Hip-Hop

REVIEW: MIKE - Renaissance Man

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Phillipe Roberts

MIKE’s latest release, his second in as many months, is less a rebirth than a gathering of inertia. With a build to match his slumbering giant vocal delivery, the Bronx rapper clambers to the top of his class one hulking bar at a time on Renaissance Man, a brisk and breezy record crackling with both low-to-no fidelity hiss and the generous spirit that’s quickly becoming his calling card.

In his beat selection, MIKE’s deck stacks towards the vaporous and disorienting. Synths ooze and slither; micro-samples drown at distances too far out to be recognized; drums swallow one another, smeared across the mix in a slimy, yet satisfying grab-bag cocktail. Lesser rappers might lose their way in such foggy conditions, but the backbeat blitz serves MIKE well, running cover as his sturdy, booming voice barrels through your lowered defenses.

“Goliath Goliath” is the finest execution of this play. A voice distorts in robotic, stuttering quarter-time, SNES samples blip left to right, a sound like dry joints rotating in a socket ripples through your eardrums; it’s a minefield of confusion until MIKE charges in with even meters, steady and sure. The effect is a grounding juxtaposition to the nauseating surroundings. He’s not afraid to invert the formula, however. If “Goliath Goliath” is treading water, “Sidewalk Soldier” has lungs half-filled with ocean. MIKE’s voice, doubled and occasionally tripled, slips and slides out of phase with itself: “The beast on the prowl for the bread in his whip / No leash on my doubt, I'm expecting a threat.” He’s sleepwalking over danger, sounding like he’s rapping to a beat that’s barely leaking through concrete walls.

That sense of sure-footedness, of stable focus in the face of chaos, seems central to the mythos MIKE is creating around himself with every subsequent release. The track titles alone (“Goliath,” “Sidewalk Soldier,” “Resistant Man”) are enough of an indication. A peculiar moral indignation, a righteous, eye-of-the-storm calm curls around the core of his work. Look no further than the repetition of “The truth is on its way” in the coda of “Time Will Tell,” or how the following sound collage track, “Why I’m Here,” breaks down shame towards the black American dialect, making a case for it as—in his choice of sampled words—“a genuine dialect of English.” If you’re on his list (like the ones he’s surpassed by “ducking all your feedback” on “Sidewalk Soldier”), MIKE may not be coming for you just yet, but he’s sharpening his technique, biding his time for the knockout blow.

Seeing him for the first time, opening a hodgepodge lineup with psych-rockers CRUMB and Cumbia group Combo Chimbita, I found myself struck by the insular cocoon of friends that swarmed around MIKE on stage, some heading out into the crowd to dance for a beat or two before hopping back on to deliver a doubled verse. They egged him on before every track, shouting out requests while being a part of the show themselves. MIKE glowed with the energy of a person whose friends have finally nudged him into the spotlight. Song by song, with peaks and valleys, you could tell he was starting to feel it too. Renaissance Man captures that mood for the first time in his discography—after building his inertia steadily for years, MIKE is starting to feel himself. It’s a great look on him, and a graceful leap forward.

REVIEW: Sir E.U + Tony Kill - African-American Psycho

Raquel Dalarossa

I first heard DC rapper Sir E.U on Rob Stokes’ album from earlier this year. That release, a collection of soul and R&B-influenced indie rock, featured the rapper in two songs and, incidentally, was co-produced by Tony Kill. Perhaps that was the project that brought the two artists together, a stroke of serendipity that would lead to the creation and release of their ten-track album, African-American Psycho.

Whatever the circumstances that originally forged this union, the meeting of their minds feels momentous for both the rapper and the beat maker. No doubt they’ve individually dabbled in the experimental before—Sir E.U, for example, recently put on a 25-hour performance—but this feels notably different from any of their previously released material. African-American Psycho plays like a loose concept album, and together, Sir E.U and Tony Kill confidently push boundaries within and outside themselves, without much care for whether you’ll be able to follow them into their new territory.

Truly, the record feels like a psychotic breakdown, mixing electronic production with bleak beats that create an at times subtle, at others overt, but almost always present feeling of distress. The distorted, overblown treatment on everything from vocals to percussion makes it hard to understand the discrete elements in each song, which is part of the trick; tracks like “Let Me Tell You About My Dog” and “No Sex” are loud, overbearing, and confusing. But the production also lends itself to the frantic, almost manic tone of the album as a whole.

Sir E.U’s vocals mostly serve the beats, but his virtuosic ability to mold his own voice and inject tricky emotions into it—or erase all emotion from it—make him a standout. In “Ultra,” his erratic mumbling adds a strangely smothering effect to the propulsive beat, while in “Lower Self (For Freaks Only),” his voice sits in a low, sinister register uncomfortably close to the ear, and he takes shallow gasps for breath as though his lungs are being slowly crushed. In “No Tax,” which features LeDroit and Nappy Nappa, unintelligible vocals are layered atop one another to the point that it feels schizophrenic.

Even the most danceable track, "Cha," feels dense and busy, and Sir E.U seems to lose steam by the end of it, his vocals fading into the background. Hearing this, combined with their contributions to the Rob Stokes album, makes African-American Psycho feel like even more of a feat. It seems these two can do pretty much any genre they please, and it's hard to say where their ideas will take them next.

REVIEW: Jean Grae & Quelle Chris - Everything's Fine

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Phillipe Roberts

Everything’s Fine worms its way through the current dystopian landscape wielding an infectious, sun-kissed, optimistic flair. Situating their resilience to self-denying dishonesty within patiently nimble bars and beats, Quelle Chris and Jean Grae don’t get hung up on parodying coping mechanisms; these songs are far from lazy social media diss tracks. Instead, the duo handle those anxieties with a refreshing kindness that sparkles in a series of lovingly comical back-and-forth dialogues that challenge the listener to claw back a sense of self. “Fine” is fine, but you can and should be so much more.

In keeping with the loud social messaging of the record, Everything’s Fine calls in a surprising team of comic heavyweights to land the record’s least subtle punches in a series of entrancing skits. The opening is purely the duo, with a cameo by future cyborg “L-Tron 8000,” in a day-time TV game show setting where “there’s only one answer to everything,” but John Hodgman and Nick Offerman weave their way into mix over time, emerging like Public Service Announcements to quell dissenting voices. Hodgman sighs lethargically, but it’s Offerman’s sinister chuckles, explaining to us that “If receiving notifications to the contrary / You might want to mute those channels / Block those callers / Because everything is fine,” that take the cake. The narrative undercurrent is slight. The intention isn’t to smother you with white, male irony. But the presence of their voices is an effective reminder of the pleasing tone that the business-as-usual opposition can strike.

With the stakes established, Grae and Chris are free to become the heroic voices of reason and self-love that we need. The mood swings gracefully between trading breezy, conversational quips and huffing out breathless, hard-nosed reportage from inside the warzone. Hazy lead single “Gold Purple Orange” leans towards dissecting our shared insecurities and bashing those preconceived notions (“Every young nigga gotta deadbeat daddy / Every independent lady attitude trashy,” goes Chris) out of the way with gusto and incisive commentary (“With difficulty comes learnin' / Where typically those less exposed to those burdens / Can flourish without knowin' themselves / Without growin' themselves, without the moments of doubt,” Grae flows). “My Contributions to This Scam” lays shallow platitudes to rest. Grae pushes back against tenuous notions of solidarity: “Yo yo, peace and blessings, peace and blessings, sistar (don't call me that) / Us wombyn gotta stick together, (please no) you know what I'm saying, femme-c?” Chris knocks white N-word normalizers: “Everyone can say nigga, it's two-thousand-and (Thousand-and-thousand-and...)”

Their broadsides against the uneducated and divisive land over and over again, and the two never wither in the heat of ignorance. But where Everything’s Fine could become engulfed in the message, the individuals make time to celebrate themselves. Some of the albums’ strongest tracks wear their boastful colors proudly. The krautrock-infused funk of “Ohsh” finds Chris in top form, bragging that “fans beg him to leak the new heat like Trump staff,” while featuring a playful verse from Hannibal Burress. Grae’s melodic gifts pour over in “Peacock”, where she beautifully solos “I remember two niggas I cut out / The use of technology equal to having a gun out” over a frost-coated instrumental. Across the record, her flows tend to be the more lyrically overwhelming, striking out of nowhere with stunning and occasionally grotesque visuals—“Children called they mamas while they stared at they daddy's entrails / C'mon, how much more evidence you want?” on “Breakfast of Champions” makes the following line, “You think you could use your privilege like a human shield in front?” feel all the more urgent. The two never let themselves disappear into the rush of combating fake news, and assert their own truth as supreme above all. It’s exciting to see this process of healing played out so honestly and with such intensity.

Sliding into your mind just as the summer thaw threatens to consume your attention, the timing of Everything’s Fine’s release couldn’t be better. From the sound of it, Jean Grae and Quelle Chris would want you out there in the sun, living your days to the fullest—resistance is futile without space to breathe. But, like the record, make time to come back to the self, checking in on the state of your soul, and never accept “fine” as good enough.

REVIEW: Kai Basanta - earth

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Will Shenton

As we noted in his recent video premiere, Kai Basanta has a penchant for blurring the line between digital and organic. Every facet of his new EP, earth, seems determined to draw both elements into the liminal space that divides them, blending jazz instrumentals with synths, samples, and drum-machine beats. The result is an artful take on jazz-hop that feels more intentional and dynamic than the bounds of the genre usually dictate.

From the summery grooves of "sunlight" to the off-kilter mashup of a Kendrick Lamar interview and an Olivier Messiaen quartet that is "love," earth isn't afraid to show off Basanta's impressive range. The album feels like an ascent into unrestrained creativity, as we move from more recognizable tropes into the simmering soundscape of "shadows," its beats resolving slowly out of an ominous ether before closing the EP.

At first glance, earth feels familiar, and perhaps that's the point. It's only by delving deeper into its textures and homages that we can see Basanta's sound evolve right before our eyes.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Kai Basanta - sunlight

Will Shenton

Kai Basanta's new video, "sunlight," is a stunning exploration of texture and movement. Directed by Derek Branscombe, Basanta's undulating beats are matched with a patchwork kaleidoscope of mesmerizing, uncannily organic shapes and patterns that unfold with languid serenity. This is a video you can truly melt into, letting the rays of titular sunlight wash over you in waves.

The opening track on Basanta's new EP, earth, "sunlight" uses a beautiful combination of atmospheric synths and acoustic instruments, with the percussion (his specialty) seemingly a blend of both. This is reflected in Branscombe's video, as the line between CGI and the natural world is blurred; it's often hard to tell which images were created from scratch and which were captured in the wild.

It raises the question of whether the distinction between "natural" and "artificial" is really a meaningful one. If anything, it's their synthesis that makes "sunlight" so impactful, and such an alluring landscape to get lost in.