360 - Utopia
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.