, experiments, and loose ends that make up Walter’s progression as a musician. The songs have this loose quality to them that definitely feels like an assortment of not entirely fleshed out thoughts. The track names lend to this rough cut experience, with titles such as “Party Loop”, “Cut I”, and “Cut II” feeling as unpolished as the songs themselves; the ruggedness of Super Basic is not a negative quality by any means however. It leads to somewhat of a scattered experience, but it makes it feel as if the listener is being granted insight into the method behind the madness of Walter Gross.

Even the packaging of the cassette release is a little rough around the edges (in the best way possible). There’s some previews up on BandCamp of the physical release, and it really adds an element to the aesthetic. The digital art (as seen above) is similarly simplistic yet beautiful. The way he’s crafted all elements of this album by hand is admirable, to say the very least.

As far as the music goes, there are some genuinely beautiful moments on Super Basic. The vocal melody on “Cookie” for example is absolutely gorgeous and has this delicious contrast with the noisy, glitchy, sauntering drum line. “Hierophant I” is another stunning piece on this album. It has this crunchy distorted wall of noise at the forefront of the song, with a very subtle meditative nearly-angelic sound slipping through the cracks (and eventually closing out the track). That’s not to say that the rest of the tape isn’t also very cool – which it is – but hearing these moments of blissful relaxation hidden in the noise is breathtaking. It provides a wonderful balance, and gives weight to the most abrasive moments on Super Basic.

There’s also a really nice amount of variation on this beat tape. There are looping moments that drone on, hellishly insane noise tracks, and even some bits that feel hip-hop influenced. It gives one a sample of the range Walter Gross is capable of playing with.

Super Basic may not quite be the powerhouse album that Vestige is, but it’s really not intended to be. Walter’s assortment of sounds on this project are the ultimate fanfare. Even though Super Basic shows off his varying styles, it most likely would not be the best jumping off point for a new listener. That being said, as an established fan this tape is a seductive sampler platter featuring everything lovable about his music. Super Basic totally encapsulates the do-it-yourself and gritty nature of Walter Gross. Perhaps it’s even safe to say that this is him in his rawest form; dirtied up, a little bit chaotic, but an absolute blast to sit through.

Album Review: Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

by Dustin

damn

4/10

There are two things hip-hop fans get excited for every couple of years: a Kendrick Lamar release, and the Anthony Fantano review of the aforementioned Kendrick Lamar release. Two years after the release of his masterpiece record To Pimp a Butterfly, K. Dot has returned to the forefront of rap with his new album DAMN. This was an exciting release first and foremost because Kendrick has been on one hell of a hot streak since he smashed through with Good Kid, Maad City. Two amazing albums and an amazing collection of rough tracks launched him into mega-stardom. Who could blame fans for getting their hopes up? With such an amazing track record, you’d be safe to assume that Kendrick was going to drop another album of gold, right?

Wrong. This is not a good album. DAMN. is actually painfully underwhelming, and this is for a variety of reasons.

Let’s start by talking about the rapper himself. Unlike on his last two albums, Kendrick Lamar sounds scarily disinterested throughout the majority of DAMN. Though it is conceivable that his delivery choices were used to emphasize the overall tone of defeat and depression, they just came across as uninspired. His usual plethora of voices, inflections, and flows was replaced instead with a muddy, slow, and monotone delivery most of the time. His writing isn’t terrible throughout (although he did struggle to piece together a consistent concept even slightly), but it’s hard to even care about what’s being said, because it’s being delivered in such an uninteresting way.

Even worse is Kendrick’s singing throughout DAMN. For whatever reason, he decided that he wanted to sing a whole bunch on this album. Now, he doesn’t have the worst singing voice in the world, but it gets grating really fast. The song “LOVE.” is especially guilty of this, and probably one of the worst songs to be released by a major hip-hop artist in the last five years.

Perhaps the most jarring change on DAMN. compared to Kendrick’s previous work though is the defeatist mentality. The overarching idea that his struggles as a human are due him straying from God’s message – though left fairly ambiguous throughout the record – can be tiring. The moodiness is far removed from the hood documentary narrative on Good Kid, Maad City and pride inspiring social awareness on To Pimp a Butterfly. It feels like an album attributing every injustice against minority groups as an act of God, to serve as punishment for these groups losing their godly roots. This is particularly clear in the multiple references to Book of Deuteronomy. It feels incredibly out of character to hear this sort of broken, defeated, mindset on DAMN.; though it may have been able to work as a concept if executed better, this record is far too scattered for it to have any sort of poignancy.

Plus it honestly seems damaging to blame these issues on a higher power. It takes away the importance of fighting the societal issues which allow these injustices to happen. Kendrick, who has presented himself as a very socially aware human to this point, should know better than this. Why push an album working directly against the causes you’ve backed? It doesn’t make sense.

The production on DAMN., to put it lightly, is absolutely terrible. There are maybe three beats throughout its run-time that don’t feel like stale rehashes of gutless trap bangers and RnB backtracks. It’s really evident when you start to compare this album to his last two full-length releases. It feels as though Kendrick has stepped down two or three tiers of beat selection, and it is really quite disappointing. Sure, “DNA.” is a monstrous track and 9th Wonder’s contribution to “DUCKWORTH.” is gorgeous, but two instrumentals couldn’t salvage the whole record. Honestly, with better attention paid to instrumental selection DAMN. could have been a significantly better album. It’s easier to look past conceptual and vocal flaws when the rest of the album sounds nice. DAMN. does not sound nice. Not even slightly.

He even managed to pick a boring Alchemist beat. When you’re using Alchemist as a producer, picking a bad beat should be a difficult thing to do; however, in this particular instance he picked a seven minute instrumental with the same short sample playing repeatedly. It would have sounded great on a shorter song, but it was used on a marathon. After the second minute it loses all appeal instantaneously.

In spite of these issues, DAMN. is a record with a few bright spots. The song “DNA.” shines the hardest with its infectious energy and absurdly smooth Kendrick flows. It definitely seemed to be the initial standout. “DUCKWORTH.” is also a very solid track with an interesting (albeit odd) story and one of the few nice instrumentals.

Unfortunately, like most iconic musicians, this album’s critical reception will be highly inflated by Kendrick’s hype-beast status. Reviews dropping near minutes after its release were trigger-happy to drop another perfect score. Reading fan discussion proves quickly that this is a highly polarizing package of music. Honestly, listen to the record and form your own thoughts and opinions on it. You’d probably be better off picking up the new Oddisee or Quelle Chris, but DAMN. is definitely one of those albums that you’ll need to experience for yourself to see where you stand.

We can all agree that the album art is horrible though. Every single human on earth can agree with that.