July 24th, 2014
‘Six Degrees’ (music by BadBadNotGood, guest verse by Danny Brown):
I hope Ghostface keeps making music with live bands, because this collaboration with hip-hop/punk/jazz trio BadBadNotGood is like a signpost pointing to a better record yet to come, one where he’s allowed to follow his cracked muse down whatever back alleys it might take him, with a band fit to follow in hot pursuit.
Last year’s Twelve Reasons to Die album was lush as hell itself, and it had an unshakeable fatalistic logic with which to lead you there – when the album finishes and rolls straight into its instrumental mix, it feels like the natural conclusion to this story of ridiculous bloodshed, like a walk around the movie set except that it’s empty and you suspect someone’s had to bury a lot of bodies to get it that way.
Still, as glorious as Adrian Younge’s orchestration is, the overarching conceit – as a expanded in creaky, 90s style in the tie-in comic!- constrains Ghost’s talent as much as it showcases it. After all, this is a man whose best albums demonstrate that crack rap can sell any detail (Fishscale) and find a way to make any words work for its hustle (Supreme Clientele), and whose penchant for off-key singing can never quite obscure the ragged, soulful quality of his voice (as best displayed in the sudden mood shifts of The Pretty Toney Album). The catalogue of brutality Ghostface and his Wu-brethren provide on 12RTD isn’t without interest – lines like “Blow out your lungs/See you’ve been smoking for years” are crude and vivid and funny, and the fact that the gang war is prompted by the structural racism of the mob gives the story an edge it doesn’t quite make use of – but Mr GFK only really comes alive on the sweet-then-sour love songs in the middle of the album.
On ‘Centre of Attraction’ and ‘Enemies All Around Me’, Ghost’s voice cracks as internal conflict enters his world for the first time on this album – external conflict being something of a non-issue for a super-competent gang boss who can overcome death in order to take revenge on his enemies. These songs see Ghost’s character (Tony Starks, natch) wading through both his own deep reserves of sexism (“Bitches is sneaky, triflin’, and not to be trusted”) and the waves of suspicion that are coming towards him from his crew while trying to keep faith that his girl isn’t just setting him up for a fall. In typical Ghostface style, he is able to convince himself of this only by way of conjuring up a visual that’s as striking as it is unprompted: “That’s my lady, she would never backstab or double cross me/Standing butt naked in the storm, sipping the frosty.”
These recordings represent the point where the tastes of the Brighton Mindless meet with those of their Scottish counterparts. The Brighton boys generally like to listen to recordings of ghostly mops being thrashed till they whimper, while their friends in the North prefer a mix of hip-hop and rock that can only be described using words that start with the letter “A” – arty, angular, American, or just plain old arsey will usually do the trick. 
It was one of my Southern friend who first introduced me to Hype Williams’ One Nation, a collection of electric dreams that sometimes sounds like the work of a mind trying to think its way out of existence. If the strangely absent sound of the instruments on album opener ‘Ital’ provide a suitably morbid build-up to this concept, then the pitched down narration that runs through the second track ‘Untitled’ literalises it:
The people who are still alive when you die might hurt because you are gone. That is okay. People love other people and usually it hurts when people we love die. We even comfort ourselves with those stories that the dead person is… not really dead, and that is okay too.
But of course everyone dies, and you will too…
There’s something of the live band about this, a sense that these songs are happening in the moment, the work of minds and bodies that are reacting to their immediate situation. A lot of this has to do with the halting, tentative quality of the synth playing – set against the generally spacey, metronomic thud of the beat, the melodies have an uncertain quality to them, a sense that they are being recorded before they have finalised. Consider, in contrast, the work of some of Hype Williams’ contemporaries – most Burial tracks aspire to the condition of field recordings in their attempt to chronicle the long, dark club night of the soul, while Actress tracks are more often than not are conceived like static landscapes, revealing detail through time and close examination rather than movement.
The tracks on One Nation are similar to those on Ghettoville or Rival Dealer in that they provoke the sense that you’re listening to something that is almost not there, but where those other artists strive through this effect primarily through tricks of texture and structure that elide the distinction between different sonic elements, Hype Williams do so through a mix of texture and performance that maintains their distinction.
To state it another way: ‘Come Down to Us’ and ‘Skyline’ sound like places that you may or may not have come into contact with, while the songs on this album sound like interactions that may or may not be happening now, in real time. This approach isn’t necessarily superior to ones deployed by Burial or Actress, whose distinct approaches I’ve come painfully close to blurring into each other here, for shame – their work is perhaps more immersive than Hype Williams’, but while you catch site of various Others on the edge of your perception while dealing with their work, listening to One Nation feels a lot like an encounter with a specific Other. 
Sometimes, this Other seems tranquil about its own potential absence, such as on the aforementioned ‘Untitled’ track, but my personal favourite run of tracks comes near the end of One Nation, at the point where ‘Mitsubishi’ immerses distressed, backmasked sighs into its in-out backing track, before exploding out into the wild whistle call of ‘Jah’, which recalls Archie Hind’s description of the death twitches of freshly killed cow in The Dear Green Place, “the possible moment of consciousness, when the head loosened and the animal took that last great breath through the chittering windpipe.” 
Stripped of the rap vocals for which they were (mostly) originally composed, the tracks on Clams Casino’s three Instrumental Mixtapes create a similar effect.
Strangely, given their origins as rhythms for rappers to ride, Clammy Clams’ production has perhaps more in common with the soundscapes of Burial or Actress than it does with Hype Williams’ snap and echo. Clams Casino beats tend to rise and fall as part of the instrumentation around them, with the snap of the drums sounding like the thud of a human heartbeat, an intimate part of the ragged exhalation that accompanies it.
Take, for example, the song ‘Hell’ from the third mixtape, which sounds so much louder and more distorted here than it did when A$AP Rocky and Santigold sang and rhymed on top of it, and which nevertheless has a gentle, organic feeling to its rise and fall – an effect not entirely dissimilar to the one produced by Hype Williams’ ‘Mercedes’. 
Other tacks like ‘Palace’ (from the second Intrumental Mixtape; also originally composed for A$AP Rocky) and ‘Numb’ (from the first Mixtape; otherwise unreleased) literalise this organic effect by drawing out samples of human voices beyond their usual span, and making killer beats out of human breath. Listen to these songs on your headphones while commuting to work on a hungover Monday morning and you’ll find yourself looking over your shoulder to find out who’s been whispering away at it – and trust me, I’m speaking from experience on this front!
The texture of these mixtapes matches the fleeting, performative quality of One Nation for the sense of fleeting individual mortality that’s evoked. And if it seems unlikely that such fragile records should draw so many rappers to them, just listen to the remix of Janelle Monae‘s ‘Cold War’ from the first Instrumental Mixtape and ask yourself what you hear. Me? I hear the sound of a lone voice, calling out in the darkness, demanding a response…
March 5th, 2014
Having spent 2011 and 2012 listening to so much new, free hip-hop that I almost lost track of who I was and where I laid my head (in case you were wondering: a man who writes about comics on the internet; Glasgow), I made a decision early at the start of 2013 to cut back a bit. While this means that someone like the Bottie Beast is probably better placed to give you an overview of what’s going on with hip-hop right at this point in 2014, it also means that I’ve had a decent amount of time to really dig into the albums and songs I did check out over the past few years.
With an album like Ab-Soul’s Control System, it’s just as well that I had time to spare because otherwise I might not have got my head around how good it really is.
As the member of the Black Hippy crew who does the most to live up to the back half of that description, Ab-Soul risks being obscured by some of the more traditionally appealing rappers in his posse. Schoolboy Q’s perfectly titled Habits and Contradictions provided an early warning that the current era was going to belong to the TDE crew, and Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city received so much praise that it kicked off a discussion about what rap fans mean when they label something a classic.
Still, now that the smoke has started to clear – well, shit, as I type this Q’s Oxymoron is currently setting fire to my speakers but let’s deal with that in a separate post – it’s Control System that’s stayed with me. Ab’s too stoned and too subtle to make an album full of straight bangers, but there’s something about the raw fluidity of his rhymes that just gets to me. The way he can get stuck on a series of punishing homonyms for most of a verse before switching his flow up to effortlessly hit series of breathlessly off-kilter punchlines suggests the movement of a mind that’s still in the process of making itself up. This sits in stark-contrast to Lamar’s ever-more impressive verbal gymnastics: the power of good kid, m.A.A.d. city lies in the fact that it always seems like Kendrick knows what he’s doing, while the genius of Control System is that it makes you feel like you’re thinking these thoughts for the first time every time.