Doomtree – No Kings (2011)

Doomtree Records ■ DTR033

 
Released November 22, 2011
 
Produced by Cecil Otter, Dessa, Lazerbeak, Mike Mictlan, P.O.S., Paper Tiger, Sims
Engineered by Joe Mabbott
Mastered by Bruce Templeton
Beats by Cecil Otter (A1-B1, B3, C1, D1-D3), Lazerbeak (A1-A3, B2, C2
-D3), P.O.S. (A1, A2, D1, D3), Paper Tiger (D3)

Side One: Side Two:
  1. No Way
    Sims, Cecil Otter, Mike Mictlan, P.O.S.
  2. Bolt Cutter
    P.O.S., Sims, Dessa, Mike Mictlan
  3. Bangarang
    P.O.S., Cecil Otter, Mike Mictlan, Sims
  1. Beacon
    Dessa, P.O.S., Cecil Otter, Sims
  2. Punch-Out
    Mike Mictlan, Sims
  3. Little Mercy
    Cecil Otter, Dessa
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. The Grand Experiment
    Dessa, Sims, P.O.S., Cecil Otter, Mike Mictlan
  2. String Theory
    Dessa, Sims, Cecil Otter
  3. Team the Best Team
    P.O.S., Sims, Cecil Otter, Dessa, Mike Mictlan
  1. Gimme the Go
    Cecil Otter, Sims
  2. Own Yours
    P.O.S., Sims, Mike Mictlan, Cecil Otter
  3. Fresh New Trash
    Sims, Cecil Otter, P.O.S., Dessa, Mike Mictlan

Maybe it’s just the Dessa show I was at two weeks ago, but I feel like I’ve relayed the story of how I found Doomtree enough times already–I was asked at that show by just about everyone, including associates and one of the opening acts. There’s no stranger experience for me than going to those shows. I don’t know why it is, exactly, but I end up with people asking me how long I’ve known them, or when I left Minneapolis, or how on earth, if neither of those is true (there’s nothing true in either–I’ve never even been to Minnesota in general, and the friends I have there have only lived there since I discovered Doomtree, basically). I’d chalk it all up to the general positivity they all exude in person, the down-to-earth appreciation and gratitude they express openly and consistently to seemingly everyone, but then you would think everyone would get asked those questions, or no one would ask them at all.


I don’t really know what it is. I’ve got “hooks” if you will–I mention one in the blog entry I linked to above, regarding the pre-order of Dessa’s book, Spiral Bound. My experience with getting everything I had at the time (…almost…) signed, too, helped to cement my visibility with them–though, still, out of all the possible people, some guy a thousand miles away in a town that has no visible importance? I have no idea. It tends to reflect back and instill me with a sense of awe–how on earth do they find a fan so important? Indeed, I have done nothing terribly important, so this must not be a unique experience–how do they find that kind of energy and compassion for so many strangers? To say nothing of the kind of experience I had talking to Dessa specifically both at the crew show two years ago, and at the show two weeks ago. At the first, she took the time to do a favour for a fan who couldn’t make it through me, and at the second, the story I told her about that fan left her hugging me like a friend–after recognizing me before I said a word after the show.

Of course, it would be something purely indicative of her character were it not for the kinds of interactions I’ve had with others–Sims practically encouraging me to monopolize his time at that crew show, Stef “milking” my elbow out of nowhere, Cecil telling me about the symbol you can hopefully see on the front of that record sleeve, Mike’s quiet and humble (!–if you’ve heard him rap, or seen him perform, this might sound odd) appreciation of my fandom, Beak’s appreciation of my rather heavy ordering tendencies, Paper Tiger’s shock at my possession of his False Hopes EP…and, most recently, Doomtree associate Ander Other talking to me passionately about his good friend Mike (see above) and how real his devotion to rapping is–something I found myself nodding over, as that is unquestionably clear in how he does things.

It’s hard for me to talk about almost any music, because I know I tend to ramble on, which can counteract my intended goal of drawing in new listeners, even for the most famous of artists. It’s harder still with a group of artists who’ve shaped a lot of my listening for the last seven years, a group that isn’t struggling in the sense that many others are, but that is afloat on the waters of their fans and nothing else. It’s a solid fanbase, but they aren’t Macklemore or anything, as indie rappers go (you’ll find P.O.S.’s records at major retailers because they are co-released by the much larger Rhymesayers label). They work hard, they tour hard, and yet, they seem to still burble just under the surface, frustratingly. I know a lot of people don’t like rap, or think they don’t like rap (as I say every time I write about the stuff), or what have you, but this is a group of people whose passion (forgive me, I don’t think I’ll be able to avoid riding that word pretty hard here) is unmistakable and naked, and whose music is interesting, literate, thoughtful, and polished to show both a shine and the jagged bits in equal and appropriate measures. Unquestionably, they are the first rappers I’ll suggest to anyone upon finding they “don’t like rap”. I may tentatively push other names first that might have some more immediate recognition, but they are the main thrust, bar none.

Prior to this album’s release in 2011, there were 2 “crew albums” that appeared–one, the 12th False Hope record, a sort of “demonstration” recording prior to a full-fledged one, had tracks I felt the need to mention the last time I wrote about them. The other was the self-titled release in 2008, a record that they’ve since noted was more about trying to balance everyone’s appearances and assembling separate tracks, where this one they deliberately set out to write a true crew record, from scratch, to display the group’s talents as a group. It feels to me–however right or wrong–like the penultimate track on Sims’ Lights Out Paris, “No Homeowners” was the first real display on record of their sound as a whole. Indeed, it appears in an alternate form on the aforementioned 12th False Hopes, subtitled “Renter’s Rebate” and includes a verse from each of them, as well as marking the first song-length “devotional” to the group.

“No Way” kicks the album off with a chugging muted guitar chord (doubtless the “additional guitar” contributed by Dave Brockschmidt), that acts as predictive prelude to something more meaty, but full enough in itself to give weight to even the introductory moments and their wandering shadows of words. The drums of the beat kick in and thump and thud to a greater expanse as Cecil’s hook begins to fade in: “We got cracks in our armor/Got cracks in the ceiling/and this axe that we’re weilding will react when we’re feeling that/Crack/Attack/Attack and we’re on you like a Mack truck Your Honor/We are that fucking filthy.” Sims launches straight from that into his verse, which is in keeping with his solo subject matter and style, with hints of dissatisfaction with the way society works now, a nod to a famed song twisted and lightly tinged with a mix of flippant honesty and sarcasm (“You’re so vain/You probably think it’s about you/Well it is and it ain’t/And it ain’t, but it is…”), as well as a nudge to his recent album, which centers on the same topics. Mictlan follows with the tongue-twisting tattered thoughts that have become his preference, alliterating and rhyming incessantly in a stream-of-consciousness-like flow that touch on ideas that crop up in DTR records intermittently (“Light the rag on your cocktail”–how on earth he and Stef manage to find clever ways to reference Molotov cocktails so often is beyond me), as well as the growing theme of the group’s prowess at their collective chosen profession. Stef (P.O.S.) follows with hints of the solo album he’d follow this one with, We Don’t Even Live Here, which circles his mentally defined in-place anarchism¹ and further establishes that Doomtree rises on their skill and talent, not posturing or contrivance.

The energetic drumming introduction to “Bolt Cutter” leaves no hint as to the sudden drop to the slow, ponderous bassline that Stef’s hook brings with it (“My girl gave me a bolt cutter/We love to break in/And claim all the spaces they forgot they had taken/And all this is ours it’s gonna be what we make it/If only the stars were close enough we would paint them…”). It’s a deep groove that is set aside for a moment when Sims starts his verse, defined in tone by the first lines: “They said couldn’t have that/Square in the eye right back and said yeah, yeah/We gonna take it anyway, that’s that”), which brings a stretched squiggle of the bassline that acts as a tremendous underscore to his words. A light keyboard-type interview intercedes and eases the whole track, before Dessa’s ever-melodic voice floats her words in over it, “You know, I’ve seen a little glory/And your trinket isn’t it/Save your voice I know the story/Man abandons sinking ship/I heard you did your dissertation on the rise and fall of man/Said the golden era’s over, but we’ll rise and fall again,” picking up Sims’ lines and then smashing the delicacy of her part of the beat with the final angry, despairing lines: “This ain’t Kansas, show of hands/If you said your prayers/now put em down if you got answers/This place it takes the faith of a mantis.” And it’s the perfect introduction for the hardened edges of the beat that Mictlan brings with him: “The strongest links in a chain are the first to get cut/Together til weall fade/Keep the blade in the gut/They kept us in a cage too long/To fake they care about us.” Stef carries the song off with more indicators that this subject was on his mind and fighting to come out on his own next album, “We play like birds prey/Anyplace warm stay/Love it/We own our space/Roam home/Any place aimed go.”

It’s strange to think a word most of us know best as originating in the movie Hook somehow inspired two nearly contemporaneous songs, but “Bangarang” proves that it happened². It’s a nice encapsulation of some of the Doomtree attitude to find the empowering call from that movie turned into a call to arms (so to speak) for Doomtree themselves (overpowering, then, the call that was “Doomtree/Time to let it be known/From the bottom of the bottle to the top of the throne” in “No Homeowners”). Mike’s hook is not just a hook for the song, but for the group–“Doomtree Bangarang/All these rappers sound the same/Beats?/Sound the same/Raps?/Sound the same/Wings/Fan the flames/Teeth/With the fangs/Ten years in our lane/Doomtree Bangarang”. Tying in to their logo–a set of teeth that indeed has wings, previously immortalized in “Traveling Dunk Tank” on that 12th False Hopes–there it is again!–with the lines “I’m tying to free up them wings/Trying to bear some teeth”, which was, of course, the title of my last writing on the group. Stef leads the charge, as he, Cecil, and Sims draw out the source of the album in the group’s core and need to express and unify, dabbled with their historical familial sensibilities, hard work and competition. Sims makes this explicit: “Buy I got ya’ll when I see y’all/And I keep ya’ll when the beat stops/I built more than a rap career/I got my family here.” And then he makes a simultaneously-fulfilled prophecy: “But some folks wanna jump up/With a sharp tongue and their fronts up/Like we got here by dumb luck/But they just wanna become us/That’s up when you come up/I move like a dump truck/Too long on the road and I earn what I hold/If you want it let me know I can burn your flow like–whew.” (If you did not know by the end of that line that he could burn your flow, you weren’t listening).

One of the other tracks to receive the video treatment (yeah go check those links above–all of them can be found on the DVD about the making of the album and surrounding tour, as well as the group as a whole, Team the Best Team. They show a bit of a show I was at, actually), “Beacon” is flush with the sound of a Cecil beat (indeed, it is one), a fuzzed out and light melody flattens until a rushing snare-heavy beat slides in below it all and Dessa launches into the first verse, the beat shifting when Stef enters with his own, the song pushing forward incessantly, bouncing on the beat and given its sway by the words of each emcee, an up and down patter from Dessa, and a swing from Stef, and then Cecil’s hook calms it all–“I know, I know/I know wake up, wake up/But I don’t go there, go there/She knows the way home”. He follows it with a verse, though, which is perhaps the most distilled appearance he makes on the album, so purely Cecil as he takes the hook and drags it with him–“You know your way home? You gonna be all right?”–and then drops the song’s title into place, though the running thought is of antagonistic relationship, brought home with the appropriate re-focus on self that Sims closes it out with.

The burst and fade of an explosion brings us “Punch Out”, lulling us momentarily into a false sense of security, the haunting loop of “Beacon”‘s closing return to its opening, distress signal-like beat still echoing around. But then the drums roll in–and roll, and roll, then thunder down with the blinding mass of sounds that mark Mike Mictlan’s mastery of sound, a track that swaggers with the same feel that Mictlan and then Sims bring to it. Mictlan calls it all out without any need to lower his voice or release his emphasis, but Sims turns it around to something more laid back, yet completely in keeping with what Mike established. It’s just under two minutes and by far the shortest track on the album, and seems just right for that–they can punch you out in no time flat when it comes to rapping, and the two of them do it alone.

“Little Mercy” gives us one of the best emcee pairings the group can offer when they are reduced to any two: Cecil and Dessa. Guest vocalist Channy Casselle brings the sound of a loop extracted from something riding the line of gospel and soul at its most bittersweet, though it’s not a found recording, of course. Cecil’s hook is lengthy but brilliant: “Now the candle’s in the window and it’s open/We watch the flames duke it out with every gust/No, it must just burn to the bottom of the wick/It’s the bottom of the fifth and that shit is still burning”. It’s another of his solo beats, and you can tell, that high-end heavy approach to drums in the beat, and the semi-scarred, sinewy melodic approach over it. Dessa’s on her more snarling and aggressive side, giving a kick to the more subdued vocalization Cecil favours, which seems to inspire his ending verse, which she joins him for in a unified run through of those last lines. Except for the last few, where her voice drops away, highlighting the tone of his words (“We’re so thirsty…”) and making them that much more desperate.

The intro to “The Grand Experiment” (one of the tracks heavily previewed before the album’s release, if memory serves) sounding for all the world like a triumphant moment in a Tron-era game (in the best sense possible) before the chattering beat and similarly analogue-like synthetic melodies tell us Cecil’s hiding in the background again. Dessa casts off her verse like it’s nothing (when it is the opposite), while Stef’s hook is one of the moments his experiences in music outside rap shine through, with sung lines that don’t sound like you might expect a sung rap hook to sound. Sims keeps that head-bobbing rhythm to his verse that is like an engine chugging at full power, while Cecil drops his acidic salesman’s pitch–a snake oil salesman, that is (“But wait it comes with a warranty for a week and that’s respectable/It’s cheap and it’s ethical…well, it’s ethical…well, it’s magical really.”) Mictlan carries the track’s thoughts of the underhanded and endemic problems of modern man that everyone has rapped about to their conclusion, the contradictory strains of desire to change and recognizing seemingly inevitable collapse unconcerned with their conflict.

“String Theory” is built on a Lazerbeak beat in the old style–the kind we’d hear on Hand Over Fist, or the solo works of P.O.S. and Sims. Sims and Dessa (another great pairing, it must be said, as “The Wren” is immaculate) lay out a more cerebral explanation for the kind of self-confidence and raised Doomtree fists the album throws up regularly, and moves at an easier pace for it. Hearing them trade lines at the last verse is worth it alone.

The horns Lazerbeak builds the beat to “Team the Best Team” on sound as if we’ve reached the final, triumphant track of the album–but we aren’t there yet. There’s a flutter to the horns that hides behind the more audible portion, occasionally receiving its own spotlight, and tied together with a rolling bass line. Sims, Stef, Cecil, Dessa and Mike rap like they are a Rocky at the top of the steps–not putting their confidence in the face of detractors, or raising fists and voices in victory, just assessing achievements in retrospect–hands on hips and nodding with the slightest of smiles, knowing where they are and how they got there, and where that is to them, whatever it is or isn’t to anyone else.

The light pummel of the beat in “Gimme the Go” may or may not be Stef’s responsibility, but it at least echoes the kind of beats that would appear in his solo work, be they his, Beak’s or Cecil’s (the other two being those who share responsibility with him for this beat). Cecil and Sims are like gunfighters as they spit here, confident killers, at ease and utterly in control, yet chomping at the bit to prove their skill. The beat is big, but stutters, sputters and rattles as if cowed by the words on top of it.

There’s a vocal sample in “Own Yours” that has a light touch to it, and it’s allowed to exist almost in isolation for the introduction. A few light snare rolls announce the onset of Stef’s words and the clap and clatter of the beat’s hardest points. His verse as well as Sims’, Cecil’s and Mike’s all hold to the thought of struggles not yet over, be they related to their career choice, life, society or anything else–the specifics aren’t important, only the willingness to trudge on through it. Beak’s hook (reminiscent of his solo foray, Legend Recognize Legend) lays this out clearly: “And the roof caved in and the porch lights froze/And the woods lay thin and the torch light grows/You may find yourself in a corpse-like pose as you go/And the tombs spread out and the birch still grows/And the fumes head south and the earth will slow/You may find yourself on a search for gold as you go”–it may have been horrific, and it will be again, but there’s something to see, and things continue to go on. The beat doubles its tempo under Mike’s flurry of words, and then seems to fade, but returns at a slow warp to carry Cecil through to its end: “But the long and short is…/We got no shortage/We got our pain on payroll/Paint on the canvas with the face of an angel”. These struggles are fuel.

After “No Homeowners” it comes as no surprise that the group can pull out a monster closer. Everyone who makes beats contributes to this last one, “Fresh New Trash”, but it’s not a mess of those varied styles, it’s cohesive and brilliant: horns and bass with hints of drum announce it with the feeling of momentary finality tinged with a subtext of relaxation. Sims takes the first verse, and with it comes a stutter of drums, and the loss of the horns, for a suddenly empty space that his voice fills, that half-sung little hook he sticks in brilliant and perfect for the subdued tone of his words (“Hey, all right, okay…”). There’s even a little organ for him, but the horns come in with dropped low end to bring in Cecil, whose last words over the re-introduced horns and stuttering drums are the perfect lead into Stef’s hook: “Let it go/Let it roll on past/Don’t hold back/Understand it’s over before you know…” the beat changes entirely when Stef’s verse starts, all descending bass and a punkier tone. Horns come back for Dessa’s proud words (“I’ve been boom/I’ve been bust/I rep Doom/Til I’m dust”), but it’s Mictlan’s verse that brings the whole thing home, buys it a nice dinner, tucks it in and takes care of it for the rest of its life. You can hear the absolute passion and reality when Mike says: “This isn’t indie rap/This is 10 years/stress and tears/sweat and fears/Acceptance from our friends and peers/And everythign that’s brought us here/It’s written on my face/You can see it when I close my eyes/and sing a Dessa Darling line/the realest thing I never wrote/Quote me anytime/”It’s win, lose or tie”/Still Doomtree til I die/even after death and dirt/let em know who said it first/and put it on your favourite shirt:/Rap Won’t Save You/Sell ’em absolution with a verse.” We hear that hook again and the album fades, but that brilliant track keeps echoing. There’s no question the sincerity here, nor is their any reason to question closing with those lines.

There’s a reason the inner sleeve of my copy of this record is signed like mad.

There’s something amazing about tracks like “Fresh New Trash” and “Prizefight” (from the Beak/Mictlan Hand Over Fist project) and “No Homeowners” and “Crew” (from Dessa’s Badly Broken Code) that is not easy to express. There’s something absolute and real, something that doesn’t fade when you actually interact with any of them as people, or see them perform, there’s something real and serious here, unpretentious and uninterested in fame, per se, yet thoroughly interested in gaining ground and territory. They remain their own label, with family and friends operating the logistics they don’t operate themselves–and they fund their new records with the proceeds from the previous ones.

This record is like a clarion call, or at least it should be–perhaps it isn’t and couldn’t be for them, but it is that to me. It’s cause to bring others to this music, which is brilliant and real and wonderful and has something for most everyone–even if you don’t like rap, a goodly chunk of Dessa’s material can edge more into other realms. Of course, that’s a frustration–I sometimes find folks insistent on pretending there is some wheat to separate from chaff in the group. Those songs make clear, even if not in the performances (which, honestly, should seal the deal) in their emotion that no such thing exists.

There are clever touches and callbacks and moments where their interplay in a song or an album is clear, when Sims and Dessa both casually reference ‘the golden era’ in the same sense, but in different ways, in “Bolt Cutter”–or the way that Stef would follow up on that idea in We Don’t Even Live Here with “Fire in the Hole/Arrow to the Action” and the line “Bolt cutter in the trunk/Bolt Thrower in the tape deck”. It’s a direct reference to the British death metal/grindcore band for sure, but it’s probably not so much a reference to the track he was just involved in–just a continuation of those ideas, and you can see the way they all came together from their past solo works and unified for this album, then spread back out away from it for more solo work, building on what they did together.

If you simply cannot stand rap, check out the lyrics on their bandcamp. Just read them, instead. You won’t get the full effect (at least, I certainly can’t ever read things like lyrics–or poetry–and get the full effect), but you might at least appreciate the way they all have with words, and the distinct styles that manage to come together so cleanly here.

In any case, I recommend this record about as strongly as I can, and there’s not much more I know how to say than that.

¹It goes like this: “This world’s gotta whole lotta locked doors/We decided not to live here anymore”–in other words, running into the socially-defined limitations on people, Stef decided to not live in that “world” anymore, and instead run on his own rules, within and beside society such as it is. Basically. That’s a starting point, anyway.

²The other was Skrillex’s, of course. More people know that one because he’s more famous. There was a stupid argument on YouTube (is there any other kind?) regarding it being “stolen” which I stupidly participated in, until we’d both dipped back so far that it really proved that it was ludicrous to think they were related. Which was what I thought anyway–not that the claim of theft from Skrillex was actually an inverted truth. Weird coincidence, but coincidence.

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Day Twenty-Nine: Brother Ali – Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color

Rhymesayers Entertainment ■ RSE0152-1

Released September 18, 2012
Produced by Jake One

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Letter to My Countrymen
  2. Only Life I Know
  3. Stop the Press
  1. Mourning in America
  2. Gather Round
  3. Work Everyday
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Need a Knot
  2. Won More Hit
  3. Say Amen
  4. Fajr
  1. Namesake
  2. All You Need
  3. My Beloved
  4. Singing This Song
While the big names like the Beach Boys and the Beatles inspired the conversation my father and I had about “alphabetical imbalance” in music collections, I have no good explanation for the imbalance in my rap. I know it’s something less than a favourite genre for a number of people I know (including the above person), but this is almost it for quite a while–and then almost it for good. Electronic music is “worse”–I’ve got three more of those in my entire collection. In any case, we’ve had a semi-glut of late, and I’m not going to apologize for any of those, but I do understand the fact that for many that’s not going to be the most interesting part of all of this. Still, this is my collection, and I went with alphabetical order to avoid any deliberate weight being placed on any genre, artists, or anything else. I feel like this still sounds vaguely apologetic, which I guess it still is, in a way, but the reality is, this shouldn’t be taken as yet another album to skip for the unfamiliar or those who feel they do not like rap (to whom I always say, as I do with comic books, metal, electronic music, silent movies and various other niche genres–“You haven’t read/heard/seen all of them. It’s a medium, and a style, and there’s a lot of variation within, and a lot to take out of them”).
I’ve mentioned Brother Ali plenty already, in that his DJ was responsible for one of the other albums I recently covered, and he even made a few appearances on it. He was the first artist, too, that I really branched out into after Atmosphere got me back into rap. There’s a logical reason for this, in that the production on his actual debut studio album was handled by none other than Atmosphere’s own Ant. However, his style is a lot more traditional as the underground rap scene goes, calling more to mind rappers from the 80s than contemporary “backpacker”, “conscious”, or “emo” rap. Though he has guested with Atmosphere previously (such as on Seven’s Travels, the other album of theirs I have on vinyl–on which he even beatboxes!), Ali has often occupied a place a bit away from the rest, even as I eventually wandered off into Aesop Rock (whose Labor Days or None Shall Pass probably should have also appeared here somewhere–though it would just make the alphabet issue worse) and Sage Francis (Personal Journals will not be appearing on this blog, though it easily could have been). My friend John said Ali’s style reminded him of Public Enemy, which I actually relayed back to Brother Ali himself, who was understandably flattered and told me PE were his heroes growing up (he has worked with Chuck D since then, each appearing on the other’s records since). One of the shows I saw him at was actually one where he opened for Rakim, of the seminal group Eric B. and Rakim (from whom I only have a 12″ single, vinyl-wise), which was an entirely different audience from the one I saw at every other hip-hop show I’ve ever been to.
 Ali has had some troubles with pigeonholing over the years, as you might be able to guess from the album cover above. Yes, he’s white. Yes, he’s an albino. Yes, he’s a Muslim. While all those things inform his identity and a lot of his (often personal) work, it is nothing like all there is to him. This is less than news to those of us who’ve followed his work–he has told his own story over the years, about the end of his first marriage, his son Faheem, his neighbor Dorian, the place he grew up, the way he found Islam, the way he grew up, on and on. To me, this has only ever been a hook to get people to pay attention, generally when they are overwhelmed by the volume of rap available, or when rap is inherently unappealing (or even musically valueless) to them. Let’s just get that established now, though, and move on–it’s nothing to do with the end result, whether we’re talking about his debut Shadows on the Sun (so long as one doesn’t count the cassette-only Rites of Passage), or this album, which is only four months old at time of writing.

Apparently the track “Uncle Sam Goddamn” from The Undisputed Truth (released back in ’07) earned Ali a report with the Department of Homeland Security (!) and that is just one of the strongest indicators of how things changed for him in the years between then and now. Now he has changed his language in many respects, including some I witnessed when seeing him live. He has since said he regrets the anger of “Uncle Sam Goddamn” in some measure–the song being a reference to Nina Simmone’s “Mississippi Goddam”, a song of frustration at the continuing violence despite the Civil Rights movement (the church bombing in Alabama, and the lynching of Medgar Evers), and has been through upheaval in his career and home life, addressing a moment of writer’s block in a song that ended up not appearing on any album (though it is available digitally). In most interviews surrounding this album, Ali has said that he aimed to move away from completely personal material and into more general social and political material–the same idea as “Uncle Sam Goddamn”, but with a different tone. Of course, as is ever the case with him, he addresses all of this in his music anyway.

I was going to split this up into the two “halves” of the album, but he’s said the transition to the “Dreaming in Color” part occurs around the track “Fajr” which closes Side Three, and hardly makes for an even split. There are two bonus tracks with the digital version of the album, included as a download with the LP, which come closer to evening the split as they are both more in the “Dreaming in Color” vein. As this is about the vinyl though, it’s just going to be a straight ahead run-through instead.

Featuring the most unusual guest star is the opening track, “Letter to My Countrymen” which is effectively the album’s mission statement: “This is a letter to my countrymen/Not from a Democrat or a Republican/But one among you that’s why you call me brother/Ain’t scared to tell you we’re in trouble ’cause I love you”. Expanding on the beats Jake One lays–a new sound for Ali, who has been produced by Ant on all his previous endeavours–there are various live players throughout the album, and I’m not going to pretend I know Jake One’s style (or these musicians) enough to be able to tell you where the crossover occurs. A fuzzy bass is not only what the song opens cold with, but what defines it. Ringing bells–of the kind played in music, rather than Hunchback style–punctuate and bring a brighter note to the song, the pealing of hope that Ali has found in a country he was utterly disillusioned with previously. A sampled voice singing coolly, “Sooner or later” is the song’s hook and just adds to the positive message Ali is trying to put forth.

A much harder drum beat, introduced with horns, gives a much stronger edge to “Only Life I Know”, one of the album’s singles (insofar as that term continues to mean anything, anyway). Ali rhymes about the limitations of the lower class in American society–the struggle to move past the restrictions placed by financial and social constraints. A brief soul-esque sample, “It’s my life”, is answered by Ali himself: “the only one that I’ve ever known”, as he himself started in that part of the country. He lists the three major routes available to escape–trying desperately to be a good citizen and crossing your fingers, selling drugs (probably ending in either death or prison), or welfare, where the reaction tends to be condemnation, suspicion and criticism, rather than understanding. It’s a standout track for the album overall, as it hits the generalized territory that Ali is aiming for and does so in a nice, hard track.

“Stop the Press” has warm soul-sampled sounds swirling in to easy, comfortable, relaxed keys. An occasional snare-based beat keeps the song moving, with horns occasionally trying to give the song more force. But really it feels like it’s all about to break out from introduction and into a movie. Ali, though, is using this opportunity to explain everything that has happened since around 2007’s The Undisputed Truth, from the death of fellow Rhymesayers alumni Eyedea (RIP, Mikey), the professional exit of BK-One as his touring DJ, and his discomfort with 2009’s Us (though he makes an allowance for the quality of the two tracks I actually thanked him for in person–“Babygirl” and “Puppy Love”). It’s his chance, he’s said, to explain how this album came to be, and what set him on the path to his change in attitude and focus.

Short of the digital version, the only title track on the album is “Mourning in America”, a track based on a bumping, bass-kick based beat and synth lines that spread evenly for much but occasionally sprinkle in in a style vaguely reminiscent of the lo-fi Casio lines that defined a lot of early 90s gangsta rap. The track is about the endless bloodshed of war, and the idea that innocent death doesn’t reflect well on anyone, regardless of the nobility of intention or actions that lead to it. The video transitions an implied terrorist with a soldier, which upset some people, but was about the idea–not that soldiers are evil, but when someone is directed to kill and innocent civilians are put at risk, the line between the two becomes thin. Indeed, Ali actually shows far more sympathy to the soldiers and what they come home to, which is not a great set of circumstances. The song actually has a short bridge from a choir composed of various voices (including Aby Wolf, who has worked with Doomtree and appeared on BK-One’s Rádio do Canibal, as well as recording her own material). It’s another heavy, thoroughly unhappy track, but this is the portion of the album aligned with that half of the album’s title, and obviously this track makes that most obvious.
Still a little grittier on the end of Jake One’s beat, “Gather Round” uses a loaded guitar lick and a heavily rhythmic track to back Ali’s discussion of the darkness of the world, the innocent death, the trappings of the world–and how the good in the world see this as a time to “Gather ’round”, to come together and fight back against these injustices. He includes an excerpt of Amir Sulaiman’s poem “Danger” performed by Sulaiman, too, that draws the line of justice repeatedly, showing it between all the extremes. Ali also takes this moment to hint at his personal feeling of mis-step in “Uncle Sam Goddamn”–“Couple years ago I made a statement/Can’t think a single Goddamn way to change it”.
Returning to territory that is less dark but no less pessimistic, “Work Everyday” is all tense strings, until it breaks into the looping beat and sample of “Every day every day have to work everyday”. No surprise, then, that the song is about the financial limitations of the working classes. Low pay, limited job availability, the difficulty of managing emergencies and the inability to take time off or have a moment to breathe–but all balanced against the constant act to work within this system, unfair and absurd though it may be. The territory is not far from portions of “Only Life I Know” but manages to distinguish itself, even as it addresses the attitude toward anyone seeking welfare again. He doesn’t avoid a knock against the Tea Party and conservatives (“How absurd is this?/How are so many poor people conservative?”), but explains those rather than leaving it at that.
Sampling UGK’s Bun B, “Need a Knot” is the story of a “hustler” who “ain’t sellin’ cocaine/[He] got a snowshovel”. “I need a knot, whether the bread is for me or not”, Bun B rhymes, as Ali relays this character and expands his territory from cocaine to marijuana and prostitutes. Relaxed and bass and drum machine snare (808, I’d guess) reminiscent of many a classic simple rap beat defines those choruses, but a horn-heavy variation is the order of the day for the verses. As is his knack, Ali hints at the damages these activities cause to those involved outside “himself”, the abuse of prostitutes and the addictions of his customers–it’s reminiscent of “Prince Charming” from Shadows on the Sun in this sense.
A favourite subject of Ali’s, “Won More Hit” is about the exploitation of black americans. An overtly electronic intro turns to a kick-based beat that glitters with 8-bit style keys and other distinctly electronic moments. In totality, Ali covers the move from slaves and the spirituals they sang to find some kind of hope in that situation, on into the assimilation of the blues, jazz, and other black music over the years: “Treat you like a hero and we all gon’ come and see you/In a big fancy theatre dressed in a tuxedo/But we gon’ have to seat you in the kitchen when we feed you/A place this regal doesn’t serve your kind of people”. The kind of “You understand, don’t you?” tone is captured perfectly, as is the willingness to appreciate the emotional expressions of a people consistently left to suffer in spite of that appreciation.
I somehow doubt Ali will ever quite go back to songs like “Champion”, pure braggadocio and withering insults. Still, “Say Amen” is in that vein. While a guitar winds downward over congas to introduce it, the main beat behind it is crunchy, driving guitar riffs and bass-kicks merely accented with snares. the beat just drops over and over, carrying the exact right tone for this kind of song. Ali’s spitting is not quite like it used to be on this subject, as his insults carry a different sensibility than they used to: “Fuck no homo, you a no home owning old grown/Unsigned chump month behind on your car loan”. And he finally comes to the point that I’ve made mention of before: “I ain’t bitter or a backpacker or conscious/Just want ya’ll the fuck out my hear with that nonsense”. considering the variety of limited descriptors applied, it can only be coincidence that he and P.O.S., possibly my two favourite emcees, are both stuck with these ideas and would like to escape them without completely denying their relevance–“I’m more than this”, instead of “I’m not this”.
Considered by Ali to be the start of the “Dreaming in Color” portion of the album, “Fajr” is a reference to one of the daily prayers of Islam, that of the dawn: the moment between darkness and light. Heavy on an organ sound reminiscent of church organs (not a sound foreign to Ali, who was originally raised Christian, and who has used this kind of sound previously on tracks like “Forest Whitiker” on Shadows on the Sun). It begins a sort of quartet of personal songs about important parts of Ali’s life. A choral recitation forms the chorus and ascribes to it the connection to “Lord”, and makes it clear–alongside the verses and their discussions of the philosophy of his understanding of Islam in the context of American culture, including the varying perceptions and the need to prove them wrong, to act rightly because it is the right thing to do.
Ali admits pretty readily to a measure of ignorance when he was offered his Muslim name, being unaware of its origins, and instead associating it with Muhammad Ali specifically–who, of course, did at least get the name in the same fashion and thus from the same origin. He chose the name for this reason, even though it was not the reason it was offered, primarily because of the story he knows and relays in the song “Namesake”: after returning with his 1960 Olympic medal, Muhammad Ali and his friends were refused service in a whites-only restaurant. Ali has alleged that he then threw the medal into the Ohio River, feeling it was worthless if it did nothing to help improve the status of blacks in his homeland. While the accuracy of this story has been debated (including the words of some of Ali’s own friends), it’s one that Brother Ali finds inspiring for its selfless and symbolic nature.
Ali has never been one to shy away from talking about his son, as the very first song on Shadows on the Sun makes clear: That’s when the greatest hits of Donny Hathaway/Got interrupted by a drive-by shooting half a block away/Faheem was in the window/He didn’t get hit though/All praise to Allah…” On The Undisputed Truth, it was just blatant: track 14 is titled “Faheem”, and on Off the Record, the Brother Ali/BK-One mixtape, “Original Prince” is actually performed by Faheem. “All You Need” is his latest message to his son, and much like the hair-raising moments he manages in “Stop the Press”, he tells us the story of what really broke up his original marriage. He has hinted at it, but now he lays it all out, telling Faheem he wants to know him the whole truth of his life, to be open and clear, not to demonize, but to avoid excusing, either. He doesn’t burn, much as he didn’t when telling his ex-wife he was “Walking Away” in a song of the same name, more sad than angry. A slightly sped vocal sample gives the song its title and works with the organ-oriented beat to give it all a sort of hope in spite of its subject matter.
“My Beloved” is a paean to his wife, most of it directed to her, but a good portion extolling her virtues as a human being and a friend and partner to him to listeners as well. The voices of Choklate and Tone Trezure give him a chorus: “Wherever you go/May the good Lord bless your heart and soul/My beloved, my beloved, my beloved/I want you to know/That your love and wisdom touched me so/My beloved, my beloved, my beloved”. His tone softens even more than on previous songs–though not tinged with the sadness of “All You Need”. Not quite as exuberantly happy as “Ear to Ear” on The Undisputed Truth, it’s still a happy song, and at the end is dedicated to more than just his own beloved, but that of others–I’m guessing Jake and perhaps Choklate and Tone. Ali’s primary subject matter has always been dark, but when he turns to the light, it’s inevitably something that really touches you as a listener, more than even the empathy for the dark moments of his life.
There are a lot of parallels to previous songs in the album, with the closer, “Singing This Song”, reminding in some ways of “Victory (Come Forward)” but so much more positive, optimistic, and good-hearted. It’s the sound and the call of the album itself, asking us all to come together and work for good in the world, naming many lost over time–from the famous, like King, Lennon, and Simone, to the less famous, like Eyedea–and some who he still finds inspiring in life, like Chuck D. The album finally closes with a recording of him speaking at a concert: 

“And so if we get anywhere we have to be self-loving enough, to be honest with ourselves, to do some soul-searching. I’m not talking about soul-searching to see what’s inside our soul, we got to find out what the hell happened to our soul. We’ve got to find that shit.I want my humanity back. I want to be a human being again. I don’t want that shit on my conscious soul. I want to live in a fair world. We’ve got to decide to rejoin the human family again. We’re not talking just about this case, we’re not talking about just this issue, we’re talking about whether or not we’re going to be human beings again. Peace.”

There’s one word that sums up Brother Ali in all his career: Honesty. He has always been emphatic about the truth of what he speaks, about the reality of the stories he tells. He has expressed the notion that maybe his fans know more about him than anyone else, but never with a concern or fear, always with a feeling that he needs to be honest and tell the truth in everything he does. There’s a reason he wrote a song called “The Truth Is Here”, made an EP with the same name, and of course an album named The Undisputed Truth (of course, also a reference to the Motown act). Whenever he sounds like his hopes are overly optimistic, the absolute reality of them keeps it from becoming saccharine or ridiculous. Even before he began to emphasize the truth, it was easy to hear in the way he has always rapped, in the way he speaks between songs at shows.
I’ve met Ali a few times, as he has always stopped and talked to fans after shows–every time I saw him (beyond the one time I was rushed out by the person I was with). Known by some for my “Crocodile Dundee hat”, he tells me that when I wear it, it reminds him of Johnny Winter–one of the few musical heroes available to him as an albino, and a man entrenched in the blues, which connected back to the community Ali always felt most included in, even if a bit generationally displaced. He was never anything but humble, patient and understanding. When someone I knew wanted to see him and didn’t get the chance, and I foolishly tried to show him the texts saying so, he gently reminded me his albinism has not done wonders for his sight. When I relayed them and asked if he would talk to this person, he did so happily and graciously, speaking for a few moments to a fan who couldn’t make it. He exudes peace and love, which I like to think would make him a little happy, as I think that’s what he would want to show to people.
  • Next Up: Lindsey Buckinham – Gift of Screws

Day Twenty-Four: Blakroc – Blakroc

Blakroc Records ■ BR001-1

Released November 27, 2009
Produced by The Black Keys and Josh Hamilton
Recorded by Josh Hamilton
Executive Produced by Damon Dash


Side One: Side Two:
  1. Coochie
  2. On the Vista
  3. Hard Times
  4. Dollaz & Sense
  5. Why Can’t I Forget Him
  6. Stay off the Fuckin’ Flowers
  1. Ain’t Nothing Like You (Hoochie Coo)
  2. Hope You’re Happy
  3. Tellin’ Me Things
  4. What You Do to Me
  5. Done Did It

I’m always inwardly leaping for joy at moments of silly synchronicity. All kinds of connections just have their sort of appeal to me–it’s that love of crossover, patterns, references, and in-jokes that I can’t resist, if achieved via skill or pure coincidence. That Blakroc’s lone album happens to follow Rádio do Canibal in my collection, alphabetically, is pure coincidence, but it’s kind of an amusing one. It would be clever if it were planned in some way. Largely, though, I’ve left the album alone for reasons similar to the reasons I left Rádio do Canibal alone–it felt like it would end up a mishmash of disjointed sounds due to the “varied guests per track” approach. There’s a seeming human tendency to identify most with the voice in any given musical act, one that means that the vocalist is seen as the star by the majority, regardless of their actual role in creating the music. I don’t know that anyone has actually studied this, but I’m inclined to think it relates to the fact that we all are capable of making noise with throat and mouth, so there’s a base to start the understanding from. In any case, I often swing either way when it comes to voices, sometimes nearly ignoring them, but often clinging to them as much as anyone. It means that albums like these make me kind of wary, even as the idea of them attracts me.

Blakroc is not, and was not, a “group”, so to speak, and is often referred to as a “rock/hip-hop collective”, a bit of a silly term for a group of musicians who collaborated once, briefly, and that’s essentially all. In any case, they are composed (as it were) of the Black Keys (Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney), Ol’ Dirty Bastard, RZA (it’s pronounced rizzuh, basically), and Raekwon from the Wu Tang Clan, Jim Jones (the rapper, not the cult leader) and NOE from Jim Jones’ label ByrdGang, Q-Tip from a Tribe Called Quest, Pharoahe Monch, Ludacris, Billy Danze, Mos Def, and Nicole Wray. They don’t use any sampling, which isn’t unheard of in rap (as I noted earlier, the two are mixed heavily in Atmosphere’s The Family Sign, for instance) but still remains unusual. What is more unusual is for an explicit rock band to be specifically acting as the beat for a set of rappers.

Featuring pre-recored vocals as Ol’ Dirty Bastard had already passed on, “Coochie” opens the CD and vinyl versions of the album (unlike the digital versions at iTunes and Amazon, which lack the track). He’s paired with Ludacris, the two of them opening the song with the vocal hook, which is backed by Auerbach’s plaintive, distant guitar line, and Carney’s economical drum beat, that gives the song a lot of space but doesn’t sacrifice power. ODB and Ludacris both talk about women whose sexual appetites are utterly irresistible to them, and their voices take up all the space Carney leaves, multiplying the speed of the rhythm significantly. Auerbach comes into the goreground for the outro, playing further with the still echoing lead he drops throughout the song.

Somewhat out of character from the rest of the emcees in place, Mos Def appears next on “On the Vista”, rapping about freeing consciousness, abandoning materialism–taking control. Patrick pounds the song into place though, using a floor tom fill to ground the beat. A bassline (uncredited, but based on the photos, most likely the work of Mos Def himself) is the essence of the beat, but Auerbach fills the space between Mos Def’s words with the fuzzy bends and wails he is known for, relenting only to give Mos Def the space to sing out variations on the words “total control” in a knowingly off-key and random sort of way.

NOE’s first appearance on the album is on “Hard Times”, which uses the vocals of Nicole Wray as a sort of sample (though they are apparently live recordings), repeating the title of the song. The Keys have a little bit more dominance and control on the track, perhaps because they have a bass and a piano accompanying them, and Patrick is filling more of the rhythm out on his kit than on the previous tracks. NOE has a style and voice that are reminiscent of Jay-Z (apparently to his detriment in the past), with an ease and confidence that avoids aggression like ODB’s and lets the song maintain its own relaxed pacing.

A semi-traditional hip-hop rhythm from Patrick opens “Dollaz & Sense”, with RZA showing his appreciation for the beat and moves to get his voice in place accompanying before the song opens up. The photos hint that RZA may have played bass on the album as well, and there’s a strong line in place here to suggest that. Wah, echo and a few other effects define Auerbach’s semi-ghostly guitar sound here, but it’s also the first time his voice appears on the album. In the same way Nicole performed the vocal hook for “Hard Times”, Auerbach sings “If it don’t make dollars, then it don’t make sense”, in a fashion that mimics sampling. RZA and Pharaohe Monch have strong rhymes, but ones that sound in delivery and rhythm like they may be the improvisations of skilled emcees–a bit halting, but usually halts are just the sound of quick minds making up brilliant lines to follow.

Breaking from the rap designation of the majority of the album for a moment, Dan, Patrick, and Nicole (who, by the way, performs the female vocal duties on the Black Keys’ Brothers) give us “Why Can’t I Forget Him”, which lets the boys play the part of R&B band, Dan mostly following a bassline and frosting its low end with a fuzzy guitar lead. Patrick puts in one of his most seemingly-programmed beats, played in a fashion that fits more with sampled drum parts than even early R&B beats. Nicole’s voice truly gets to shine, though, overdubbed with herself, but powerful and soulful without being showy–hardly a wonder they all worked together after this. Vibraphone-type keys and isolated and varied forms of Auerbach’s lick back Nicole alone for a brief bridge that just brings more soul to the smoky, hazy feel of the track’s talk of memory.

Creating a real moment of coincidence, Raekwon makes his second appearance in front of me in two days, this time backed by the Keys on “Stay off the Fuckin’ Flowers”. Auerbach’s guitar centers on wandering experimentation and effects, keys and a gentler rhythm from Patrick letting the smooth delivery of Raekwon control the sound of the song, relentlessly in motion though it is. The outro is Auerbach just let go with the guitar meanderings, Raekwon expressing his appreciation.

Mos Def returns on “Ain’t Nothing Like You (Hoochie Coo)”, acting primarily as the vocal hook, answered by a simple “La la la” melody from Auerbach’s voice. Jim Jones, then, gets the verses to rap over, Mos Def getting to give us a number of great variations in his chorus, and Auerbach left to actually perform one of the guitar tracks that actually fills out the entire song.

A nice, fuzzy lead that begins to pace itself and a steady beat gives a great backing for Q-Tip to start out on “Hope You’re Happy”, but when his verse ends, Auerbach opens up, Q-Tip starts the chorus and Nicole Wray gets to answer it–a peak moment for the album in terms of full band sound. Billy Danze comes in with a gravelly, aggressive delivery on the next verse (think Busta Rhymes outside his motormouthed mode). The outro to the song lets Nicole get another moment to really shine.

Sounding tired, broken, and almost pleading, RZA opens “Tellin’ Me Things” almost alone, half-singing, “She just keeps tellin’ me things/Things I don’t wanna hear”. In contrast to the slow burn of the bassline, Patrick lays down an almost disco beat (complete with “pea-soup”!), though a bit more varied. Auerbach plays a sort of spooky, haunting lick. RZA tells us the story of a very odd relationship, managing to compare himself and the “she” in question to Mork and Mindy–even repeating it for emphasis.

Continuing to cycle back through the rappers we were introduced to, “What You Do to Me” brings back Jim Jones and Billy Danze, but starts out with an organ line that gives us Dan in “sample mode” again, with an answer from Nicole Wray. But then he actually breaks out into whole lines instead of just a short hook, and you feel more like Nicole’s voice came out of another song instead of his. Jim Jones’ delivery is relaxed, almost mumbled, though its tempo is nothing of the kind. The organ and Auerbach’s guitar function more rhythmically through the verse, with the organ defining the melody of the chorus he sings, though he continues playing a single chord on beat throughout, always muting it just after it starts. Nicole brings some major power to her performance here, too. Billy Danze brings a shock or aggression and power–again, Busta-style–using even over-dubbed vocals to give an emphasis to his lines. It’s worked well in, even as Dan and Nicole are more in the R&B or blues vein with their sung vocals. There’s actually a long outro (a good minute and a half) of Auerbach actually working in some guitar leads, and Nicole just playing with her voice in the feel of a live bluesy performance. The two complement each other very well indeed, not quite using call and answer, so much as working alongside each other.

The album ends with “Done Did It”, which returns NOE, and lets Dan play a guitar riff that sounds more like it was sampled and chopped in, Patrick using another very hip-hop drum beat with big, boomy kicks. NOE throws a lot more energy at it than the beat or guitar expect, but the thudding, the tambourine rattle, and the descending guitar lick take us right into the chorus for another great vocal from Wray, as she brings the title of the song up and down in pitch with soul. NOE calms his delivery a little on the second verse, and relaxes even more on the third.

This is, in general, an odd sort of album. I’m not sure how much it would appeal to Black Keys fans as a Black Keys project (it’s why I picked it up, and it didn’t satisfy that particular itch, which contributed to its dust-gathering status). But taken, instead, as a constructed hip-hop album that uses a live, recorded band playing new beats designed for this explicit purpose–taking not only that, but specifically a blues-inflected band is actually the recipe for a very interesting sound. It’s a melding of two musical styles that are connected but separated by generations, instead of trying to graft an alternate branch–like rock–to the branch of hip-hop.

I can’t really pass up the opportunity to talk about Michael Carney’s graphic design. It’s true that a retro look is a bit of a fad in album art of late, at least in some circles, but the way it’s done here is just fantastic. In large part, the album itself is pure mystery. That cover tells you next to nothing, resembling, if anything, a lot of the weird, semi-amateur prog rock album covers of the 1970s. Why in the world is their jam (?) hanging off the roofs of a series of tall buildsings? What is Blakroc? And yet, it’s also a stylish piece of work, nicely crafted and framed, so that it seems to fit even the unusual and rather unique sound that lies within it. The back cover doesn’t help much–the tracklisting is placed above and below the moon with the same green and blue drippy covering. No mention is made of the Black Keys anywhere (the emcees present are listed below each song in small print, however). Inside, you have art that mimics the more informative variety of past cover art: a multi-panel set of equally sized black and white studio photos is topped by retro-styled credits and information. It really feels right.

One of the things that bugs me about some instances of musical reactions wandering the “blogosphere” is that there’s the clear notion (or occasional admission) that the listening takes place while doing entirely unrelated things. I’m not the type to insist on focusing on music in general–I’m often listening while doing other things–but this is a time that I definitely stop and focus on listening. I keep the album sleeves in my hand to read along with the lyrics or soak in cover art, or examine credits and details about the album’s production. This was one of the nicest to look at by far, and felt exactly right for the album, even though it is a callback to album art that predates even the earliest rap by a fairly significant amount.

  • Next Up: The Blood Brothers – March on Electric Children

Day Twenty-Three: BK-One with Benzilla – Rádio do Canibal

Rhymesayers Entertainment ■ RSE0114-1

Released: October 6, 2009


Produced by BK-One and Benzilla [“Mega” co-produced by Brother Ali]


Side One: Side Two:
  1. Ivan Tiririca (Intro)
  2. Gittit
  3. Mega
  4. Caetano Veloso (Interlude)
  5. The True & The Living
  1. Here I Am
  2. Tema do Canibal
  3. Ivan Tiririca (Interlude)
  4. Philly Boy
  5. Blood Drive
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. A Day’s Work
  2. Face It
  3. Love Like That
  4. Hyldon (Interlude)
  5. Blue Balls
  1. Eighteen to Twenty-One
  2. Call to Arms
  3. American Nightmare
  4. Tom Zé (Outro)

This is the kind of album that’s the reason for doing this blog in its entirety, in more than one way. To the left: I’ve left this album alone a lot. Being “required” to sit and devote some time to it lets me really give it the attention it deserves for me to form any opinion on it. It also stops me from skipping to a favourite track automatically (which I’ve tended to do both with this copy and my CD copy). And, to the right: it is something new to expose most people to, as it is far from a famed work of any kind, but deserves more attention than it gets (at the very least).

In hip-hop music, a producer or DJ album is a curious thing if that producer is not also a rapper, or does not choose to release instrumental albums, which some, like Madlib, do. Of course, pairings develop and become synonymous with emcees, or are even considered a part of their name. Atmosphere was generally considered to be Slug, emcee, and Ant, producer, for a large chunk of their career. Brother Ali had Ant as his producer on most of his earlier releases. Eric B. & Rakim split their name credit, with Eric B. as producer even getting “top billing”. Of course, it can get muddier, when you have a separate DJ (usually included as part of the group) from your producer (such as Public Enemy, with Terminator X as the former and The Bomb Squad as the latter). Atmosphere toured with Mr. Dibbs for years, and Brother Ali with BK-One. But the studio recordings were light of either, or even devoid.

BK-One was Brother Ali’s touring DJ until very recently when he started a family and, as he told Ali, decided to quit the road. However, when they were out–as I saw them more than once–BK-One first dropped Set in Motion on CD, a 3-track set of constant cuts and blends with various guests and to-the-point packaging. It was a mixtape more than an album, which is why the next time he showed up, it was with this, and it had a sticker that said “debut album”. Because it’s credited to BK-One and fellow beat producer Benzilla, it doesn’t have an automatic emcee line up, and did not choose the purely instrumental route either. As such, guests litter the album in various forms, and give the impression–at a glance, anyway–of a compilation, and a possibly messy one at that. That was a large part of why I didn’t give the record too many spins after getting it.

Interspersed through the album are beats overlaid with quotes (in Portuguese) from Brazilian musicians Ivan Tiririca, Caetano Veloso, Hyldon (speaking about Tim Maia), and Tom Zé. They are treated as interludes, intros and outros, but also as independent tracks, each named for the musician in question. The album opens with a quote from Tiririca:

“It started more with DJs than with live shows with bands. Our music owes a lot to the DJs here in Brazil in terms of black music. It was after the DJs. It was the DJs who first launched soul music in Brazil.”

This helps to establish the origin and the object of  BK’s project: on a trip to Brazil that included record shopping (a necessity for the DJ interested in scratching or really digging out interesting sounds to make beats from–their shelves are often an amazing thing to behold, as I’ve seen Ant’s, Benzilla’s, Madlibs, and a few others), BK fell in love with the sound of Brazilian music. There was a movement he mentions in the 1960s called tropicália, which married traditional music to the avant garde, as well as non-domestic sources. He discovered the term “cultural cannibalism” for this marriage of varying sources, and named the album for it: “Cannibal radio”.

The first emcees to appear are the givens: Brother Ali, BK’s longtime partner, and Slug, of Atmosphere, who is part owner of the label on which Ali appears, and the label on which this very album appears. It’s not nepotism of course–Ali and Slug have worked together many, many times throughout the releases from either of them. Ali has traded verses and even beatboxed for Slug before, while Slug has contributed verses to many of Ali’s tracks over the years. “Gittit” opens with horns, which, in and of itself is not surprising–Ali, at least, has had horns behind him before (and these days, actually has live horns behind him). But the beat is not exclusively rock-based instrumentation (snare, bass, kick, guitar), as the horns make for the hooks, and there are hand-played drums worked in to. The horns and the hand drumming are a strong hint of the album’s intention to work Brazilian sounds into a hip-hop album.

“Mega” is the one track that has guest production–Brother Ali assists BK-One on this one, though the raps are left to Aceyalone, Myka 9, and Abstract Rude, collectively known as Haiku D’Etat. As is often the case with rappers in the underground, these are dense, rapid raps with a good flow. The beat is a little more standard itself, but is built on a looped flute hook, as well as a vocal sample that sounds as if it’s more likely to be singing either another word that sounds like “Mega” (but is probably a Portuguese one), or at least that word/prefix appearing in a Brazilian track of some kind in the way that it’s pronounced and emphasized (“MAY-gah”). I’m not overly familiar with Haiku D’Etat, though they are one of the many names I see float around a lot. All three of them give great performances, ones that strongly encourage me to look further into their own material, both solo and as a group.

“Our movement was a big scandal here in Brazil. It mixed different kinds of styles which frightened and scandalized people. And we had let our hair grow! It was a typical movement of the ’60s with a flavor of counter-culture and pop art.” 
– Caetano Veloso

 Famous and established Raekwon (yes, from the Wu Tang Clan) is paired with I Self Devine, another Rhymesayers (RSE) artist on “The True and the Living,” joining fellow RSE alumni Abstract Rude, Slug, and Brother Ali. A slightly fuzzed bassline defines another song that happily includes hand-drumming behind Raekwon hitting on territory that BK-One did not restrict but has expressed awareness of being exceptional in context–selling cocaine and pursuit of money therein. Horn hooks appear again, keeping the theme of the albums merge of Brazilian music with hip-hop alive.

The crackle and pop (which, I have to say, is confusing on a record) of the samples used on “Here I Am” is the kind that you feel was knowing. It’s a clever construction: the bassline and the melodic hook seem to be in the same signature but playing a different kind of rhythm from each other that has them seeming to crash into each other for just a moment before the bass decides to take its time anyway. Phonte, Brother Ali, and The Grouch share lyrical duties and carve out one of the most varied sets of rapstyles. There’s a vocal hook that isn’t a sample this time, and it is part of the braggadocio that is a hallmark of a lot of rap, but is offset by Ali’s ever-present appreciation for another (name-checking Phonte more than once). Phonte was in Little Brother (one of the bigger North Carolina indie rap groups in recent years, though now, as they say, “defunct”), while The Grouch used to be in the Living Legends collective with RSE alumnus Murs, who makes an appearance later in the album.

And then we get the one instrumental track on the album: “Tema do Canibal”:

The track features the horns and arrangement of the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, who took a heavily multi-layered, Brazilian-inflected beat of clanging, clattering rhythmic intensity from BK-One and put an amazing set of hooks and playing over it. This thing is absolutely the highlight of an album of great beats and excellent raps. It’s the track that made me pick this LP up the second time I saw Brother Ali with BK-One (though a few of the guests sealed the deal when I turned it over). Even if you don’t like rap, do not miss this track. There is no rapping, just rhythmic, brassy, musical brilliance.

“The influence of James Brown was to help the self-esteem of black Brazilians. Everything began with James Brown. That was the influence and we would play everything on top of that music. James Brown was an icon to Black Brazilians who had adopted soul music.”

 – Ivan Tiririca

“Philly Boy” uses the lyrical talents of Black Thought, possibly the only emcee on the album I knew nothing of at all going in–which really just reflects my experience of rap, as he’s from The Roots, to whom I’ve never really listened, mostly because I tend to know little or nothing about major label rap, especially from the late 1990s or 2000s. The essential beat is very to the point, but seems to focus on a very low, lazy guitar line, like that of someone casually playing with a lead over the easygoing beat. The song has an extremely relaxed feel overall, though Black Thought brings a lot of energy to his delivery–it works in a fun way to seemingly suggest the ease with which he can dismiss other emcees, as the song just sort of breezes along as he ends a his last verse with “Do it.” It actually ends up a lot closer to instrumental than most of the other tracks (barring the obvious one), going on for a full minute after that, with a little accompanying guitars of Nate Collis (who now plays with Atmosphere on the same instrument), bringing a little more speed and higher pitches, as well as a much more improvisational feel to the outro.
Slug makes his only solo appearance on “Blood Drive”, which has a very curious production to it: it opens with flutes, then goes to a seemingly pastoral string that turns just slightly sour, but is answered with an insistent bassline–there is almost neither end nor beginning to the loop. This is one of the less wry deliveries from Slug, giving him a chance to seem less like he’s trying to smack your face into his point (sometimes because you, or the person he’s rapping to at least, need that). It’s one of the best deliveries I’ve ever heard from him, feeling way more in the “groove” than usual.
And on “A Day’s Work” we get one of my favourite emcees, certainly the one for whom I evangelize most: P.O.S., he of Doomtree, about whom I’ve written before. He’s usually paired with producers like DTR’s own Lazerbeak, Cecil Otter, Paper Tiger–or perhaps himself, or MK Larada once upon a time. The more “normal” beat (driven by piano, but backed by the bass of Sean “Twinkie Jiggles” McPherson–seriously) brings out something of a shock in him. He’s not been a slouch at rap, but his roots in punk often gave him an interesting approach to delivery. And, of course, he has always liked asides–from the first time I saw him in concert, at least. He throws one in here, but holy cow, that verse he spits is twisting and turning in all the best possible ways–“Making this shit my own”, he says, and he’s right.
For a lot of the early (primarily RSE) rap shows I went to, I’d almost always see Toki Wright there, acting primarily as hype man for the headlining acts. He got to open a few shows later, and he got a record released at a point that made me feel like he had to work way harder for it than anyone else–which was weird, as he was never lacking in talent at all. And “Face It” emphasizes how strange it was that it seemed to take some time before he could release a record. He puts in his own vocal hook into a beat that already has a nice pinched guitar hook, and has a relaxed tone to his rap, about his comfort and ease, and, yes, pride in being black. I’d like to think this could click even with people who get really defensive about black pride, as there’s no sense of superiority, just comfort–and encouragement for everyone to have the same attitude.
There’s a kind of sound to fuzzy, crackley samples that appears a lot, regardless of the kind of music it appears in (there’s a distinct example in alt/indie rock band Eels, actually). It uses a loop that ends with a light  pop at the very end, one that signifies the end and beginning of the loop simultaneously. It’s often given just enough space after the musical sample itself that you know it’s deliberately included, even making for part of the beat. Here it’s a quiet acoustic sample that goes from muttering itself to talking to listeners, but gets no further–it immediately cycles backward. Strings and other instruments back the one exception to the rapping tracks that compost the majority of the album: singer-songwriter Aby Wolf is double-tracked (and more, a few times) and sings beautifully for a very relaxed song called “Love Like That”. She actually works with Dessa (of Doomtree) on occasion, too.

“The first landmark soul album in Brazil was the first LP of Tim Maia. In his style of playing, I could hear Harlem materializing. I heard black American music. Tim lived five years in the United States and he wasn’t just listening. He lived the life of a black American Musician.”

–Hyldon

Another rapper I know from opening, Blueprint appeared between P.O.S. and Atmosphere at the first rap show I ever attended. Not an enviable position, really–following what was becoming my new favourite, and then preceding the one I came to see in the first place. He gets to rap “Blue Balls”, which is more metaphorical than the next track–it’s about musical “blue balls”, with the constant pressure to finish a new album plaguing him from all sides. It’s a great performance, and a fun conceit to rap about a kind of inability to finalize a rap album–a theme Ali actually hit on a few years later. He also gets the backing of Erick Anderson, who plays keys for Atmosphere and gives a lot more power to his backing, and makes it sound almost like a church song for Blueprint to preach his desire to be left to his work from.
Murs for President shirts tend to litter RSE shows. He raps with Slug as part of a group named Felt, which has been backed by a different producer for each of three albums (one was actually The Grouch, which is why I knew him already). His track is “Eighteen to Twenty-One”, and if you’re getting a worrisome vibe here, you’re not alone. Murs is shameless in explaining why he looks for women in that age range–it’s an aversion to settling down, and a disinterest in anything but having sex. An interesting guitar loop is the basis for it, with some interesting pinched and muted sounds built into it. BK has mentioned that he knew this would cause some trouble for some people, but rather than endorsing (or even tacitly accepting) the track, he has said it was just part of a refusal to direct or control the lyrical directions of the rappers who performed (citing Raekwon’s drug selling rap and the varying uses of the “n-word” by more than one emcee). If you can deal with the subject matter, this is a great performance–you can hear Murs shrugging, and hear him saying, “Wait, wait, hold on, let me explain, though…”
Having appeared earlier with Raekwon, I Self Devine gets a chance to perform alone on “Call to Arms”, and does so admirably. There’s a brief instrumental introduction, which he raps in a distorted fashion over for about a minute, before the song even gets to start and his vocals come back clearly. The beat itself also comes into a much clearer quality, based around a female vocal sample that doesn’t appear to form any full words (but then, I don’t know Portuguese!). McPherson gets to throw in some more bass, and there’s a great hi-hat usage toward the end, before it turns to McPherson’s bassline and the handclaps of BK-One, I Self Devine, Benzilla, and King Karnov.
Rounding out the appearances of Brother Ali and pairing him with Scarface of the Geto Boys (who comes from Houston, TX apparently, which is kind of weird and cool for a rapper). A rolling, Latin beat stands behind “American Nightmare” and the brief choral vocal from Ali. It seems from Ali’s opinion, BK’s and that of many, Scarface is commercially neglected but unbelievably skilled emcee. This song is not exactly going to dissuade anyone from that notion, and it’s very possible it will sway many toward it. Wow.

“I could have made popular but sophisticated music, as I had studied music for 6 years. I could have added a more sophisticated touch to samba. But I had taken another stand, an apocalyptic one, and made something more radical. I was crazy, but I was right.”

–Tom Zé

I’ve sort of given the fact away, but I tend to expect it beforehand anyway: getting to sit down with this album left it a heck of a lot more cohesive than I had ever guessed. The leaps in styles from emcee to emcee seemed like a risky proposition to me (much like the confused and uninformed claims that all of any genre or voice sound the same, that claim does not hold true for rap at all), but turned out perfectly reasonable. If treated as emcee-focused, it feels like a solid and varied but unified beat that just allows for numerous spotlights on emcees. But, of course, it’s actually a producer’s album: BK-One is putting hip-hop into Brazil, or Brazil into hip-hop, not because it hasn’t been done, but because he loves both and wants to bring them together. And so he does. There’s a great admiration for the styles and sounds of Brazil, but not stripped away and raps forced over them, nor broken down into the unrecognizable and reconfigured as expected hip-hop beats. 
There’s actually a great “track-by-track” rundown of the album by BK-One himself, over at this link, via the blog Potholes in My Blog.
I don’t have any illusions–I know most people I know with no time for rap in specific or hip-hop in general are going to give this much time. I know there’s not much I can do to sway those minds–though I sometimes have success by simply choosing the right rapper or rap group for a person’s taste. I write this, however, in the hopes that a person here or there might see something in this that they wouldn’t have otherwise, that they might at least take away from it “Tema Do Canibal”, which I maintain should appeal to most anyone.
You can actually pick up an EP of just that song, if you like from Amazon in digital form, or even on vinyl. Rhymesayers also sells it directly, as well as the full album.
Next Up: Blakroc – Blakroc

Day Thirteen: Atmosphere – The Family Sign

Rhymesayers Entertainment ■ RSE0130-1

Released: April 12, 2011


Produced by Anthony “Ant” Davis


Side One: Side Two:
  1. My Key
  2. The Last to Say
  3. Became
  1. Just for Show
  2. She’s Enough
  3. Bad Bad Daddy
  4. Millennium Dodo
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Who I’ll Never Be
  2. I Don’t Need Brighter Days
  3. Ain’t Nobody
  1. Your Name Here
  2. If You Can Save Me Now
  3. Something So
  4. My Notes

And now we hit on a genre that splits a lot of the people I know distinctly: rap/hip-hop. For the pedants–the genre is most accurately referred to as “rap music” or “hip-hop music”, as “hip-hop” technically refers to the entire subculture (identified by the four primary components: graffiti, rapping, DJing, and breaking). I don’t specify too much here, because there should be no confusion about the fact that I’m referring to music in the context of a blog about records that has “vinyl” in its title and pictures of records all over it. All that established, I know a fair number of people who carry the allergy that I usually see wandering the web in far more vitriolic forms. Admittedly, I cover most of the genres that you see appear under “I listen to all kinds of music, except…” with the possible exception of modern strains of popular country music. I come from the kind of background personally, musically, and so on that doesn’t as often place me in contact with other listeners of rap music. I’m by no means alone, I know at least a few people who listen as I do, but we all tend to shy more toward the “indie” side of hip-hop, of which Atmosphere may well be the godfathers to some extent.

While my youth included living in a culture where hip-hop was achieving cultural penetration and significance, the necessity of rebellion came out in confused fashion for me. I rebelled far more against the generalities of the culture I was in when I hit high school, occasionally using carefully selected definitions of “music” to exclude rap. This is and was not an unusual thing to do in those days, at least, not for those of us who were edging into the heavier side of things. Uncomfortably, this appears to be quite possibly racially motivated for many people (there’s, alas, no shortage of that attitude in the circles of aggressive, rock-based music), but was stacked with varying exceptions for me. Atmosphere, though, on recommendation, broke me out of this. Seven’s Travels, Atmosphere’s 2003 album, was the final breakdown of the aversion for me. It’s the first rap album I purchased on vinyl, and one of the albums I’ve purchased at something other than extreme discount on both CD and vinyl.

I’ve followed Atmosphere with varying intensities since then–the re-relase of the Headshots: Se7en mixtape, and the 2005 album You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having, and even 2008’s When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold were all releases I grabbed as soon as I could. The four volumes of the Sad Clown, Bad Dub series of mixtapes the group released in that period were also semi-immediate purchases. By 2010, when To All My Friends, Blood Makes the Blade Holy: The Atmosphere EPs and, indeed, this very album, I was not paying close attention. Most of the blame for that falls on the second Atmosphere show I went to, around 2006. It’s not that Slug and Ant were off their game–no, it’s that the spotlight was stolen by their opener, P.O.S., who came from the same city (Minneapolis, MN) and started me on my most emphatic (and successful) musical evangelism.

I bought The Family Sign on CD in mid-2011, a few months after it was released. It’s strongly associated with a time frame that I don’t purse associations with, which has left it off to the side for much of the year and a half since then. When Fifth Element, the major indie music store in Minneapolis, offered half off all Rhymesayers Entertainment (RSE) releases this past Christmas, I snapped up the EPs I’d skipped (with one exception, due to a bug in the ordering system) and this album on vinyl. I’ve been sitting on it (and the other releases I grabbed at the time: Brother Ali’s Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color and P.O.S.’s We Don’t Even Live Here) until now–which made it convenient that it was voted for as the release for me to discuss here.

I did spend, as I said, a period of time paying a great deal of attention to Atmosphere. As a result, it was with awareness of the significant changes that I listened to The Family Sign both the first time and today. While When Life Gives You Lemons paved the way for significant changes (inspired in part by some touring choices they began to make), The Family Sign is the absolute culmination of them. When I first saw Atmosphere, Sean “Slug” Daley was rapping with Ant for the first time (who previously did not tour with Slug) and now an entire band playing their tracks live. This was odd, as all albums to that point were recorded as is the most common practice with rap: sampled or otherwise electronically created beats–even the live instrument playing was usually just something previously recorded for an existing song, chopped or restructured (unless the artist in question was lazy, and there’s a glaring example of that one, but it isn’t here). It made for an interesting stage show, too, as it allowed them to shift between full band performance and more standard DJ+emcee (rapper, if you are unfamiliar) performance. Lemons introduced moments of guitar  (and synthesizer) playing from Nate Collis, who was the touring guitarist I’d seen them with, as well as various others. Live instrumentation isn’t foreign to rap, but it was foreign to Atmosphere.

The Family Sign, however, moves the band almost entirely into a new realm: the album now references Nate Collis and touring keyboard player Erick Anderson as members of the band, listing their “shout outs”/thanks in the same place as Slug and Ant, with both of them listed before Slug, and Nate listed even before Ant. It changes the musical dynamic of the group entirely. They have had other members in the past–Derek “Spawn/Rek the Heavyweight” Turner was originally a second emcee–but this was a game changer in sound terms. When the record starts with “My Key”, it would be easy to think that what Erick is playing is instead a sample, but when the piano shifts naturally to a different melody and Slug begins quietly sing-songing in, it becomes clear that’s not the case. By the time Nate’s guitar comes strumming in, and his backing vocals (which also began to appear on Lemons, and were used in concert to take the place of vocal samples) follow, you could be forgiven for not recognizing the album as rap at all. Of course, Ant, who publishes under “Ant Turn That Snare Down” with ASCAP, has put together the beat and it carries the dry, solid sound that is his signature (and partly the inspiration for that publishing title).

“The Last to Say” remains the song that sticks with me on the album, both from a year ago and from today, despite the fact that it is only the second track on the album. Lonely howls and oscillating pitches over a solid beat add a downbeat keyboard tune as Slug begins to tell the story of a man raised in an abusive home, which makes a turn suddenly to address the person to whom the song is being sung: the woman who lives with this man, who Slug cannot understand, as she keeps returning to this same man. This is delicate subject matter, especially to speak of with regard to addressing someone trapped in it. But Slug does not fall into the usual trap: he openly questions what motivates these decisions–is she replaying her homelife, too? Is she excusing him as a damaged person not entirely responsible for his actions? Instead he asks her to remember when she left before, states the facts of the abusive behaviour, but captures the entire attitude in the lines that lead to the chorus for the second time: “Please put your shoes and step into that warm weather/Go get yourself a more better forever/Gotta put it down, you gotta leave it/And don’t ever come back again, you’ve gotta mean it/Just tear it all apart and build new/’Cause if you don’t kill him, he’s gonna kill you/You can’t hold hands when they make fists/And I ain’t the first to say this…/But let me be the last to say/Please don’t stay/Let me be the last to say/You won’t be okay”. There’s no condescension, even as there’s incredulity.

The liner notes for the album are scant in general, but Slug does write that “Became” was actually inspired by a poem and a story that inspired that poem. It tells a story that feels interesting from the outset, and only becomes moreso. It does have a few of the awkward verbal constructions Slug can be guilty of on occasion though. It does edge us out of the dark territory of “The Last to Say” and makes room for one of the few musically upbeat numbers on the album, “Just for Show”. The sing-song chorus and the cynical, dismissive tone are some of the last carryovers from Slug’s established approach to writing. The chorus stays clever though, as it repeats at just the right moment to convey the exact sentiment of the entire song: “You don’t really want/You don’t really want me/You don’t really want/You don’t really want me/To go/No you don’t that’s just for show”. For a moment, you think he’s telling the listener they don’t want him as they are claiming, but then it turns at the last moment and confirms the false foundations of that claim. It’s the beginnings of the personal relationship attitudes changing in Slug that becomes apparent as the album progresses.

“She’s Enough” continues the upbeat nature of the prior song, but this time it’s in the lyrics, too. Much like Sims’ “LMG” (we’ll see that in a few months, I guess!), Slug decides to write a song about a woman that isn’t “such a depressing mess”. It’s not an uncommon idea in the rap I do listen to, to be fair, but it’s new for Slug, who has spent years writing about his struggles with his relationship with women in general and in specific. A little more distortion and crunch makes for an exception to the very clean beats and instrumentation on the rest of the album, setting this track apart from a lot of the rest.

“Bad Bad Daddy” is peculiar in general. Slug’s vocals are slightly distant and distorted, echoing back at themselves. It’s reminiscent, in ways, of the Ford One and Ford Two EPs they released many years ago, but it’s backed by textures from Erick and a rather dirty guitar lick from Nate that all stands to back lyrics about a father beyond irresponsible, described by himself in simultaneously jaw-droppingly awful terms and self-justification.

Side Three opens with an odd song for the group, “Who I’ll Never Be”, a beat that sounds as if it’s being played back for microphones to record for the record, and a clean, intricate and acoustic set of guitar playing from Nate that backs a song about a neighboring, quiet, sad songwriter that Slug wants to reach out to, but knows he can’t because it wouldn’t do what he might hope, so he just revels in the sounds he hears through walls he suspects she doesn’t know are so thin.

Side Three stays in the darker groove that defines most of the album, with synthesized keyboards reminiscent of atmospheric 80s synthetic scores and one of the bluesier riffs Nate pulls out, with a more dominant beat than much of the album. “Ain’t Nobody” has a cheerful sound that I believe is a melodica, and one of the catchier choruses (like “The Last to Say” and “Just for Show”, embossed in silver foil on one of the optional sets of cover art–more on that later). The lyrics are much like those of “Millennium Dodo”, in their audible sigh of resigned annoynace, which is continued in the following track, “Your Name Here”, which sounds like it is being written as a sad song of loss, but suddenly begins to sound insincere until it becomes clear that it is exactly that, and more, until it becomes sincere in an entirely different way.

Side Four is possibly the best entire side of the record, opening with the clever and engaging “If You Can Save Me Now, which first sounds like a semi-awkward (Slug is not a singer) ballad, but turns to an Ant beat with Erick and Nate acting more in the semi-sample roles to give it melody. As the song progresses, you find that the kind of saving being sought is not quite what you think–and it turns into something else, and something unexpected. “Something So” and “My Notes” are absolutely beautiful, and “Something So” knows it. “Something So” is dominated by Collis, with Slug’s voice bowing to its sound at the beginning, with Erick’s keys only intermittently appearing, warbling like a theremin as a nice accent to the cool but hopeful guitar lines. Ant’s beat is more reminiscent of a rock band’s, with less intense bass beats and a greater emphasis on light cymbal and woodblock usage. And when you realize what the song is about, what “Something so beautiful” is, it all makes sense that the song would be so special.

“My Notes” ends the album with the last of the embossed lines present. It starts off sounding like an early 70s Tom Waits track, meaning Erick is the one dominating, with a breezy, slow, but warm keyboard line. In the spirit of many of Slug’s closing lyrics, vocals and Atmosphere tracks, his voice seems to gather energy and volume as it goes, half-angry at what is a positive message in a way that seems to almost say, “Look, dummy, I’m telling you something good.” One of the most effective sing-song lines from Slug defines the track, as it is only used to open lines: “As long as I can hit my notes…”

When the album ended, I realized I’d definitely missed something here. The album did not get stunning reviews when it came out–not terrible, but generally middling. I’m not necesarily left with the impression that that is unfair, but certainly that some of these tracks deserve far more attention than the whole album might indicate. Highlights like those last three, or “Who I’ll Never Be” and “The Last to Say”, or “Became” despite its flaws, shouldn’t be left to moulder.

They did record a video for “The Last to Say”, which I’ll include here because it fits a great song well:

Slug’s place in the video makes it clear that something has changed in Atmosphere: while Lemons brought us a Slug that tells the stories of others instead of himself, The Family Sign is like the full realization of that hint. Personal stories or viewpoints are not abandoned (“She’s Enough”, “Your Name Here”), and instead show the same kind of resigned, mature reactions. While always self-deprecating in the past, here it is not something Slug just puts out on show, as if he has assimilated that knowledge into a more complete sense of self than previously. He sounds settled into his relationship, his wife, his children, and as if rap is now not a need to prove himself, but a job and a method of communication: an art, not a proving ground.
The actual release is on clear vinyl, and comes in a gatefold package with 4 panels (each two-sided) that have either the album and artist name or a line from one of the songs embossed in fancy cursive writing over various images. The one image of the band is surprising, with Erick, Nate, and Ant readily apparent, but Slug in the background covering his face–where his previous cover appearances (notably, God Loves Ugly) being him alone. Those panels, though, can be interchanged in the album art, which functions like a picture frame. It even has a fold out stand in the back cover that will stand the album up, vinyl and all.
Next Up: Autechre – Gantz_Graf