Collectors Corner: UGK – Too Hard To Swallow (2017 Vinyl Reissue)

by Rajin

cctitle

Last year marked the 25th anniversary of UGK’s debut album Too Hard To Swallow. To celebrate, Get On Down Records released a special reissue for Record Store Day, limited to 1,000 copies. Previously only released on CD and cassette, this was the first time the seminal Dirty South album was pressed on vinyl (aside from a 1992 promotional only pressing which wasn’t for public sale).

This was one of the first records I bought after getting into vinyl at the top of this year. On my first trip to the record store I saw it while flipping through hip hop records, but for some reason I didn’t think to pick it up. No more than a few days later I was idly reflecting on that visit, and decided to look this album up on Discogs. Upon doing so, I read details about it that made me realize the mistake I had made in passing it up. About a week later I went back trusting that if it had stayed on the shelf for 8 months, it would still be there. Sure enough, it was, and I went home with what remains to be the coolest vinyl I own as of now.

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The first thing that you’ll notice about the record is the way the cover art has been altered. Pimp C, Bun B, and the lettering are all gold, and essentially everything else is dark blue. I’m not entirely sure why the cover has been altered the way it has, and I don’t really know how I feel about it. While I don’t remember if it was the only reason I didn’t pick it up at first, the changes were definitely part of why I was apprehensive. I imagine I thought I would find an earlier pressing with the original cover, only to find out that this is the first vinyl pressing. I will say, it gives the cover a sleeker look than the original. It looks more like an actual album cover, and less like a picture with word art on it; however, it does eliminate the charming simplicity and overall “Dirty South” vibe that the original album art had.

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The record sleeve is a little thinner than I personally prefer for a 2xLP. There are no inserts or anything to speak of; the credits are all listed on the back cover, which follows the same color scheme as the front cover. There really isn’t anything else to the packaging. The actual vinyl is where the release gets more impressive to me. It was pressed on clear vinyl, which makes it one of the more aesthetically pleasing records that I own. I really like how you have a view of the grooves that you don’t get on other colors. Not only does it look extremely cool, it makes it much easier to see whether the record is dirty or not. The colors used on the sleeve are also used on the vinyl labels, which actually serves as a gorgeous contrast to the clear vinyl.

The pressing itself is a pretty good one. I’m no audiophile, so perhaps others who have listened to it would dispute me on this, but I love how full the funky, syrupy bass on this record sounds. Tracks with slower and more detailed production like “Feel Like I’m The One Doing Dope” become infinitely more immersive than the digital version is. The vocals also sound great, and honestly better mixed than they were on the original release. Bun B’s booming voice in particular sounds great on this pressing.

Ultimately, the best thing about this is that a classic album has finally gotten the vinyl pressing it always deserved. Too Hard To Swallow was already an album that anyone who considers themselves a fan of hip hop should own, but this pressing is special. If anyone sees it hanging out at your record store, pick it up. Don’t even think about it.

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Album Review: Prof – Pookie Baby

by Dustin

pookiebaby

3.75/10

A few years ago, Rhymesayers associated themselves with an artist well outside of their usual dynamic. As an addition to their roster he stuck out like a sore thumb, yet his chaotic energy charmed the fanbase quickly. This artist was Prof. The other side of the coin to Rhymesayers Entertainment’s introspective conscious rap signature. He came in boasting an arrogantly brazen offering of hyperactive shenanigans within his music. He was a debauchery driven scumbag but possessed a degree of self-awareness that broke through on moments of emotional reflection. His label debut, Liability, came in 2015 and offered an excellent helping of his range. It was a mess, but so genuinely fun that it was impossible not to love. It felt like a jumping off point into something bigger for Prof. He took time away from the studio to tour but recently returned with his new album. Pookie Baby, the record which would push the sound and success of Liability forward and prove that Prof was a true powerhouse on the label.

Except, it didn’t happen that way. Not even close.

Pookie Baby missed the mark in most ways, but the biggest element of failure was Prof’s writing. His wild, party addict, white boy shtick, which normally seems natural, came across as eye-rollingly forced. The lyrics began to be more of a nuisance than a pleasure to sit through by the thirtieth time he reminded anyone listening of how often he has sex. It was funny at first, particularly on “Send Nudes,” but at a point, Prof started to sound like a meme of himself. A broken record with no range. It was hard to listen without feeling like he had phoned the writing portion for the vast majority of the release. The wit and tongue in cheek braggadocio of past releases were hard to see. Instead, there was an appeal to the lowest common denominator with empty, repetitive lyrics. It was a letdown. Prof is capable of a lot more than he showed on Pookie Baby, but the steps backwards were too blatant to be pushed aside. Given the length of time between Liability and now, it’s reasonable to say that more could have been expected.

There’s also the aspect of vocal delivery. Prof has never been a technically talented singer, but in small doses, his voice can be a lot of fun and add a unique flair of versatility that many lack. Small doses being the key. In the case of Pookie Baby, though, the singing was far too frequent and hit a point of being completely abrasive. One or two songs featuring his trademark warbling would have been welcomed with open arms; however, when it feels like half the album is an artist overusing an already spotty singing voice to avoid having to write lyrics with more depth, there is a problem. Pookie Baby had this problem. When he opted to rap, Prof’s delivery did compensate for some of the weaker writing to a degree. It still wasn’t his best work by any means, but it was passable enough for songs like “Time Bomb” and “Action” to sound genuinely engaging. Sadly, these moments were very much the minority. Prof misused his vocal tools to the point that it hurt the record severely. It’s a shame because there were a few glimpses of that bombastic skill on the album. He just decided, for whatever reason, to put a minuscule amount of it on display.

In addition to Prof delivering vocals well below his capabilities on Pookie Baby, he received little help from the instrumentals. It was more cohesive than Liability musically but lacked the eclectic charm and character of that album’s production. It felt like a binary. Either he was rapping on top of a bouncy, upbeat trap flavored beat, or he was crooning on top of something more wavy and slow. While none of the instrumentals were inherently bad, they were generic and grew dull quickly. Prof normally has enough energy to carry weaker beats, but his complacency on Pookie Baby enabled them to stand out as mediocre. Tracks were screaming for more intricacy to help carry his performance, and it just was not there. It was another unfortunate reflection of the regression Prof displayed as an artist. His production choices were that of an individual who misunderstood his strengths and appeal, resulting in a bitterly inferior product from top to bottom.

In spite of Pookie Baby’s quality issues, it doesn’t seem fair to count Prof out entirely. As much as this was a rather significant misstep, it wasn’t bad due to deteriorated ability. It felt more like he was lost musically, and leaned heavily on his crutches to be able to flesh out an album. This has happened to many an artist over the years, and a future return to form is more than possible. Regardless this is a review, and the reality is that Pookie Baby offered little of value or interest. A couple of songs were quite amusing and might be worth spinning again, but the overall product was underwhelming at best. It just didn’t click. He’s worth keeping an eye on going forward as there’s plenty of untapped potential, but this is a project better to be left forgotten.

Album Review: Black Milk – FEVER

by Dustin

FEVER

9/10

Detroit. One of the meccas of hip-hop. For years the city has churned out phenomenal talent like flowers growing through the cracks of the extremely rough social climate. Since the turn of the millennium, Black Milk has been honing himself as one of Motor City’s finest artists. Working with prominent local names such as Slum Village, Danny Brown, Guilty Simpson, and Royce da 5’9”, he became known as a production wizard before moving into solo rap releases in 2005. His career has been one marked by superhuman craftsmanship, particularly following the release of Tronic in 2008. Black Milk has been an artist to never settle, striving to push his style to new places with each new drop. Just shy of four years since his last rap release, Black Milk stepped out of the shadows with a new offering of tracks; one that may only have been his most bold step forward in the name of musical progression.

FEVER was a sonic departure for Black Milk, at least regarding his rap releases. While it moved away from the alternative street-hop sound, he had crafted on No Poison No Paradise, and If There’s a Hell Below, it built upon the distinctive flavor of the Nat Turner collaborative effort, The Rebellion Sessions. This will likely be a sticking point for some, and admittedly it did make for a confusing initial listen; however, once that shock wore off, the album felt incredibly well put together. It doesn’t take a hip-hop aficionado to recognize that Black Milk has been a production powerhouse for many years, but he still managed to find a point of ascension for FEVER. The instrumentals on this album were fantastic. Through the process of chopping tracks recorded by his actual band, Black Milk gave the beats a sense dynamic liveliness that would otherwise be difficult to accomplish using samples. It created an intimate environment, much like watching a jazz-rap show at a small venue. Additionally, he didn’t entirely abandon the classic boom-bap undertones that have become a signature of the Michigan region. The record maintained a needed sense of familiarity. There was a wonderful balance between genres that often gets lost on artists when they move into new territory. While the jazz and funk elements were certainly prominent, FEVER remained hip-hop at its core.

The production oddities didn’t end there, however, as the vocals on this release were handled uniquely. Black Milk felt to be a little further back in the mix, doing away with the stark contrast between emcee and instrumental. This had some interesting consequences. First and foremost, it gave the album a flawless aspect of cohesion. The way Black Milk allowed himself to be enveloped in the beat made it sound as if he was more at home than ever before. There were no moments that felt as if the beat selection was questionable, a true hat tip toward the attention to finer detail. Secondly, it created an environment in which it became possible to end up fully lost in a track as the listener. There was an ethereal beauty to each song, with the individual pieces joining forces to create a rich final sound. While this may have made it hard to firmly hang onto Black Milk’s lyrics at first, with subsequent listens it became a true marvel to appreciate.

Making it all the more worth taking time was the fact that Black Milk’s performance as an emcee remained solid as ever. There’s something to be said about knowing when to keep it simple, and he has proven time and time again to be a master of that art. While admittedly more ambitious on FEVER than some of his past work, Black Milk’s flows never attempt to overwhelm. They were tight and complementary to the chilled out production. At the lyrical level, he opted to focus on his strengths: observant bars and social storytelling. Verses were packed to the brim with quick poignancy, and tracks such as “Foe Friend” highlighted his ability to craft interesting stories out of the day-to-day. What FEVER lacked in bombastic vocals was made up for in spades with unmatched consistency. There isn’t much else that can be said. Black Milk was simply extremely sharp for the entire duration of the project, and that’s an underrated quality for an album to possess.

Unfortunately, FEVER was the sort of album that will evade a good handful of listeners. It felt distinctly removed from the path Black Milk was on, and if fans don’t approach it with an open mind, it likely won’t land with them as well as it could. This is “unfortunate” because beyond that surprise it was truly a pleasure to experience. Spinning it with expectations checked at the door made it evident that this is a special record. A potential candidate for album of the year, assembled by one of hip-hop’s most artistically attentive minds. Black Milk once again found a way to push the envelope, a remarkable feat for an individual with an already fantastic track record of releases. Bravo.

A History of UTFO and the Roxanne Wars

by Dustin

UTFO

The 1980s were an interesting decade for hip-hop as a genre that had just begun to find its footing. The classic artists of this era are often remembered for one of two things: infectiously bouncy party music, or gritty socially rooted rap. Yet, aside from the big names – N.W.A, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Run D.M.C., The Beastie Boys, and a few others – rap from this particular point in history seems have found itself overshadowed by the behemoth that is 90s rap. Yet, if one is up to doing a little digging, there are a ton of very interesting artists to be discovered. One such group was Untouchable Force Organization, or as they were more commonly called, UTFO. An east coast rap group that brought a unique flavor to the sounds of the 80s.

UTFO formed in Brooklyn, New York in 1984 when two of Whodini’s regular break-dancers, Doctor Ice and Kangol Kid, made the decision to pursue a music career of their own. The two enlisted the talents of The Educated Rapper and Mixmaster Ice to round out a quartet. Thanks to the group’s pre-existing connections to the music industry it didn’t take them long to find a label to call home. In this case, it was Fred Munao’s Select Records that decided to take a chance with the group. The slightly more experienced R&B outfit Full Force was brought into the fold to assist the newer UTFO, tasked with overseeing the production of their debut studio album. Full Force took this job to heart, and sought the help of sampling and sound design expert Gary Pozner to assist with the instrumental portion of the record. Armed with some of the best in the industry, UTFO was primed to make a splash in hip-hop with their self-titled debut album. Which, is exactly what they did; in fact, the group probably got a bigger response than they bargained for.

Their freshman release is regarded by many hip-hop enthusiasts as a slept on classic, with its unique beats and flows for the era; however, UTFO as an album is still mainly known for setting off a massive string of diss tracks known as the Roxanne Wars. During the promotional run of the album, a track tilted “Hanging Out” was released and performed relatively terribly in terms of pure numbers. The b-side of the single, however, would go on to receive huge amounts of airplay. This song was titled “Roxanne, Roxanne,” a comical track about a hypothetical girl who had ignored the advances of the various UTFO members. Around this same time, UTFO missed a scheduled performance, much to the dismay of venue promoters Marley Marl and Mr. Magic. A 14-year old Lolita Gooden (known by her stage name Roxanne Shante) heard the men discussing the problem, and offered to write a song to fire back at UTFO. Surprisingly they took her up on this offer, and Marley Marl opted to handle the track’s production.

The fruit of their labor would be released not long afterward. It borrowed the original beat from “Roxanne, Roxanne” and was named “Roxanne’s Revenge.” Local radio stations adored the song, thrusting it into instant hit territory with continuous airplay. UTFO and Full Force saw the humor in the situation, and promptly contacted Elease Jack to perform vocals on their own answer track, “The Real Roxanne.” On this song, Elease claimed to be the actual Roxanne originally dissed by UTFO, and took jabs at all four members. This sparked Roxanne fever in the New York hip-hop scene, and artists entirely unrelated to the original incident began releasing Roxanne songs. Topics ranged from claiming to be Roxanne, claiming to know Roxanne, or in one particularly outlandish case, claiming that Roxanne was a man all along. It was such a craze that close to a hundred Roxanne songs were estimated to have seen release in the span of a few years. Though this seems highly likely to be exaggeration, there is no doubt that UTFO made their biggest splash with “Roxanne, Roxanne” and the time period around their debut album.

Perhaps unexpectedly, this was basically where UTFO’s career peaked. The Educated Rapper wasn’t on the group’s sophomore effort, Skeezer Pleezer. And the album itself didn’t garner much attention, apart from the song “Split Personality.” Their next three albums would also fail to meet expectations even though the group experimented with other sounds such as rock, swingbeat and reggae. Ultimately, the hypersexual Bag It & Bone It released in 1991 served as the endpoint for UTFO. The four men parted ways on good terms, and stayed active within the music industry in more subdue roles. They knew when it was time to call it quits, and that never impacted the lifelong respect they had for each other. A true testament to this was in 2017, when all of UTFO were reportedly by Educated Rapper’s bedside as he lost his battle to cancer.

Though they faded out of rap in an unspectacular manner, UTFO’s legacy should probably be spoken about more than it is. As ridiculous as they may have been, the Roxanne Wars were one of the first instances of beef extending beyond a one off diss and response. Their influence on modern artists was also far greater than one would expect, as evidenced by the outpouring of respect and love over the internet following The Educated Rapper’s death. UTFO helped paved the way for individuals that didn’t fit perfectly with the sound of their time. In most respects they were absolute eccentric oddballs compared to their contemporaries, but the group’s genuity left a lasting impression on the hip-hop scene. In retrospect, the present day alternative artist may not have even existed without the lane UTFO began to carve. While they may appear to have been a one hit wonder on the surface, it goes much deeper than that. Doctor Ice, Kangol Kid, The Educated Rapper, and Mixmaster Ice were four of the most important, but least spoken about individuals in the support structure of hip-hop.

Album Review: CURTA – End of Future Park

by Dustin

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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.

Album Review: LARS – Last American Rock Stars

by Dustin

LARS

LARS/10

That score is not a mistake, nor is it a bad thing (it’s actually incredibly good); all will become clear in due time. Sit back in your easy chair, smoke something, and read on about a super clever project from two mainstays in the Detroit underground.

Veteran emcees King Gordy and Bizarre had been teasing a duo project for a long time, perhaps nearly a decade. Originally under the group name Davidians, the pair released multiple “street single” one-off songs in addition to regularly collaborating on each other’s solo material. In spite of this, it seemed as if the idea of a full length Davidians project had been permanently relegated to the back-burner for both emcees. This changed in 2017, when the enigmatic pair found a home for their collaboration on Magik Ninja Entertainment. The name Davidians was dropped in favor of LARS (standing for Last American Rock Stars), taking on a rocker theme that King Gordy had been toying with for years. Later the same year they released a teaser mixtape called Foul World, and announced Last American Rock Stars as their debut album. The release was slated for early 2018.

Flash forward to 2018, and they followed through on that promise. The record was finally here.

Last American Rock Stars played out like a concept album of sorts. It felt as if one was being brought along for a drug fueled bender lead by two of the wildest scumbags on Earth. Perhaps unsurprisingly the album had an incredibly macabre tone. There was this looming grimness to everything, regardless of how celebratory a song may have been. King Gordy and Bizarre played the role of degenerate rock stars perfectly, as if they were addicted to the party lifestyle to the point that consequences no longer retained their meaning; however, an awareness of the damage being done was always present. King Gordy’s fascination with individuals such as GG Allin showed significantly the the direction of LARS on this project. Ultimately the album captured the qualities that most would attribute to a outlandish-yet-grimey rockstar life: violence, sex, drugs, and criminal debauchery. These themes were presented with a lovely degree of nuance, making them seem fun as hell, but a surefire way to burn out quickly.

The concept may have been slightly loose, but it was incredibly ambitious. The chaotic nature of the events depicted on Last American Rock Stars did lead to a confusingly scattered first listen, but once everything settled it was executed quite well. It took two or three listens for everything to come together, but it was well worth the time.

Beyond that, the album just had a lot of things working in its favor. King Gordy is in his prime as a rapper right now, and it felt like he could do no wrong here. If he wasn’t bringing a spastic energy to a track, he was probably using a mesmerizingly smooth flow to dazzle the listener. He was the true highlight of the release, and songs such as “Just Got Out The County,” “California,” and “Rock N Roll” feature some of his best work on the mic in years. Bizarre was more hit-and-miss, but even his weaker verses had merit in their personality and construction of the “last true rock stars alive” theme; moreover, his stronger verses were perhaps his most entertaining since the heyday of D12. The duo had some hilarious lines scatter throughout the totally depraved lyrical content as well, which gave the album a nice sense of range. One of the most memorable moments in this regard is on “Rock N Roll”, where King Gordy boasts about being a mosh-pit starter immediately before attempt to persuade the listener to attend a LARS show because “it only costs six dollars.” Humor like that brought a lot of character to Last American Rock Stars, and it was used sparingly enough to keep everything fresh.

It should also be noted that “can we borrow y’all lawnmower?” is one of the funniest adlibs to ever appear on a rap album. Thank you, Bizarre, you are a treasure.

The featured artists were also cool, and that’s not always easy to find in underground projects. Fury, Monoxide Child (of Twiztid) and Twista had the most interesting verses, but everybody else held their own. It truly felt as if LARS were taking you to meet some of their equally (if not more) trashy friends, and it bolstered the concept wonderfully. The production was also selected and handled in an impressive manner. The blend of trap, rock, and underground throwback beats intermingled more smoothly than one may have expected. The variety did a superb job at giving each song a distinct backdrop and emotional feel. For example, tracks like “Stomp” and “I Believe I Can Fly” could not have been further removed from each other sonically, yet they both sounded perfectly at home on Last American Rock Stars. With all that in mind, King Gordy and Bizarre made excellent selections for a supporting cast and the album benefited from it hugely.

The only real issue with Last American Rock Stars was the mastering. The album got significantly quieter during and after “Lit.” At least, this is true on the Spotify release (the physical or iTunes versions may not suffer from this issue). It wasn’t a huge deal at all, though. The mixing overall is fantastic, and it’s fairly easy to slide the volume up on the later songs using one’s audio player of choice. [Update 25/02/18: mastering was not an issue on the physical copy or iTunes version, this appeared to have been exclusive to Spotify]

The reason Last American Rock Stars was so difficult to assign a score to is the fact there is no frame of reference to compare the album. It sounded like a beast entirely of its own, and the uniqueness was refreshing. They managed to turn a scattered tracklist into a musical cross between The Hangover and Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies. It played through like a journey into a life that most will never live, with King Gordy and Bizarre enthusiastically inviting the listener along for the experience. The album felt dirty and taboo, but also thrilling and adventurous. It forced inhibitions out the window, and aimed to take the listener wherever it pleased. The Detroit duo may have taken a lot of years to finally come together on a project like this, but the wait meant that their potential got to be fully realized. Last American Rock Stars is absolutely a recommended listen, particularly for those wishing to dive into an album that is distinctly true to itself.

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.