Rap

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.

PREMIERE: ESHOVO - Listening or Of Empathy and Echo

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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

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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.