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The argument that rappers must lose relevance after a certain age is as old as hip-hop itself, and artists like Rakim, 50 Cent, LL Cool J, M...
© Copyright Mat Fascione and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence I am a very reluctant road cyclist. I like t...
The argument that rappers must lose relevance after a certain age is as old as hip-hop itself, and artists like Rakim, 50 Cent, LL Cool J, M...
'My debut like some live at the Apollo shit'. Lifted from the retro-funk thrash of She Took The Money, this statement might seem apt for an artist stepping cautiously in to the world of Australian hip hop. But Mr. Clean is in no danger of a mute crowd. He has embodied the fabled 'grind' that so many of his American counterparts love and loathe. The story of With A Vengeance is not one of a man thrust in to the spotlight unheralded. It's more Seinfeld in essence; a body of work built on years of shows, guest spots and impromptu microhpone grabbing. With such a back story, it was never destined to fail.
On a bleak Wednesday evening in April 2012, I ventured out alone to a free hip hop gig featuring the enigmatic Lee Monro (formerly Figgkidd) and up and coming Sydney spitter Ello C. On the bill was someone by the name of Mr Clean. The first few acts were standard fare, your typical Aussie hip hop night. The crowd was quite docile, despite the best efforts of the entertainment. Enter Clean. He wanders up on stage, pulls a mic out of his back pocket and proceeds to drop the needle on something that nearly blew the glass out of the windows, before throwing lyrical haymakers with technical aplomb. I was instantly hooked, and when Monro and Ello C called him back up for a collab and he spat the line 'you're chasing the blues like Gargamel' I was immediately on the Clean bandwagon.
It wasn't an easy one to be on. With 218 twitter followers, a sporadic posting history and only Hard Yak available for my iPod, I resigned to the fact that he probably wasn't going anywhere soon. But there were whispers, and the giant gestation period that With A Vengeance endured is testament to attention to detail as well as the dual responsibilities of taking care of 3 kids and a middling job. Work with legendary Aussie producer Katalsyt on Black Dragon, and a subsequent tour, served to stoke the hunger.
The hunger. That's what is present in spades on With A Vengeance. Bag Of Merk takes off with the incendiary qualities of a warning shot, as Clean details his motivations. 'So many beats get rid the same when only a few can spit them flames'. Over the top of a disquieting thumping beat, it's enough to make you sit up and take immediate notice. It's not until Diamond Thrust that he nails his colours firmly to the mast; 'I turn on the radio, it gives me a push'. As outspoken as he is skilful, a quick perusal of his social media accounts reveals someone disillusioned with the discordant relationship between radio airplay and talent. So many people have sat at home and said 'Shit, I can do it better than 90% of this trash on the radio'. Mr. Clean decided to damn well do it.
With A Vengeance is littered with his desperation to showcase himself as someone who is authentic and valuable to the rap game, with ability to match it with and best his contemporaries. Steroid Frauds, featuring a deep house mixed with boom bap beat by COLOURED NOYZ is a strain of conscious thought where Clean tackles the most traditional of hip hop themes: I'm better, and here is why. But he rides the beat with such aplomb, switching his flow halfway through bars with such ease it's impossible not to take him at his word. On album closer Ambition he ties the entire storyline up with a blistering performance over a spaced out beat, detailing his motivations for releasing a record and showcasing just why With A Vengeance was destined to be. When the fire burns so brightly within there's no point denying it.
That fire burns within most of us. It's particularly strong in me. I even bought a $300 microphone to supplement my recording process. There's only a select few with the follow through to make something out of that fire (not me), and of that select few, only a small portion have the skill and ability to turn it in to something listenable (undoubtedly not me). Mr. Clean is one of the most adept flow purveyors in this hemisphere. The way he runs up and down the beat with such ease is a show in itself. His seamless movement between standard and double time on Funeral Song is reminiscient of how Kendrick Lamar can morph flows. Faith In The Raw, another Katalyst banger, would overwhelm lesser emcees, drowning them out with shuddering bass drums and an epileptic synth noise, yet Clean grabs his monotone and uses his voice as an extra instrument, droning through the beat with unfailing intensity, sitting comfortably within its confines. He even gets a little R&B on The Highway, lending a dreamy chorus that turns the song in to a real slow burner.
If you take a step back, take your critical glasses off and just sit with the record as a whole from start to finish it is an incredibly accomplished product. There's so much variety in sound that it's amazing Clean can tie it all together and keep the record on brief. Tracks that will blow your speaker system (Bag Of Merk, Steroid Frauds, Faith In The Raw), ones that are direct throwbacks to late 80s party bops (Golden Frame, Enemy Tape), soul and jazz based samples (She Took The Money, Ted Demme), and then pure battle rap with the local DJ numbers (Monsta Squad) which firmly plonk the beat in the backseat whilst Clean's crew of aussie hip hop royalty (Empress MC, Lee Monro, Figgkidd and Muphin, to name a couple) spit absolute fire. And what's a 2014 album without a better version of a Yeezus beat? Hardware evokes its name, with tortured metallic noises underpinned by an ominous 808, and a heavily distorted chorus. 'You've got it in your head that you're a superstar, yet I hate copycats no matter who you are'.
And all of this whilst juggling family and job. On The Tundra he laments 'that middle class stress have you feeling it's a quest just to get a decent rest'. The achievements of these kind of artists can not be understated. They must bankroll their entire project out of their own pocket, they have to some how schedule in enough time to devote to it, despite their job and families, and on top of all that they have to actually turn up. By that I mean creatively and competitively. 'Most wait a lifetime just to do what we do'. It's a blessing to be endowed with such ability, but ability is not even 10% of the battle. There's little more pleasing to a reviewer in this world than when a project like this comes together. I was concerned about With A Vengeance. I wanted it to be good. I wanted it to buck the trend of the road that Australian Hip Hop has stumbled down, with high profile collaborations tailor made for radio, with weak rappers and even weaker reputations blossoming under the belief that just because it is Australian we have to support it. Fuck that. The only reason you should support music is if you enjoy it. With A Vengeance embodies this opinion perfectly, and you know what? He is better than 90% of the stuff they play on Triple J. Hopefully he makes enough money off this to tour and record more, because hip hop still needs rappers with insane skills, even if the public never hear them.
I was in my local record store today, and there was a short blurb above the sale price ($23 by the way) for 360's 3rd record, Utopia. 'It's hard to decode exactly why 360 is Australia's biggest rapper'. This is abundantly true. If you're any kind of fan of Australian hip hop, and I don't mean the standard fare that Triple J trot out every third song, you'll be forgiven for throwing your hands up in disgust when you enter 360's Utopia. In fact Illy's Cinematic probably elicited a similar reaction. Why? Because it just isn't very good..
That's fine, the terms good music and pop music are mutually exclusive in some people's minds. I disagree vehemently, and especially when it comes to hip hop. Australian hip hop is different though. We've only had a handful of video's on MTV, and we've never once had an artist that is exportable, unless you include Iggy Azalea. And I don't. For some reason, be it the accent, the distance between city's, or the fact that we just do rock so damn well, Australian hip hop has never breached the mainstream. Until now. We have verifiable superstars, with 360's 2011 release Falling and Flying going double platinum. Hilltop Hoods last 4 albums have gone at least platinum, and Bliss N Esso achieving similar numbers. Is this a watershed moment, a sparking point for the industry that has spent so many years forcibly underground?
If it is, then please do not let 360 be our poster child. Or, at least do not let it be Utopia, a record so mired in the paper chase that it languishes dangerously, falling well short of what made the artist in the first place. The guy can spit! In his GTNA battles, notably against Kerser and Okwerdz, he displayed the kind of battle mentality and quick wit that would make Eminem proud. In fact, maybe that was why Em booked him as the opener on his stratospheric Rapture tour? He was a punchline fiend, ducking and weaving through his competition's words, only popping his head up to deliver his next barb. In fact the way he destroyed Kerser over a number of battles and diss tracks may have a hand in why you see 360 charging $1000 for backstage passes to his shows and Kerser playing The Gaellic in Surry Hills.
Probably the only time Kerser landed a punch was when he claimed 360 was soft, and had sold out to the radio. It's a criticism that still stings, and justifications litter Utopia. The first lines of Still Rap are "All these jealous motherfuckers are old now
And people sayin' I'm sold out"
It's so difficult to take him at his word though, when Utopia is laced with high end production, giant choruses (thank you Gossling and Daniel Johns, among others), and the old chestnut of positivity. Most of the record would stand alone as an EDM release, and it's doubtless that summer festivals will have an absolute ball booking 360.
Let's look at the positives though. Following a brief 3 week stint in rehab, 360 embarked on an incredibly admirable change of circumstance. Down to around 67 kilos, and relying heavily on alcohol, he decided that it was time to shape up and become a better role model for his fans. Nowhere is this more clear than on the touching Man On The Moon, a rejection of negativity in the face of hope and belief that highlights the power that music can impart on the life of the desperate. 'Said he was gonna kill himself but didn't because of me', 'Posts like that make the hate worth it', 'All I've done is grown up you're still looking at the same person'. His embracing of the accent only serves to punctuate the message. This is a true from the heart moment, and it draws comparisons to the way Eminem uses his music not only as a cathartic form of self-therapy, but champions it as a way for the downtrodden to get back on their feet.
This is the peak of Utopia. From here each track is draped unceremoniously around the pedestal it creates. The emcee trods down the same stereotypical path over and over again. 360 says fuck his haters, 360 didn't sell out for the fame, 360 is still real, 360 is blessed to be in the position he is in, 360 is the best. He lunges from laughable to dull. The southern inspired Eddie Jones is his attempt to make an Aussie trap anthem, mimmicking the flow that is lacing Hip Hop TXL releases through artists like Yo Gotti and PeeWee Longway. This is the laughable section. There's a reason why no-one from Australia has done a Southern American trap track before, and this is it. Then there is the blatant grab at a culture that relies on chemical enhancements, EDM. It's All About To End, and on the bonus disk Impossible, both featuring the enigmatic and frankly legendary Daniel Johns, are just assaults on your ears. They will probably added a few zero's to his account and ensured that AJ Maddah and co are going to be needing his phone number for future festival dates, but for someone who seems hell bent on solidifying his rep it's just another nail in his coffin.
Despite his penchant for hammering home broad, simple themes, this is the strongest feature of Utopia. Many artists struggle to make a true LP, one that carries a storyline throughout. Not only has he addressed the issue of drug addiction, he has taken aim at both fame and those who hate fame, he's taken stock of his fast route to the top of the charts and he has attempted to stay true to his roots on a number of raw cuts. On Speed Limit, he drops all the rhetoric and just settles in to a true mixtape flash, double timing shit talk and riding the beat in to submission, the way a true emcee does. Sixavelli is a beast, really digging back in to that street sound and faux-gangster bravado that was luminous on his earlier music. 'Pause and ask the owner if he knows the soccer score / if our team's losing then we're fucking up his shop some more'. Must Come Down is a nice explanation of the moment you realise the fun has to stop eventually. It really resonated, 'I could stay here all night'. Purple Waterfall is a trippy hell that evokes images of a dystopian acid trip, and Live It Up is a fist in the air anthem for the frat boys to chant as they beat each other's brain cells in beer drinking contests.
The problem is not the production either, which is stellar, from M-Phazes, LIFTED X RYAN, and Styalz Fuego. The problem is 360. His rhymes feel like they were taken out of a year 3 rhyming dictionary. Sky, Alive, Life. In You And I he attempts to rhyme What, Buzz, From and Fuck. Then he parlays in to 'I was feeling stuck / now I don't need no drugs'. The way he sits uncomfortably on the beat is so unusual for someone who can ride it with aplomb. On You And I he is frequently caught napping despite the laid back BPM, and on Must Come Down he runs out too quickly, but not quick enough to double time. On Early Warning he never manages to settle around the mournful tone, getting stuck behind it then overcompensating. The issue seems to be he is trying to modify his technique to fit on to a production style that he knows is going to win him radio airplay. All of a sudden Kerser's parting shot in a losing battle comes back in to focus.
I want Australian hip hop to do well. I want 360 to be successful. We all do, and maybe that is why people are so loathe to criticise when it comes to Australian artists. But Utopia is more than just a disappointment. It just isn't good music. The huge choruses would sound better without him trying to rap in between them. The experimental and spit-shined production is more comfortable without him labouring behind it, attempting to compose something of substance that will fit with this slower time signature. 360 is most comfortable when he is just throwing lyrical hands, rapping fast for the sake of rapping. Utopia may be this years biggest hip hop release (although Hilltop Hoods have something cooking for us), but it certainly won't be the best.
When The Roots signed to Def Jam in 2006, Jay Z was presiding over the once powerful label, one that had slipped in to a decline deemed scary enough for the president to release a hurried Kingdom Come. The Roots were neo-rap legends in the underground, masterfully infusing modern jazz with a live band atmosphere, and a lead emcee who was regarded as one of the heavy hitters. They'd also spawned a massive crossover hit, The Seed (2.0), which helped their 2002 record Phrenology achieve platinum status. So what do you think Jay Z said to Questlove when they discussed their upcoming record? "Please, no radio singles. I don’t want no radio". THANK GOD (or Hova in this instance). Since then, The Roots have embodied everything that is desperately missing from mainstream hip hop. They've pushed boundaries (Wise Up Ghost) by working with rock legends, they've made the ultimate ghetto soul splashes with John Legend, solidifying his credibility at a time when it was slipping in to an MTV induced blur (Wake Up!), and they've continued to diversify a sound that is a testament to Questlove's encyclopedic musical brain.
...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin is a concept record, in the vein of Undun, however rather than limit themselves to a single individual voice or character, the band have expanded to include all of those noises, all of those personalities that you encounter in their neighbourhood. With such a bevy of inherent talent gravitating around this group, no less than 29 contributing artists in the writing and production credits, there's always the concern that the resultant output is a mish mash of half thought ideas, or fully thought brain waves that clash. What The Roots have traditionally done well is control the chaos that surrounds them, and especially that which constantly blares inside the heart, Questlove. In an interview with Spin in 2013, he explained that his mood is quite volatile, and his creative output is greatly impacted by that. Yet The Roots have always managed to stay one step ahead of the rest of the hip hop world, through a combination of hard work, insane talent, and a fireproof will to represent those that surround them in the everyday world. Not the celebrity world. Not the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, not hanging out backstage doing shots with Tarantino. The real people who sit at home after a hard day providing for themselves and their families, watching these guys on TV. Sitting there thinking 'Shit man, these guys have it MADE'. If only they picked up a record. Black Thought and his band have a direct line to their soul.
And it's not to be taken lightly. This is a courageous route to take, and Jay Z's comment comes in to it. Questlove said "'I never had a label president beg me for an art record before.", and their output since that fateful day has been border line crazy, when there are probably hundreds of Happy's or Blurred Lines' tucked away inside those musical skulls. ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin is just an extension of this courage. Weighing in at just 34 minutes, and with no marketable single, it's a tapestry of stories painted on a canvas of disconcerting soul and jazz music, touched heavily by downtrodden beats that mimmick the kind of suicidal work that Mac Miller is putting out at the moment. Opener Theme From The Middle Of The Night, as performed by Nina Simone, is instructive as to the direction this record takes. The line "Wake and begin their day in the middle of the night" cuts through any kind of class structure, taken literally and metaphorically it is powerful imagery to trust in as an opening statement.
From here, The Roots and their collaborators expand on this theme. Second track Never is desperately downbeat, and we find Black Thought peddling his most intense form of cathartic therapy, "What is this gotta be brave / When into the night I'm going to go quietly mane" "Life's a bitch and then you live". His first impact is one of severe melancholy, bordering on major depressive. There's few let-ups. On When The People Cheer he takes the almost delicate piano riff and flips it in to an MF DOOM style monotonal celebration of the other side of a party life. The dirty underworld of Ibiza, or a version of Lil Wayne if he wasn't rich; just partying and addicted to sex. The slow creep of the morose, building in to a stampede that is satisfied by the flesh, "I'm thankful that / she keeps providing the place for me to be unfaithful at".
One of the criticisms I will level at the record right now is that we never see enough of Black Thought. Since Organix in 1993, and his lyrical acrobatics on tracks like The Anti-Circle and Grits, he has constantly been at the forefront of underground conscious rap. Spirituality is usually his chosen topic, and certainly on 2009's How I Got Over this was the most potent. However on ..And Then he darkens his view, honing in on death on more than one occasion. "A timetraveler headed to a night catches us / The final stop on the line for all passengers..." is indicative of his message. Yet on the track, The Unravelling, he only spits 10 lines. It's a similar case elswhere, with his only real prolific efforts being The Dark (Trinity), featuring the obligatory "I'm old now watch me work hastag in to a verse", and Never. Of course he is playing a part in each of these tracks, and you can liken him more to an actor, or a tool utilised by the band to delve deeply in to the personalities of the characters they are creating. Despite the fact we see little of Black Thought the man, his dexterity and cadence is such that the record would be much richer if he were to contribute more often.
The manner in which it is layered is quite haphazard as well. There are instrumental interludes worthy of the latest acid jazz release, however they grind uncomfortably up against the desperate brilliance of The Dark (Trinity), the Kanye-inspired soul grab that is Understand, and the saloon style piano japery on Black Rock. Oddly, the record finishes with the almost upbeat Tomorrow, ensuring that the cycle of narrative is completed, as we suffer through the inevitable challenges faced by the protagonists only to be met by an admittedly cautious resolution that there is hope, despite the fact they've just rapped about death and depression for 31 minutes.
The problem with ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin is it is wildly inconsistent. There are moments of pure brilliance, and everytime Black Thought graces the microphone you shut up and listen because his demeanour demands attention. Each character he embodies takes on their own life, and he alone carries the concept to it's end. The rest of the band seem restless, jumping around through musical interludes that bare little resemblance to the overall mood. More Black Thought please, the man is a genius.
In 2003, supporting the stunning A Natural Disaster, Danny Cavanagh intimated in an interview that Lee Douglas, the sister to John, would feature more prominently in future projects. This record was a turning point for the band, who always sat uncomfortably in the realm of 'doom metal'. Rather than being theatrical, Anathema have always laced their harder edges with an emotional capacity that is beyond most metal bands. The imagery was always dark and stormy, and on a track like Underworld off 2001's A Fine Day To Exit highlighted the Danny's story telling abilities, and his deeply artistic lyrical mind.
2004 hits, and the band are dropped from their label. Danny invests his time and attention in various side projects, and the Anathema wagon loses steam rapidly. He begins to see a personal therapist, and the other band members shuffle off in to the abyss of the music industry, swallowed up in session appointments and local night life revery. Anathema and rap artists have one thing in common. A label saved their life. Signing with Kscope spawned a new lease on life for these Liverpudlians, and a rich vein of artistic form was discovered through We're Here Because We're Here, and the stunning 2012 release Weather Systems.
That 2010 release, We're Here Because We're Here, was both ominous and instructive for die hard fans. Take a gander Pentecost III and you'll see what I mean. But bands must progress, they must reinvent themselves. It'd be wholly cynical to blame their shift of sound on their new label, in fact Cavanagh and co have been firm believers in the importance of the label in their making of music, which obliterates our rapper comparison. The roots of the current sound took hold in the now divide bridging A Natural Disaster, a record that was at once aggressive and raw but, in time, significantly more melodic.
Distant Satellites evokes it's title extremely well, through a combination of wonderfully crafted harmonies between Danny and Lee, through the insistent and compulsive drumming of John Douglas, and the further exploration of keys. There is such a thick layer of strings it almost dwarfs the ambient guitar moves. It's the kind of record you can bite a chunk out of with your ears and carry it with you through life's complicated journeys. Danny has expressed that the bands music can be compared to film scores, or more pertinently with each song depicting a visual image that he has conjured. Certainly, tracks like Dusk (Dark is Descending) shudder with an anxious energy that forces movement at the most vulnerable of times when journeying alone. Of course the physical imagery is always a front for the inner turmoil that Danny channels, and phrases like 'Because I'm trying to be brave now / But I'm frozen in this place now / And it's so cold' hit hard on both fronts.
What evolves throughout the record is a desire for companionship, or the pervading sense that current relationships are insufficient. On Anathema (no, the world didn't blow up when they made a song called anathema), Danny doesn't just trot out the standard 'we hated each other but we loved each other' rhetoric. He descends in to a pit of aggression; 'Slowly dissolving, our time, but we laughed, and we cried, and we fought, and we tried, and we failed, but I loved you'. His voice is a pleading beacon, it's a desolate expanse. It's immediately accessible, yet hinged with a loneliness that he almost seems to cradle. This is finally explored and resolved on the title track, and the story of the album takes perfect shape. A nervous drum beat and dense strings provide the backdrop for Danny's explanation, "And it makes me wanna cry / Caught you as I floated by / And it makes me wanna cry / Just another distant satellite". Not since Wish You Were Here has something this concrete formed in my head when listening to a song about the hopeless plight of lovers stuck in an endless cycle of everyday life. As he takes each breath, you feel the relationship slipping further from his grasp.
The record now opens up. You're Not Alone is a song written in the hope that it's target will hear it in the pervading buzz of digital chatter in the world. Almost as a text message to your ex from a different number. You're not alone. The opening track, The Lost Song Pt. 1, bleeds with both hope and a resignation. "Tonight I'm free / So free / For the first time / I've seen / New life" "For you're mine / And I'm yours / For life". Whatever that life may bring. Revisited on The Lost Song Pt. 3, in the simple line "Our scars can't heal". It's then so sad to hear their movement away from each other, drifting through space, unable to enter each other's orbit, defined by the gravity of other factors in life.
Ok so that's a pretty in depth discussion, and now you're asking why have I only given it a 6.5/10 if it touched such an emotional sore point? I think the most disappointing album I've heard recently was The Killers Battle Born. Not because each song was bad, not because it was musically redundant, but because it just didn't do anything. It was just music, not Music!!! That's the problem with Distant Satellites. Whilst Weather Systems was a brilliant exercise in restrained instrumental energy and huge, roller coaster valleys and peaks, this record runs on a plateau. There's none of the excitement and theatre that Weather Systems had in spades. I liken music like this to a dance music concert. The DJ must be an expert in judging mood, in building the crowd up to huge crescendo's that explode and wash over you, infecting more than just your ears. Instrumental metal toes the same line, and Weather Systems was expertly put together, painstakingly concoted so as to pull you up to the peak, toss you off the ledge, let you hang in freefall, and then give you a giant river of noise to crash land in. Distant Satellites does none of this. Ariel almost sounds juvenile in execution, with the explosion coming like a hammer blow in the middle of the track with no subtelty. Take Shelter is a hideous piece of drum machine noise, where they've just replaced a wall of sound laid with care with an intrusive barrage of sounds. The best thing about music like this is it can be like a really good orgasm. The sex is great for the first 20 minutes, then all of a sudden you're on the trail, climbing the hill towards the peak. Not too slowly, but not too quickly either. Then, when you've been suitably worn out with the climb the pleasure hits and explodes as you reach an unseen summit. Distant Satellites is just one long plateau, where the edge of the cliff is easy to see, and you jump off it knowingly. Make sense?
Emotionally, this record is one giant smack between the eyes. Danny Cavanagh is a master of conjuring a story that takes twists you don't see coming, and it's sung so wholeheartedly you believe his every word. Lee Douglas provides suitable back up, allowing a richer harmony. Unfortunately, the record just doesn't have the technique or skill of the stunning Weather Systems, and that is what lets it down.
There's an unspoken rule in underground (and surface dwelling) hip hop, that you need to be a certain kind of messed up to create art that is meaningful enough to have the college kids stroke their beard and nod along. If you aren't, then you need to have superhuman abilities on the microphone. Sage Francis has a toe in both categories. There's something slightly special when someone who could've been lecturing you on political science in university is born with the ability to grace the stage and lay wisdom over beats. Discovering someone like Sage is a serendipitious moment. He's not the man for every type of weather, but his brand of outspoken rebellion matches up with diamond-plated examples like Killer Mike and Mos Def, and his expressed self flagellation is performed with both irony and fervour, in equal amounts.
Being a genius, his mind tends to hop around as if on hot coals. His most coherent release, 2007's Human The Death Dance, gave him a genuine pariah on which to base his potent mouth on, attacking all and sundry related to Mr Bush's presidential reign. His best work has been completed in sharp bursts with clear focus. When he appeared on the (utterly brilliant) Canada Project by Sixtoo, he ghosted in like a sniper, throwing hands and feet at anything that moved, then departed the beat, causing great concern for whoever had to follow him on the microphone. So, talented then.
To understand Copper Gone, we first must understand the environment it was raised in. At the end of his touring of Li[f]e in 2010, Francis announced a cessation of touring. What this actually set in effect was a gradual withdrawal from the world, enhanced greatly by several personal tragedies that befell him and those around him. For a man that was so outspoken politically, someone who managed to weave up to the minute cultural references in to each of his songs, this gave an entirely new perspective on the project Copper Gone. No longer bound by a major label deal, he was free to roam around inside his own mind, and what he finds is confronting and difficult to hear.
The stunning Make Em Purr, produced by the master of emotion Buck 65, gives the most autobiographical account of where the man is at. Francis revisits his self-analysing youth in an entirely more disarming manner. 'I was a lot more comfortable being vulnerable and open / When I was younger it wasn't clear if I was or wasn't joking'. There's little doubt that on Copper Gone, he is deadly serious, and phrases that once may have been cast off's, 'You've been padding your resume / while I've been rhyming about life like I'm rapping my death away' now take on a new meaning. There's soul afoot, and it certainly isn't clean or pure.
Of course it wouldn't be a Sage record without some attempt at humour, although in this case most of it is quite dark and furtive. On Grace, he slops through the opposite of Eminem's Drug Ballad, before aiming his six shooting tongue directly at the establishment he deems guilty of his predicament, 'If I kill your persecution complex that don't make you a martyr / Drop the styrofoam cross, you can't walk on water'. His clowning remains sinister throughout, 'She called me on Christmas, that was my gift / she was worried I might die, I said 'Might die? No shit!'. There's nothing scarier than a comic in the throws of depressive episodes, but Sage still manages to flip his lyrics so adeptly you're smiling as you dial 911 and report he may be a danger to himself, 'Suicidal watch it's diamond studded / Tells me when my time's up, trying to keep my eyes from it / It's so swag, I flash it at the fashion shows / Walks with a limp, it's so pimp and it smacks the hoes'.
As you descend further in to the listening experience his advice on track 4, Cheat Code, becomes clearer and clearer; 'Don't expect resolutions just cause every movie has em'. On Grace his desperation as he considers taking Lithium to correct his chemical imbalance is an ominous sign and it gets no better than that. In an interview with Jonk Music this year he stated that when he is working on an album, nothing can stop him, and he stops taking visitors because he refuses to let anyone see his work lest they influence it in some way. What flowers from this is a man forced to sit back and take stock of his own headspace. The Place She Feared Most turns in to an internal dialogue between Sage and what could be the rest of the world looking in on him, debasing his own self worth relentlessly via imagined evidence. Dead Man's Float even has him flirting briefly with religious saviour, before he intellectually dissects that and shatters it 'But faith couldn't even move low-income families away from / Biblical floods when they were all drowning'.
There are encouraging signs from Sage though. He constantly reverts back to his hulk-like ability with words, raining down lyrical hammer blows whenever his mind runs off on a tangent. On Vonnegut Busy he just plays around, 'For what it's worth I'm richer than cemetary soil / I use slant drilling to get my midnight oil'. At the end of ID Thieves he is roused in to action almost through a cathartic strain of conscious thought, ending the track with a chilling challenge, 'Why you think I let you get away with doing radio-friendly versions of what I do?' before body slamming them. It's this sign of life, this fight, that sustains hope throughout Copper Gone. Rather than being a Trent Reznor hate-fest, or an Eminem admission of guilt, Sage still has that fire burning within him, and whilst that hope is clearly alight you have hope for his mental state.
What is helpful is that sonically this is the strongest Sage release ever. With production from Buck 65, Anders Parker, James Handock, Le Parasite and long timers Alias and Cecil Otter, Copper Gone has the bark to match the bite. Lead single Vonnegut Busy is an anxious boom bap New York classic, providing the perfect canvas for some lyrical acrobatics. Buck 65's entries are theatrical and complimentary, and tracks like The Set Up and Pressure Cooker provide much needed thump. The tendency with projects like this can be to pluck obscure producers out of the air who provide 'artistic', self-serving beats that don't match the fight and fire of the emcee. Francis has never been one to pander to ponce, which ensure a healthy amount of knob turning when you're in the car, in the gym or just sitting in your room wanting to piss your parents off.
'If you're going through hell, keep going'. Sage Francis is a genius, and it's difficult to picture him sitting there in his studio, alone, yelling in to the mic with this much energy and aggression without feeling some form of hope. He is stupidly talented, and for anyone struggling through similar circumstances this record will hit you straight between the eyes, it's evocative and illustrative of how hard it is to battle the inner demons when they get a foothold. But he is still battling. This would be an instant classic if he could keep his mouth on track for an entire LP. Either way, there's enough quoteable lines on here to keep rapgenius contributors busy for the rest of the year.
Interscope have banned Youtube in their offices for the forseeable future. I once sat in a marketing lecture where 50 of the brightest minds in my state spent 2 hours brainstorming the phenomenon known as 'viral'. When Die Antwoord released the insane Enter The Ninja in 2010, someone in a starched white suite put a fat-shaped hole in their door on their way to South Africa to sign these two (and DJ Hi-Tek). In 2014, they've managed the impossible again, with the batshit crazy video for Pitbull Terrier proving the art of the music video is far from dead. Viral isn't a formula, it's an organic, tangible beast that Die Antwoord have in spades.
Donker Mag hit's you in the neck, like all of their releases do. It comes flying in through the window, blending Death Grips intensity with the throb of Timbaland and a couple of emcees who are literally peerless in the Western world. In fact apart from Jack Parow, it's hard to identify anyone who reps the Zef with a similar level of dedication. To kick a massive label deal to the curb over autonomy concerns, after they'd played to 40,000 people at Coachella, is almost unfathomable to most. On So What (from their previous record, Ten$ion), Ninja and Yo-Landi trade bars about their relative poverty and it's removal in one fell swoop. 'Got a million fucking dollars in the bank', 'Not too shitty, fuck you Jimmy, I'm a never give it back'. Money is a real push pull topic for them.
You can forgive Ninja for all his shortcomings because his swagger and bravado is just so damn air tight it's impressive. On Zars he takes out a public service announcement to explain why he speaks with different accents to different people. It's the only concession or explanation we will recieve from him. This track bleeds in to the insane Raging Zef Boner, 'I'm an African, come girl you know whats up / This big motherfucking dick is whats up'. Fuck yeah! Clearly not the most attractive man in the world, as referenced constantly by Yolandi, he laces Donker Mag with so much blatant sexual imagery it's worthy of a spot next to Lil Wayne on the sex olympics podium. 'Panties hit me in the face like wicked / smells like fish, TASTES LIKE CHICKEN!'. He's a love ninja this one.
That's not a diss, and it has always been Ninja's personality that has carried him through whilst sharing mic space with one of the most gifted and technical female emcees since the late 90s. Yolandi was the weird girl in school, like Rooney Mara in Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. The girl who dresses weird, talks weird, acts crazy, and yet you are drawn to her through some animal magnetism trickery. Her sex appeal has only ever been accentuated, not exploited, by the duo, which is an incredibly tough line to tread. But when she can spit the way she does, it's not hard to see why she is more than just a sideshow. The way she utilises her angelic delivery is expertly cultivated. She can switch from the sweetest, meditative noises (Pitbull Terrier) to a beast snapping at your heels as you turn and run from her blood soaked teeth (I Don't Dwank). The way she double times on Cookie Thumper! puts Ninja to shame, 'Yo-Landi Visser got the hypest flow / start talking in tongues whenever I get stoned / Motherfucking minds get blown / Everytime I rap into the microphone'. The only crime on Donker Mag is why she doesn't appear more often. Ninja takes up the bulk of the leg work, and Yolandi provides hooks, bridges and asides, but if she spat more it would propel the record to a higher status.
The elephant in the room is the weird juxtaposition of a group rejecting major label dollars to remain independent and true to their homeland, yet one who refuses to rap extensively in their native tongue. Yolandi can quite regularly be coaxed in to Afrikaans, yet Ninja seems hesitant to use it. There is hardly any doubt that rapping exclusively in Afrikaans would diminish their international audience significantly. Yet English is spoken quite freely in South Africa and Cape Town, so it's a difficult conundrum to judge. You could be cynical and say that Ninja borrows the Zef culture (that, admittedly, he has now made internationally famous) and yet refuses to immerse himself fully in it, using it merely as a tool to explain his less than intricate lifestyle. This is short-sighted though, and it'd be extremely difficult to claim that Die Antwoord have sold out in any way, shape or form. Maybe I am in the minority, as someone who disseminates music as a hobby, when I say that more Afrikaans would be a plus rather than a minus. Either way, Donker Mag is accessible.
A lot of that accessibility comes from DJ Hi-Tek, who is severely underrated. His jungle-style 808 bang recalls Dr. Dre, yet he has all the pomp and ceremony of Just Blaze or Kanye, if without the brass and soul samples. Each track is a real jolting experience, and Ninja's outrageous boasts sit perfectly nestled in a sound that is, almost impossibly, bigger than him. The whole record just feels well put together. Raging Zef Boner get's an almost playful beat to counter his dangerous statements, and Shnurr's work on Pitbull Terrier is plain menacing. Then there is something like Cookie Thumper! which initially feels like a Southern minimalist DJ Mustard creation before the anthem is dialled up to 14 with a siren calling all and sundry to the dance floor to hear Yolandi pontificate.
For two emcees who claim drugs to be a daily indulgence, Donker Mag is so well put together you almost don't want to rip the shrink wrap off the CD. This is no novelty act. Ninja pours his heart and soul in to every single rhyme he conjures, and Yolandi is as shrewd as she is talented, able to manipulate her god given gift of a voice descended from a hollywood heaven, she can turn from a sweet pussy cat to an earless Tiger in seconds. It's a thumper though, make sure your grandma isn't nearby cause you're going to need to turn it up to 11.
My general sweep of social media yielded a small nugget of truth that saddened me more than the gradual descent of Sydney weather in to it's wintry depths. '50 Cent's Animal Ambition only expected to move 35k first week'. For those not in the know, 35k means he will ship 35,000 physical copies of his new record, because that is what the distributor is ordering. This is low. And I mean Insane Clown Posse low. It's the equivalent of the CEO of Commonwealth Bank taking a job at a local Subway cutting up capsicum. 50 moved 1.1 million copies of The Massacre in it's first week in 2005, and even Future's bland Honest moved 53k in its first week this year. The industry is not kind to those missing a hit song, even if they are royalty.
Every review you read about Animal Ambition will lament the fact that 50 Cent still refuses to step out from behind his hulk-like persona and deal us a nice dose of Curtis. Even the record he named after himself refused to shed any lyrical light on the man, with tracks like I'll Still Kill, Ayo Technology and My Gun Go Off just peddling the same shoot, kill, rob, steal, fuck, that's what's real philosophy that Get Rich or Die Tryin' perfectly encapsulated. Follow Curtis on Twitter, or just peruse the popular hip hop sites and you are constantly given examples of his wit and character. Don't believe me? Check this website out. He feels the need to weigh in on every pop culture occurance, from Solange and Jay Z to Justin Beiber, and even when he embarrasses himself, he still turns it in to hilarity.
Animal Ambition could, theoretically, be his most courageous release. From a man who had his career sculpted by two of Hip Hop's greatest success crafters, Eminem and Dr. Dre, we recieve something that completely lacks the In Da Club, Candy Shop or I Get Money moment. Without a designated club banger to precede the release, hype was confined to the determined underground. Hold On, the first single, is a true Brooklyn classic, the kind of thing that Acura's would have turned up till speakers bled on Flatbush in the late 1990s. Frank Dukes laces it with a halting boom bap finished with almost delicate guitar touches, as 50 get's his grime on, 'We came from nothing, now they sayin we straight. You got that? Hold up, Hold on'. His adlibs are menacing, 'We got bail money, whatever, y'all gotta chill'. It sets the soul alight, but if it came on at Le Bain at 2am the twerker's would retire to the bar for refreshments. And unfortunately, an MTV cosign puts numbers on the board. Just ask Kanye, who's only record not to go platinum is the one that mainstream media has shirked from.
Animal Ambition is produced entirely by names you don't hear at the start of every club beat, including legends like Ty Fyffe and Jake One, and lesser known agents like Ky Miller and Shamtrax. Everytime I Come Around, produced by Steve Alien who is basically just a twitter presence to the rest of the world, sounds like it was made on Fruity Loops by a drunk 14 year old. Yet it suits, because 50 brings the menace. There's no Mike Will Made It, there's just a solitary Dre beat, and Pharrell must've been busy with his next boundary cross-over. It gives the whole project a mixtape feel, and it's heritage can be traced back to 50's earliest Eminem-baiting tapes. The closest we get to the minimalist fare that is littering hip hop compilations in 2014 is the gutter Irregular Heartbeat, featuring a scintilating verse from former nemesis Jadakiss. 'Fuck who you with, we'll dump a clip / We by the school yard waiting for you to get your kid'. It proves that even when the current standards are conformed to, 50 can still bring the heat like he did in 2002, even if he is hundreds of times richer and probably further away from gun shots than you or I.
I guess the question must be posed. Does 50 Cent really need to reveal any more of his personality than he has shared so far? It's his 5th proper solo album, and he is still rapping about the exact same things, except now the brags and bravado have been matched by sales and tales, so that they are no longer brags but a heightened form of reality that only the blessed few are able to indulge in. Whilst his mentor Eminem goes about delving in to his own soul and extracting the deepest, darkest depths of it for our entertainment, 50 seems intent on being 50, not Curtis Jackson. There's never been any tension between this persona and his own self as there has between Marshall Mathers, Slim Shady and Eminem.
Essentially, this deals with the two big flaws of this record. Firstly, his sales are explained away by the lack of a club thumper. Secondly, his lack of personality is nothing new. You're buying a record that is made by 50 Cent, not Curtis Jackson, and if Jay-Z's constant pleading has taught us anything, it's that rappers can create whatever character they wish to present to us without fear of reprisal. I mentioned that this could in fact be his most courageous album ever. Unfortunately, it turns out the opposite is true. 50 Cent is a true success story, he has scaled heights that we as mere mortals can not see. There are pictures of him on the internet using a knife and fork to eat stacks of money, or pretending that a stack of 100s is a phone so think he can barely grip it in his mammoth hands. He has scaled the heights and now sits atop them. He no longer needs to sell records. Animal Ambition: An Untamed Desire To Win is the least apt title he could've picked. There is no ambition on this record. Each track is a slow march of themes that he has covered ad nauseum. Money, expensive items, and his apparent lack of interest in women when related to money. And shooting people. The fact that he doesn't even need to take the car out of park now to drive in to a pit full of money shows on Animal Ambition. The final track is instructive. Chase The Paper. "I'm still a rider, I'm still rolling / A nigga still hold the steel, that's how I'm owning / You chase the hoes, I chase the paper" He got rich, and didn't die. The prophecy was fulfilled, and it seems that's the end of the story, which is criminal because with his talent and ability on the mic, he should be dropping masterpieces at this point in his career. Instead, we are left to await the next release, hoping the criticisms somehow make it to his cloud and actually sink in.
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