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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Album Review: Daniel Son & Futurewave – Pressure Cooker

by Rajin

pressurecooker

9.25/10

As I’ve mentioned countless times, there has been a thrilling new wave of boom bap coming out of the underground recently, spearheaded by Long Island’s Roc Marciano and Buffalo’s Westside Gunn and Conway. Through this movement the spirit of New York hip hop in the ‘90s lives on with a modern twist. Furthermore, incredible new artists have been popping up from unexpected locales, such as Rochester, D.C., and Richmond; shockingly, one of the most impressive cities has been Toronto, Ontario. While the region is generally known more for pop-rap and R&B artists like Drake and The Weeknd, there have been several rising stars who have contributed greatly to the “new golden era,” so to speak. One of the most promising has been Daniel Son. Over the course of the last couple of years, he has caught ears with standout guest verses, and a pair of wonderful projects atop instrumentation provided by the UK based Giallo Point. This time around, Daniel Son has teamed up with producer and fellow Toronto habitant, Futurewave.

The result of this pairing was, in a word, superb.

Pressure Cooker captures the same atmosphere that you’d hear on an early-mid ‘90s Wu-Tang or Mobb Deep project. Everything from the hungry, vividly streetwise verses to the strikingly cold production gives off that aura. This may be par for the course in this scene, but it’s executed entirely different here. Generally, the producers utilize dusty soul samples to create minimalist instrumentals. Drums aren’t emphasized as much; if they are present at all, they tend to come from the source sample itself. This style allows for the emcee to take center stage while the production serves as more of a backdrop than a musical driver. For this project, however, Futurewave drew from cleaner and lusher samples. This results in production that has a huge range, much wider than I feel most listeners would be accustomed to from artists in this lane. True to his name, Futurewave flipped samples that were quite glitchy for several songs, such as “Def Leppard” and “Icy Palms.” This lent itself to a harsh, frostbitten sound that you truly wouldn’t be able to find elsewhere. While the samples were relatively clean-sounding, there was still plenty of grime to be found amongst the skull-crushing drums. They created a beautiful contrast in the production that subtly reminded me of an album such as Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… In addition, I absolutely love how they are clearly sourced from separate records. Oftentimes, there would be no surface noise in the samples until the drums hit, which just added to the edge that they offered the beats. The production on this project is spectacularly immersive; truthfully, it would come off almost overpowering, were it not for the emcee rapping over it.

Daniel Son cut through the production like it was nothing, and it was thrilling to behold. As a performer he has always had an aggressive delivery. He sounds like he’s hassling you relentlessly from across the street; imposing, intimidating, and impossible to ignore. Ordinarily, his ability to make an impression is effortless. His presence can overtake anyone else on a track handily with how laid-back yet emphatic he is. For this project, he had to push himself a bit further, as the production here is very dynamic – it builds on itself constantly. Impressively, yet unsurprisingly, his vocal energy matched the beats any time they would hit a crescendo; there were moments where he stretched his delivery to the point that was very nearly yelling. Daniel altered his flow a bit throughout the album too, leaving space in between his bars to let them breathe. This allowed for the impact of what he was saying to reverberate against the music, which only served to highlight the brutality of his lyrics and add to his already flamboyant style as an emcee. The guest appearances did a good job at offering a bit of a contrast to the flair Daniel brought. Rappers such as Saipher Soze and CRIMEAPPLE in particular came with verses that were more blunt and straightforward, simultaneously demonstrating a level of chemistry with him that make for some interesting collaborations that I would personally like to see more of in the future. However, I have to say that Daniel Son consistently outdid the competition here. While his star power has always been evident, he stepped his game up to a level that I didn’t see coming for at least another couple of projects.

“Talk is cheap, but people fade away for less
Life lessons you only learn in the face of death
You can bring ‘em to the edge, but will they take the step?
(Take a deep breath) And let the steel bat break his legs”
-Daniel Son, on “Def Leppard”

This album is arguably the best album to be released thus far from perhaps the strongest underground scene since the early 2000s. Anybody who considers themselves a fan of hip hop is doing themselves a massive disservice if they haven’t listened to it. Pressure Cooker is comprised of everything that made hip hop great in the past, while embracing an effort to move forward. Music aside, the most exciting thing about this project is that it doesn’t even seem like Daniel Son has peaked yet. With how seasoned he sounds, it’s hard to remember that he’s still so early into his career. This guy is a threat, and I can’t wait to see what he has in store for the future, because I absolutely love this project.