Full Clip: March’s Hip Hop Albums Reviewed by Gary Suarez

Gary Suarez forms like Voltron… especially when there's a 30g porterhouse to devour or the month's best hip hop LPs to review

On September 11, 2001, you know what happened, unless you’re one of those 9/11 truthers, in which case, you clearly do not. In the immediate aftermath, a lot of things happened in New York City, including several that contradict the narrative suggesting that united we stood. Across the country, but certainly in the city, Muslims and those mistaken for them were targeted by government, law enforcement, and their neighbors. It was an unfair fight on so many levels, and the stories are shameful and multiple.

Artists have subsequently tried to capture and convey What-It-Was-Like, as if any individual’s perspective could possibly encapsulate the millions of experiences in the most diverse city on the planet. A place of communities and cultures stacked on top of one another, New York has often been summarized, but never well. Still, some of the art has been powerful and moving, as with William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops. When done poorly, as in the case of Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center feature film, the results feel exploitative, a jingo unchained. Of course, the grim array of American foreign policy programs committed in the name of those that lost their lives undeniably trump any and all artistic affronts.

Despite the stubborn joke of its dated title, Eat Pray Thug is the most important musical document of post-9/11 New York. A Queens resident of South Asian heritage, Himanshu "Heems" Suri describes in no uncertain terms his experience and that of those he was identified with. On the jarring ‘Patriot Act,’ he sounds hoarse, as though ready to weep, as he reveals ugly truths like "And from then on they called us all Osama / This old Sikh man on the bus was Osama." A broad racist brush had been applied to brown people before that day, but it intensified and led to discrimination and attacks. Many like Heems and his family responded by publicly assimilating, lest they be considered troublemakers, a euphemistic term for terrorists. He details this process on ‘Flag Shopping,’ a devastating account of the pains taken to avoid greater pains.

In his former life as a member of Das Racist, however, Heems came off quite differently. Rest assured the referential humorist of that project’s Relax LP hasn’t disappeared amid this sorrow and anguish, and that levity positions Eat Pray Thug closer to Yeezus than, say, a Rage Against The Machine album. Even when namedropping NYPD-brutality victim Abner Louima, ‘Hubba Hubba’ recalls the unserious hipster Spirit of ’08, an endearing goofiness tempered by genuine mic skills. ‘Sometimes’ and the Harry Fraud-produced ‘So NY’ lure people in with the vibes implied by the album’s title, a necessary bit of turn-up before the impending bringdown.

Cannibal Ox – Blade Of The Ronin

On 2001’s The Cold Vein, Vast Aire and Vordul Mega shared a weird vision of Harlem markedly different from what Cam’ron and his Diplomats would soon unveil. With boisterous production from El-P, the record grew a legacy in the subsequent years, albeit one Cannibal Ox failed to capitalize on for reasons we’re still unclear on. Much of that album’s reputation favors the unique beats over the obtuse lyrics, which makes this intolerably late follow-up a troubling proposition. Virtual unknown Bill Cosmiq mans the boards in El-P’s apparently very deliberate absence, a move that once again imbues Vast and Vordul’s vocal efforts with a theoretically unified sound. A team missing its star player, the remaining duo faces lowered expectations with aplomb, spitting complex darts dripping with references (‘Carnivorous,’ ‘The Fire Rises’). Still, neither emcee sounds like they’ve paid much attention to what’s happened in hip-hop over the last 14 years, a fault they share with several Wu-Tang clansmen. Overlong to boot, Blade Of The Ronin could’ve been the hotness–in 2003.

Drew Dave – SynthBASED

An instrumental hip hop album can be a thing of beauty, an audio document of how this music makes people feel without some rapper’s narration. It can also be lumpen and staid, constantly albeit unintentionally alerting listeners to the vocal void. This DC metro area musician’s Mello Music full-length falls in neither category, though it infrequently leans towards the latter. The occasional tracks that do feature emcees (‘Feat. Cortez,’ ‘Technogroove’) certainly don’t make me wish there were more of them. Drew Dave is doing interesting things, in the sense that they at least interest him. ‘Live From Tha Blackout’ lifts the spirits, while ‘Full Circle’ goes Bobby McFerrin with mouthfeel and warm organ jazz. Call-and-response moments are unusually restrained and the samples–including some great Martin Lawrence bits–hint at higher knowledge, technical and otherwise. But in execution SynthBASED is akin to lesser Ninja Tune or Anticon. Still, that’s no faint praise considering those labels’ discographies, and while he’s no Oddisee he’s arguably as good as a DJ Mayonnaise.

Fashawn – The Ecology

After Run The Jewels 2 crowded the plate for Mass Appeal Records’ debut, this well-regarded Californian is next at bat. His proper sophomore album, The Ecology thoroughly updates the lyrical 90s rather than emulates it, a testament to Fashawn’s abilities and a subtle smackdown to the Joey Bada$$es of the world. It’s the liberation of the sound Kanye abandoned after Late Registration, bringing that conscious realness on cuts like ‘F.T.W.’ and ‘To Be Young’ without boring listeners via didacticism or pretentiousness. Much of that has to do with the agreeable boom-bap production, mostly the purview of L.A.’s own Exile. The beatmaker brings his Emanon partner Aloe Blacc in for ‘It’s A Good Thing,’ and Blacc in turn brings his ‘The Man’ producer DJ Khalil in for ‘Something To Believe In.’ Parenthood, from both perspectives, plays a pivotal role (‘Higher,’ ‘Mother’). Features from Busta Rhymes and Nas are nice, but Fashawn blooms without them.

Billy Woods – Today I Wrote Nothing

Far too much fuss has been made about this New York City rapper’s toil in relative obscurity. Billy Woods’ workmanlike steadfastness and enduring independence need not be sullied any longer by lazy talk of unachieved popularity. After the back-to-back achievements of History Will Absolve Me and the Blockhead-produced Dour Candy, that narrative has deservedly expired. Instead, the release of this, his first solo record since 2013, should rightfully be heralded and judged on its own merits, of which it has many. Woods remains deeply serious and lyrically potent, his flow undeniably his own. With scratches showcasing Willy Wonka at his nastiest, ‘Big Nothing’ exudes pensiveness amid desperation. Between the humorous hook of ‘Born Yesterday’ and the sexualized ‘Lambs,’ it’s clear Woods hasn’t lost his touch. The oft weird beats come courtesy a fantastic group of craftsmen, including Busdriver, Steel Tipped Dove, and the aforementioned Blockhead, among others. Armand Hammer chum Elucid chimes in for a handful of tracks too.

BONUS: One Hitters:

Big Sean – Dark Sky Paradise The punchline rapper peaks, and the joke’s on everyone who underestimated him.

Brenmar – Award One of the best producers in the Fool’s Gold commune drops four club-ready tracks with four different vocalists, with diverse results that show just how well hip hop and dance music can go together.

Brodinski – Brava Trap EDM gets a lot of flak, so the French producer dons his stylish flak jacket and lets heavy hitters like Peewee Longway, SD, Slim Thug, and Yung Gleesh fire back.

Chris Brown & Tyga – Fan Of A Fan The Album Two of the most willfully shallow artists in the game right now attempt to fill a kiddie pool riddled with holes, too busy turning up to troubleshoot.

Diamond District – March On Washington Redux The formidable trio of Oddisee, yU, and Uptown XO get their recent LP remixed by a cadre of like-minded producers regrettably not looking to rock the boat.

Fifsuntzu – Far East Funk Even setting aside the music’s purported Himalayan origin, this Kentuckian project wholly delivers on this engrossing cassette’s titular promise.

Dayne Jordan – In Progress DJ Jazzy Jeff taps Philly for talent and strikes proverbial oil in a verbose vocalist well served by the turntable legend’s fr-fr-fresh beats.

Leaf – Magnet Bitch A major teaser for what one hopes is an imminent full-length, this, the teenaged rapper has more attitude and pop power than this three-track EP can possibly contain.

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