Indie Rap

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

a0944925428_10.jpg

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.

PREMIERE: ESHOVO - Listening or Of Empathy and Echo

a3170043642_10.jpg

Raquel Dalarossa

For a long time, music has been about prolificity. Even outside of art, we all know that staying relevant and staying profitable is very simply about staying productive. But when “get shit done” is the mantra of the day, how much do we sacrifice not only in substance but in significance? What meaning and longevity can we expect from the shit that we make?

Eshovo Momoh’s Listening or Of Empathy and Echo feels like it’s very much about both substance and significance. In fact, it’s right there in the title: empathy, or finding meaning through compassion, and echo, or the ripples that become a legacy. The ten tracks are only one component of a larger body of work—they accompany a book by the same name, of which only 30 handmade copies were sold. As I haven’t had the opportunity to experience the book itself, I’ll be honest and say mine feels like a fragmentary understanding of the work, but the music certainly stands up on its own.

The book is described as “a series of disjointed transcripts developed out of 2.5 hours of audio recorded interviews conducted in December 2016 by friends of the artist,” while the audio component is said to be “developed out of memories, conversations and possibly interviews.” Indeed, the album often plays like a dream. Though Eshovo’s work has always had an experimental flair, this feels like a distinct evolution from previous albums like 2013’s In Neutral or 2016’s #000000, though his work on last year’s Night in Reverse EP is very indicative of the lo-fi and minimalist electronic qualities found on Listening. Tracks like “who knows” and “knee jerk” even have a Steve Reich-ian character with beats that sound like tape loops and wordplay that relies heavily on repetition. These techniques help to zero in on specific emotions without needing much context. The contrast between the two songs—“who knows” is sludgy while “knee jerk” is more steely—also serves as a great example of how Eshovo deploys sonic qualities to amplify the tone of the work: the former is listless while the latter is restless.

Many of the tracks play with his vocals coming in and out of focus, or tempo speeding up and slowing back down again. "Disjointed" feels like an apt description, but only to an extent, as a through line becomes more and more discernible. In between tracks we hear what seems to be audio from a child’s birthday party (a baby crying, moms chattering); meanwhile, “not faculty” is anchored by a famous H. Rap Brown speech about the ubiquity of white nationalism. These short glimpses into memories and histories start to feel instructive of the “echoes” that our individual past experiences might generate within ourselves. Then, closing track “x it strata” flips to a forward-facing perspective, as Eshovo raps, “Trying to plant the right seeds…and it might grow, and it might flourish, and it might last.” It leaves a lingering question: how do our actions today create echoes for the future?

I’ve wondered a lot, since my first listen through this album, about the marks that our pasts leave on us versus the marks that we might leave behind. While the time and craftsmanship that went into this work leave no doubt of its substance, that lingering feeling is the rarer thing to find these days: art that leaves its own mark behind.

REVIEW: milo - sovereign nose of (y)our arrogant face

a2154232932_10.jpg

Phillipe Roberts

Lowercase rapper milo’s latest record, sovereign nose of (y)our arrogant face, was conceived as “the document of a weekend in early autumn,” but released on New Year's Day with a record-breaking cold snap breathing down its neck. It’s unfair to be hearing this album for the first time bundled under multiple sweaters; the free-flowing, crisp yet loose production and milo’s breezy flows are a tantalizing portrait of those carefree, double-digit temperature days. Coming off of a project as dynamic and confident as who told you to think??!!?!?!?!, milo manages to condense his wide-ranging vision to pocket-sized proportions. A late Christmas gift for the snowed-in faithful, sovereign nose of (y)our arrogant face is the sound of milo extending his hot streak. At 24 minutes, hardly half the runtime of his last, it might be the most accessible introduction to his singular universe.

But there are no grandiose James Baldwin speeches to start the proceedings this time around, no cosmic synthesizer swirls vaporizing into oblivion. Here, milo keeps the introductions short and less-than-sweet, digging into album opener “a terror way beyond falling” with a mournful piano sample that slams into being with a jarring lack of subtlety, mangled beyond repair and clipping with a menacing crackle that fills your headphones to the brim. milo comes at the mic primed for escape. “I’m out of here on the starship nigga / Spaceship, motherfucker,” he growls, airing out his contempt while saving space to drop the two-faced wisdom of a minor chorus: “And I know property is theft / But it’s still some things I’m wanting / So I might take ‘em.” No other tracks match it for muted fury, and it’s brave new territory well-conquered for the rapper, weaving a thing of beauty out of naked ugliness.

From here, the mood rapidly cools off and milo slips into more lighthearted territory, but keeps the experimental vibes high. Coming to the sly jazz-hop grooves of “ryu drums (fat tummy riff suite),” he contorts bars with staggering deftness, keeping you rewinding to fully parse verses like “Delicate circuit somnambulates this wide blade in v spot / And had the makings of an oath in the peach garden.” Most would throw themselves into those lines with athletic energy, but if it’s there for milo, his casual, smirking delivery never lets it show.  The end of “bought my kid a high chair” shows off milo’s voice as instrument as he plays around with the phrase “anxiously yearning,” chopping it up in whispers after cracking himself up.

milo leaves ample room for scallops hotel—his producer alter-ego—to shine, particularly in the middle of the record. The beat on “temple in the green,” with aquatic piano sandwiched between a softly exploding snare and a perfectly dusty bass drum compels him to comment, “This beat is nice, the mic sounds nice,” and he chuckles before vocally mangling the bass melody as the song dissolves around him. For the first time, milo sounds content to revel in his own goofy pretentiousness, less thumbing his nose from a high horse than riding his own wave with confidence. sovereign nose of (y)our arrogant face isn’t particularly concerned with pushing the envelope, but its victory-lap sense of ease, and the conviction with which milo strides into each beat, is infectious.

REVIEW: Lean Ghost - BOO!

Kelly Kirwan

Who is Lean Ghost? It’s a type of question that, too often, I approach like a census, filling in the various boxes of name, date of birth, first foray into music, and filling in whatever connective tissue I can. I look at the design as if it were a collection of lines splintering across a person’s palm, hoping to divine the deeper meaning. And, don’t get me wrong, these quick hits on a person’s biography can sketch an outline of the subject in question—it’s just that, with Lean Ghost, it wasn't so simple.

The artist is shrouded in an enigma, his tweets a mix of pensive, flyby thoughts and quirkier, more tongue-in-cheek snips. Digging for his music, I found the five-track EP BOO! streaming on various platforms (Soundcloud, Spotify, Tidal) without the accompaniment of sweeping manifestos or blurbs from the press. Lean Ghost seems to an artist that values a direct exchange, letting the music make its own first impression.

Produced by LIGHT, Lean Ghost’s latest release revolves around a sort of faded love—reaching out for it’s first inkling, trying to sustain it, then rattling around in the void that’s left in its absence. The eponymous opening track is riddled with delicate piano arrangements, a so-quick-you-might-miss-it string accompaniment, across a crinkling, persistent, 808-inspired beat. Lean Ghost’s low-key delivery will become a trademark of his EP; he leans into the lyrics seamlessly, propelling songs that feel nuanced and intimate, no glossy label finish that could come across as inauthentic.

It’s not that Lean Ghost is unrefined, he’s just fresh—it’s effortless to breathe him in. "BOO!" is a portrait of first interest—seeing a girl at a party, a friend-of-a-friend with whom you’d like to be more, rolling out the words "Think I found a love, tryin’ to get involved." And as the song nears its conclusion, Lean Ghost let’s the word "Boo!" morph into its various meanings—looking at a girl he wants to be with, telling other guys to back off. It’s a deft trick and it works well. 

"Sick" is a stack of quick, simmering percussion that stands as one of the EP's more up-tempo dips. It’s essentially a list of all the bullshit he's fed up with, and he paints a scene of shallow party hook-ups before revealing he has the antidote: "You’re the only one that I want / You’re my vaccine / I’ve been gettin' sick from the other stuff." The bridge takes on a spoken-word tone, a diatribe against "Twitter bitches" and "ego-tripping hypocrites," and in Lean Ghost’s even delivery you sense the catharsis in bluntly spilling his guts. It’s a release that’s contagious to his listeners.

BOO! is a blend of hip-hop, R&B, and trap that has a slow, mesmerizing burn. Lean Ghost takes in the world with an observant eye, and lays out his thoughts with a touch of grit and effortless wave. It’s easy to get hooked.

REVIEW: MoRuf - Loosies

Laura Kerry

Those who know MoRuf tend to love him. The following that he has earned since his debut in 2011 is fiercely loyal, lighting up the internet with calls for more attention paid to his 2013 album, the underrated Shades.Of.Moo. It's a fact that the artist—New Jersey native Moruf Adewunmi—seems aware of on his expansive new EP, Loosies. At the beginning of the second song, "Viewtiful Fish," a woman, presumably a radio DJ, compliments an artist, presumably MoRuf, saying that she has seen people stop in their tracks when his music comes on, that he "has an ability to captivate a listener who's not really even listening to the music." It's a subtle and humble exhibition of swagger, a self-endorsement that says, trust me, you'll want to listen to this.

And it's accurate. The version of Loosies that I listened to plays all eight tracks as a continuous stream, refusing to let you emerge for air until the last notes fade out. But the EP contains plenty of breathing room in itself. With a different producer for each song producing varied shades of MoRuf's self-proclaimed "Soulhop," the album ebbs and flows through different sounds and themes, unified by an underlying warmth, accessibility, and jazz-influenced '90s hip-hop vibe.

A few of the many highlights include "GOLDEN LAKES," a song that combines an introspective gaze with a full, intricate sound focused around smooth keys; the gentle song "Huxtable," about love, poetry, and the Cosby Show; and the epic track at the end, "I WANT YOU," which catapults off of a single encounter in the street, using heart beats, breath, and MoRuf's rhythmic flow as percussive elements in a ten-minute, anxious, longing-filled journey that travels to childhood and back—and is worthy of the Erykah Badu song that it reimagines. Diverse and inviting, Loosies is another strong case for MoRuf that deserves your attention.