(Note: This was originally written as part of Rhapsody’s “Source Material” series, which explored the influences behind a classic album. The influences listed are titles that are available in the service.)
The dust has yet to settle on the indie-rap renaissance of the late 90s, with critics and fans fiercely divided on which albums constitute classics. One title they agree on is MF Doom’s 1999 masterwork Operation: Doomsday.
Daniel Dumile has not been photographed in public without his metal mask for over a decade. He launched his career as Zev Love X, one-third of the Long Island rap trio KMD, a group he shared with his brother, DJ and producer Subroc. In 1991 KMD issued its memorable debut, Mr. Hood, and were quickly lumped with the quirky post-D.A.I.S.Y. Age of groups like Leaders of the New School and Black Sheep. However, KMD’s second album, Black Bastards, was much harder-edged, reflecting the hip-hop world’s rising interest in gangster-ism. The album’s sardonic tone, and particularly its controversial art depicting a Sambo-like cartoon being hung from a noose, led to Elektra dropping KMD from its roster. Just before Black Bastards was shelved in
19931994, Subroc was killed in a hit-and-run accident. (Black Bastards finally got an official release in 2001.)
Dumile retreated from the spotlight for a few years before issuing several 12-inches on Fondle ‘Em Records as Metal Face Doom, starting with 1997’s “Dead Bent,” and then Doomsday in the fall of 1999. While most of the era’s major acts like Company Flow and Jurassic 5 approximated grimy boom bap, MF Doom culled from adult contemporary chestnuts such as Atlantic Starr’s “Always” and James Ingram’s “One Hundred Ways.” These quiet storm ballads, bits of which he looped then sped and slowed-down, contrasted with the fervent mic-trading of Doom and his crew (whom were later known as the Monsta Island Czars). Cumulatively, they create a tone of sadness and loss.
When you hear an Alchemist beat, you know it. He’s refined his style over 15 years and hundreds of productions, from Prodigy’s thug-rap high-water mark Return of the Mac to brilliant loosies for Dilated Peoples (“Worst Comes to Worst”), Nas (“Book of Rhymes”) and Raekwon (“Surgical Gloves”). His sound moves between two poles. There are the loops woven out of all manner of sample fodder, like the superior Israeli Salad instrumental suite he released earlier this year that excavates records purchased during a trip to Israel. Then there’s his coldly synthesized gangster music, best displayed on Mobb Deep’s mid-’00s hit “Got It Twisted”, and seemingly inspired by New Wave pop and ’80s crime soundtracks like Giorgio Moroder’s Scarface and Tangerine Dream’s Thief. Both types of Alchemist beats are clipped and chopped like vintage DJ Premier, yet they also rumble at a leisurely West Coast tempo.
Alchemist does consistently entertaining work, but it’s become predictable after over a decade and too much music—so far this year, he’s dropped Israeli Salad and Retarded Alligator Beats joints, and now comes Gangrene’s You Disgust Me. Yet Al’s Gangrene project with Oh No gives both a chance to subvert their well-worn templates into something more dynamic. The two complement each other: Oh No likes to flip vinyl from exotic sources, too, whether it’s Dr. No’s Ethiopium or Exodus into Unheard Rhythms, the latter built around Galt MacDermot’s catalog.He tends to be underrated—it’s unlikely that most people who heard Dr. Dre’s Compton and its “Issues” track know that Oh No also sampled Turkish folk singer Selda’s “Ince Ince” with his 2007 track “Heavy”, which Mos Def used for his 2009 single “Supermagic.” And while his dependence on traditionalist sample loops runs deeper than Alchemist, he uses rhythm more dynamically.
Both Alchemist and Oh No approach Gangrene’s You Disgust Me as an excursion into weed-hazed hip-hop psychedelia: Snippets of whacked-out voices, culled from some late night VHS videodrome, and dudes talking greasy over digger’s delights. (RIP Sean Price, who drops a jewel on “Sheet Music” alongside Mobb Deep’s Havoc.) It’s a formula that Gangrene established over its two albums, Gutter Water and Vodka & Ayahuasca, light themes that bracket the usual backpack thuggery. The thirteen tracks add up to just under 40 minutes, and often seem to blend in with one another. Peaks like “Noon Chuckas,” and how its ominous big band buildup smooths out into a female voice’s hypnotic glissando, sound indistinguishable from knuckleheaded errata like “Driving Gloves,” and Action Bronson’s brain fart about needing “a bitch with a pussy like like a Little League glove.”
As rappers, the words Alchemist and Oh No say are less interesting than the sound of their slangy, chippy voices riffing over the blappers. Their peak You Disgust Me moment arrives on “The Man with the Horn”, which draws equal inspiration from Miles Davis-styled melancholy, and New York noir vis-à-vis Travis Bickle audio. Al visualizes himself as a loner wandering the streets, “stumble out the bar, vision blurry/ Humphrey Bogart, face underneath the rim of my derby.” Oh No adds, “It’s looking like a scene out of Vegas/ It’s nighttime, and the jazz jukebox is playing.” It offers a glimpse of what Gangrene could be if it was more than just headnod music stuffed with weed jokes. Both are more than capable of crafting memorable hip-hop music, even if they’re too focused on cranking out bangers at an industrial rate to notice whether anything they’ve made stands out.
As a rising producer from North Carolina, L’Orange has built a sound signature rooted in the past yet wholly his own. You can trace a line between his MPC rips of black-and-white TV shows back to Madlib’s zonked-out tapestries on Madvillainy, and Daedelus’ surrealist lounge music for The Weather. But over the past few years, and especially in 2015 through projects like After the Flowers and The Night Took Us In Like Family (the latter made with L.A. rapper Jeremiah Jae), the man who bears the same name as Gilbert Bécaud’s 1964 French chanson has cobbled something wholly unique. On his best work, he stacks his vocal snatches into something approaching a narrative, and adds bebop and exotica tones, while creating enough rhythmic thrust to avoid slumping into a downtempo-like torpor.
Last Sunday night, Kendrick Lamar briefly crashed the Internet by issuing To Pimp a Butterfly a week early on iTunes and multiple streaming services. His Top Dawg Entertainment management protested loudly at Interscope “fucking up” the release. But since the well-timed leak merrily coincided with a Rolling Stone cover story, one can safely assume that the world heard Kendrick’s third album (fourth if you count his Overly Dedicated mixtape) as planned.
Days later, it’s clear that Kendrick’s newest Great American Hip-Hop Novel resists quick absorption. To Pimp a Butterfly has been celebrated as a meditation on blackness as pigmentation and mind state (see Clover Hope’s Jezebel.com essay “The Overwhelming Blackness of Kendrick Lamar’s Butterfly”), and noted as a parable of celebrity sin and spiritual renewal (a la Joe Coscarelli’s New York Times profile “Kendrick Lamar on His New Album and the Weight of Clarity”). It has been dissected into helpful track-by-track guides, and sample guides, virtual Cliff Notes for an album in which Kendrick’s performance is as crucial as the themes he conveys.
Eminem should have picked a different title for The Marshall Mathers LP2. On its 2000 predecessor, he plumbed the ugly depths of the male ID with anguished ferocity, giving voice to blasphemous dreams of criminality and murder. He created a fictional character, “Stan,” that so vividly captured how we the audience – and hip-hop fans in particular – mistake complex rap lyrics for pure autobiography that it has become shorthand for a kind of perverse idolatry. Eminem tried to repeat that performance for many years afterward, or at least live up to it, by wearing us down with increasingly hammy shock tactics. It wasn’t until he repositioned himself as a man who employs self-help jargon to prove his decency in 2010’s Recovery that he found a credible follow-up.