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.

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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.

Album Review: Walter Gross – The Fra Mauro Highlands

by Dustin

FMH

8.5/10

On January 31st, 1971 NASA would launch the eighth manned mission to the moon, Apollo 14. The three person crew kicked off the 9 day mission from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39, before travelling to the Fra Mauro Highlands on the near side of the lunar surface. This would serve as the last of NASA’s simplistic (relatively speaking) H-Type missions to the moon, as they upgraded to the longer J-Type with Apollo 15. While this particular Apollo mission was relatively understated, its legacy lives on as a success during the booming age of space exploration. An era that had a particular vibe of wonder, and captured the imagination of individuals even outside the realm of science.

One may now be asking how this is relevant to music, and Walter Gross is the answer to that question. Though he may not have been an astronaut on the Apollo 14 mission (or even much of a space enthusiast, for that matter), his love of ambient concentrative music lead him to an interesting place of inspiration: the Voyager recordings. Finding himself endeared to the organic beauty of these pieces, he began work on his own out of this world experimentation. Quickly reaching full realization with a 23 minute (50 counting the Stray Signals Cassette Mix) long tape of atmospheric allure, The Fra Mauro Highlands. An album which would suitably see release on the 47th anniversary of Apollo 14.

Though it bares his name, The Fra Mauro Highlands was not the type of project one has come to expect from Walter Gross. It abandoned a lot of the crunchier, abrasive noise elements he’s become known for in the past, opting to try something a little more ambient instead. Once expectations were subverted however, this was a wonderful listening experience. It hit the flavor of desolate space music perfectly, and managed to feel cold while also inspiring a sense of adventure. There was a particular hint of retro-futurism to the tape, to the same vein as a movie like 2001: A Space Odyssey. This was due primarily to brilliant sound contrast constructed by Walter Gross. The entirety of The Fra Mauro Highlands had an underlying subtle ambiance of whooshing and swirling sounds that were distinctly galactic and harrowing. Atop of this there were moments of gorgeously vintage sounding synthetic instrumentation, used sparsely enough to maintain a sense of mechanical exploration through an all encompassing emptiness. It didn’t mess around with precisely divide tracks. Rather, this album was one continuous piece of music that built upon itself, evolving in a natural and off-the-cuff manner.

With all that in mind, there were aspects of The Fra Mauro Highlands carrying Walter’s signature touch. It was an immensely unsettling selection of work, with the emptiness and overall tone having created a strong sense of urgency and apprehensiveness of the unknown. With artistic anxiety being such a mainstay in his music, this familiarity was oddly comforting. It provided reassurance that this is exactly how the project was supposed to make one feel, and not an emotion to be avoided. The “Stray Signals Cassette Mix” which followed the conclusion of The Fra Mauro Highlands rewound things back a little further stylistically, while having maintained the same overall vibe. It wasn’t the star of the show by any means, but it was very good and really provided a feeling of returning home to the established fan of Walter Gross. A return after a fantastic journey.

Much like the Apollo 14 mission itself, The Fra Mauro Highlands will likely go down as one of Walter Gross’ most under-the-radar releases. While it was absolutely excellent, it appealed to a listener base even more niche than his signature barrage of noise. Which is unfortunate, because it was a stunningly beautiful, and somewhat anxious, ambient album. It wore its inspirations on its sleeve, and the ambition was undeniable. Do-it-Yourself music is about pushing limits, catching waves of inspiration, and trying things outside of the box just to see what will happen. Walter Gross did all of these things with The Fra Mauro Highlands. It embodied the spirit of the scene entirely, and should find itself respected as such.

Rajin Rambles: 2017 in Review, and Beyond

by Rajin

201855

Fortunately, we’ve somehow managed to reach the end of 2017. Unfortunately, this means that I’m once again taking it upon myself to do what I hate to see from other people, and give my unsolicited opinion about the rap music that has come out over the course of the past 12 months.

Overall I thought this year offered a great deal of good music. As expected, Redman and Ghostface Killah did not release their oft-delayed sequel albums that I have been looking forward to for the last 2 or 3 years (there’s always next year!). Some disappointing albums were released; Shabazz Palaces released two of the most tragically underwhelming albums this year, Eminem released a seriously flawed and scatterbrained effort made even more unfortunate because it had many of his best songs in a decade and a half, and the Wu-Tang Clan compilation was full of verses completely phoned in by everyone not named Method Man or Redman. However, there were at least 25-30 projects that I enjoyed. That is far more than what I can say about last year; when reflecting on 2016 about a year ago, I struggled to think of even 10 or 15 albums.

While I loved much of what came out this year, I do feel as though there were not as many that blew me away the way Run The Jewels 3, Atrocity Exhibition, or Honor Killed The Samurai did. Brick Body Kids Still Daydream might be the only one that did that for me, but again, there were a lot of great projects released.

Hip hop, to me, seems like it’s kind of in a state of limbo at the moment, and it’s sorting itself out a bit. It doesn’t seem like the genre really knows where it wants to go. Overall, the year felt a bit directionless, just kind of dragging its feet with a lot of the trends that have been present for the last few years. It feels like people are done with them and yet are also afraid to deviate from them as well. I can’t say I’m very thrilled about the whole Soundcloud rap thing – most of these kids sound to me like they’re really half-assing this cloudy trap vibe while glamorizing mental illness. It’s not a good look.

I’m really over the idea of trap-style drums being thrown into every other beat you hear these days. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy trap music. However, I’m not a fan of what’s been going on with it for a while now. Honestly, most of what is considered trap music really doesn’t seem like it should be considered trap music in the first place. Trap music has gone from actually detailing everyday life in the trap, to basically just rapping over cloudy, moody beats with fast hi-hats behind them. I feel like it’s lost its edge, and it’s becoming very safe and sanitary.

What’s going on with trap actually reminds me of what happened to New York hip hop in the late 90s. Back when Bad Boy and Ruff Ryders gained prominence, most of the grit, dust, and ultimate spirit of the music was lost, as keyboard producers came in with overly clean synths and snares that overtook sampling. Anything that resembled the sound of east coast hip hop before this transition ended up getting relegated to the underground, and it stopped being representative of the New York sound, until now where most people wouldn’t think New York even has a discernible sound at all. Like anything, as the trap sound and style got cleaner, it started losing most of what made it so alluring in the first place. For a long time it’s become progressively more and more watered down, and I feel like this year everything has just been a haze.

Odd as it may sound, 2 Chainz is quite possibly the first rapper to release an album that felt like a proper trap album in years. Pretty Girls Like Trap Music wasn’t an album I was overly fond of, but the entire atmosphere and structure of it felt reminiscent to an early T.I. album. He experimented with the current sounds that rule trap music (and, well, hip hop and even pop as a whole) but actually performed on it in a way that stayed true to the subgenre. Aside from it having a couple of songs I did enjoy, I feel like I’ve got to respect it for that reason.

I hope that hip hop moves on from the current incarnation of trap soon. I spoke earlier this year about how hip hop is in a good place, but I think I need to rephrase. It is in a good place solely because it has proven time and time again that it is not a fad, and because experimentation has crept into it more than it has since the 80s when it first really exploded. However, as far as the prevailing trends go, I think they were necessary but the representative sound needs to move on to something else. Hip hop will lose steam quickly if the majority of what is being consumed continues to devolve. Or maybe the sound will deviate from its southern influence and something else will take its place, like with what happened to New York. All I know is that I’m really kind of tired of it. There’s only so much syrupy music you can hear before you start to feel sick.

Now with all this in mind, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that I do think there’s a growing trend in underground east coast hip hop that I’m really excited about. It seems like this new chamber rap style has been really catching on, especially this year. This style is almost like a progression of the style that we saw with the first wave of the Wu-Tang Clan, where there was a lot of soulful and orchestral samples used in production as well as very descriptive, layered, and colorful lyrics. There are several rappers and producers who deserve credit for pushing the style further, but I think the first person who crafted music in this style that really made people take notice (and please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong) was none other than Roc Marciano.

In 2010, Roc Marciano released his solo debut album Marcberg. On that album, Marci painted laid vividly detailed verses delivered with a quiet and subdued yet overtly arrogant slow flow over a very soulful, stripped down backdrop. It was a style that was unlike anything that was coming out at the time; it was luxurious yet dusty, innovative yet familiar. It was very minimal, with drums oftentimes playing a less prominent role in the production. Two years later, he would refine the style he used on this album and put out what is possibly the most important underground New York rap album of the decade thus far: Reloaded.

Reloaded is the album that has given chamber rap its foothold in the genre. Since the release of that album, you can see underground rappers begin to draw influence from what Marci was doing on that album and push it forward. Around this time, The Alchemist began working with Marci, and from there you can notice a change in his production style, evident on his beats on Sean Price’s Mic Tyson or the Albert Einstein album he did with Prodigy. He started making beats that were more minimal compared to what he was doing beforehand, almost like he was adapting what he did early in his career for Mobb Deep and stripped the style down further.

The music that has been coming out of the Griselda camp since around 2014, when Daringer came into the fold, has also followed a similar tone. Daringer is another producer who creates very minimal beats, oftentimes not adding any drums to the samples and just working with what is there already. Westside Gunn and Conway are some of the more notable rappers who have pushed this style forward, as well. While Roc Marciano innovated it, there weren’t very many rappers toying with it until Westside Gunn’s mixtapes started to drop. It appears to me that the recent explosion of this subgenre really started after Flygod came out.

Since then, in 2016 and especially 2017, there has been music, primarily out of the east coast, that perpetuates this style, aside from Roc Marciano and Griselda. Hus Kingpin, being from Hempstead, Long Island like Roc Marciano, released Cocaine Beach with Big Ghost this year that was essentially a sunny take on Marci’s very cold, wintry tone. Meyhem Lauren and DJ Muggs released Gems From The Equinox, which sounded almost like it bridged the gap between vintage Wu-Tang and the current chamber rap style. VDon and Willie the Kid released a pair of excellent chamber rap EPs this year, both of which offered the subgenre the most innovation on the production side of things that it’s seen since Daringer first molded the Griselda sound. These are all artists who are taking the luxurious vibe of mafiaso rap from the early-to-mid ‘90s, and finally spawning something bigger and worthy, as opposed to the watering down of the style that Bad Boy among others ended up being responsible for.

We also can’t forget Ka. I didn’t include him alongside the rest of these guys because while they all have more of a Raekwon vibe, Ka is more like GZA. He has very stripped back production as well, however, he kind of sounds like he developed his style in a way that is very compatible with Roc Marciano, but definitely separate from it at the same time.

At the end of the day, no matter what, there’s gonna be great music everywhere no matter what the scene looks like from the outside looking in. My sentiments from last year, about wanting a more industrial influenced sound to become the representative sound of hip hop, still apply because I still feel like it could pose as a sensible point to go from where we are now. I get the sense that there will be a fairly dry period in mainstream hip hop in the next few years before the genre is replaced with another genre as the most popular genre before a new fire is lit under it. Or not. I’m not exactly good at predicting anything. Regardless, I am really excited to see how chamber rap continues to grow, and there’s plenty that I’m looking forward to in the year to come.

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: Apollo Brown & Planet Asia – Anchovies

by Rajin

anchovies

7.5/10

I think the biggest mistake I made last year was sleeping on The Easy Truth, by Apollo Brown and Skyzoo. That album ended up being one of my favorites of 2016. Seeing a couple of months ago that Apollo Brown was teaming up with another rapper, this time being Planet Asia of Cali Agents, for an album called Anchovies (released through Mello Music Group) I made sure not to repeat that mistake.

Apollo Brown has been one of my favorites for a while. He is one of the most reliably dope producers I can think of; while generally not the most unique beatsmith in his technique, style and range, the end product is guaranteed to be soulful and immersive. His beats tell stories, even without vocals. Usually when a rapper and producer make a collaboration album, it tends to sound like the rapper’s vision with that sole producer supplying beats. Yet, the exact opposite is generally true with Apollo Brown. It’s clear that these albums are his show, and on each, he gets the rapper to come with his A-game. Planet Asia, on the other hand, is someone who I am new to. In order to get familiar before listening to this album, I listened to his other MMG release: a collaboration with producer Gensu Dean called Abrasions (which, for a quick one-line review, was quite a solid album with some filler). Based off that album, he seemed to be a talented and straightforward emcee – no frills. Just hardcore hip hop, pulled off effectively. Perfect for what Apollo was going for on this.

Speaking of which, the musical style on this album is very different from what I think most would imagine at first glance when seeing the names Apollo Brown and Planet Asia together. I think the expected product would be something along the lines of Dice Game or Trophies. They must have been aware of this going in, and decided to go for the unexpected. Rather than his typical hard-hitting drums and cinematic soul loops that would theoretically sound great behind Asia’s booming voice, Apollo Brown’s production on this is very stripped down. The drums are intentionally less prominent in the mixes, with snares often completely absent, and dirty, dusty pianos generally taking the forefront on the production side of this. It was a bit of a risk that very much paid off.

Apollo Brown and Planet Asia said that Anchovies would be an acquired taste, and to a certain extent they are right. The album sounds like it belongs to a branch of hip hop occupied by artists like Roc Marciano and Ka. However, I feel as though Anchovies is far more accessible than an album such as Honor Killed The Samurai or even Rosebudd’s Revenge. Where emcees like that are lyrically more esoteric as far as their vocabulary and references, Planet Asia’s lyricism is rooted in more colloquial language, with more of an emphasis placed on witty bars rather than abstract stories and wordplay. In addition, he raps with a more standard delivery and rhythmic flow while Ka and Marci are typically more hushed and sound almost like spoken word. Anchovies draws a great deal from the style that they use, but remains grounded in more traditional hip hop – it ends up sounding like a less cloudy and hazy version of what Conway might do. In having this sort of style, the album ends up being what I consider to be a great place to start for listeners who are trying to dip their toes into that particular facet of hip hop.

“Dirty” is an adjective that was used in a lot of the promo for Anchovies, and it really is probably the most apt description there is. The album sounds like the soundtrack to slouching against a wall smoking a cigarette in an empty alleyway behind a bar at 2 A.M. Asia’s voice and his generally somber delivery gives a feeling of cynical (and at times, emotional) reflection. This album arguably sounds like a spiritual successor to Dice Game (which, incidentally, Planet Asia was featured on)…it’s almost like this highlights what it’s like after the game when everyone’s dispersed and you’re left by yourself. It’s fitting, then, that Guilty Simpson shows up on “Nine Steamin,’” a song that is kind of reminiscent to that album.

Some songs, such as “The Aura,” “Duffles,” and “Deep in the Casket” have a bit of a jazzy, noir film kind of vibe to them, where you could imagine them behind black and white scenery. The majority of the album, however, is a little more soulful and reflective. Songs like “Speak Volumes,” “Diamonds,” and “Tiger Bone” sound sort of like what RZA would have made during the Wu-Tang Forever era with the soul samples, but far more minimal. The minimalism on this album is definitely its defining trait, and it’s pulled off wonderfully. Apollo did a great job at making sure that no matter how bare-bones the music was, it still felt full and warm to listen to.

If there is one thing that I can say I am disappointed by, it is the fact that after you get acclimated to the style of music being made here, the songs become a little predictable. If you, like me, listened to each of the singles before the album dropped, then there are likely few surprises offered to you. Apollo Brown keeps it consistent with his production, and Planet Asia does what he does lyrically and vocally. That’s not to say that it gets repetitive or the music is nonessential, and there are a few tracks that do break that mold and add a bit of depth, namely “Pain,” “Get Back,” and “You Love Me”. It’s just that the listener can pretty accurately guess what will happen on each track once they’ve heard a few. The two of them have enough talent, though, that while the predictability may hold Anchovies back as a whole from reaching its full potential, the quality of the actual music present is not diminished by any means.

On Apollo Brown’s albums, I often find more enjoyment in the beats than the raps. His production is captivating almost 100% of the time, making it’s easy for a rapper to just become a voice that compliments it well but ultimately gets tuned out. Even if the production is great, if there are emcees involved, I personally can’t call an album better than just “pretty good” if they don’t grab my interest. Sure, you can be a good rapper, but if you just serve to fill in the blanks on an impressive beat tape you’re not offering enough for the listener, or at least one like myself. With that being said, Planet Asia is not one of those emcees. He’s got witty lyrics, a distinctive delivery, and most importantly, a commanding presence and charisma. If anything, this album might be the first time I felt that it wasn’t overwhelmingly directed by Apollo. Asia felt like he had much more of a leading role, as opposed to the supporting role that the emcees generally take. Perhaps it was due in part to how minimal the beats were, but Asia’s vocal presence and clever lyricism made his mark on the album in ways that a lot of emcees don’t get to over Apollo Brown’s production.

Overall, I found Anchovies to be a great album. It is definitely one of the best efforts that I’ve personally heard this year. I appreciate and very much enjoy the sound that these guys decided to try out. Despite my criticism of the music getting predictable in the context of the album, there is no filler at all. This is an album you can’t resist but listen to the full way through. It sounded natural, and not pretentious and over-ambitious, which would have been easy given the style. My favorite tracks are probably “Diamonds,” “Dalai Lama Slang,” “Pain,” and “Get Back”. Obviously I will have to sit with it for a little longer, but as it stands right now, this is one of my favorite Apollo Brown albums; I’m not deep enough into Planet Asia’s catalog to speak on it from his side, but I’m certainly going to remedy that. I recommend this album to anyone who likes hip hop in any capacity, because it may offer a glimpse into a style that not as many people are exposed to, while not being a challenging listen.