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While born in Kyoto, Japan, and raised in Massachusetts, indie-jazz-rap multi-instrumentalist Sen Morimoto has become synonymous with Chicago’s music scene. He’s a co-owner and operator of Sooper Records, which is a home for the city’s greatest underground weirdos, and his name is often found in producer or instrument credits for artists on that label and beyond. On Diagnosis, his third solo album, Morimoto keeps his eyes on what matters artistically and interrogates everything else.
“It didn’t used to be content/ It used to be art,” Morimoto sighs on “Feel Change,” before going on to lament how the music industry encourages social climbing and “deconstructing my identity for opportunities” on “Reality.” His clearest attempt at defining the opposition to these spiritual bummers is in “If The Answer Isn’t Love,” on which he asks a higher power what will remain when the world as we know it has crumbled. “If the answer isn’t love/ Then forget that I asked,” is the punchline. The destruction Morimoto imagines nods to the literal threat of world disaster, but also to the way disillusionment can ravage your sense of purpose.
While previous Morimoto albums have been defined by chaotic, rambling maximalism, Diagnosis is far more structured around hooks and grooves, though no less compositionally complex. “If The Answer Isn’t Love” sounds like a Motown track with fuzzed-out guitar solos. “Bad State” is a psychedelic funk cut, a little reminiscent of Toro Y Moi with its big, bold vocal hooks. It’s a kind of songwriting that’s easy to take at face value, which bolsters Morimoto’s words, turning them into transmissions meant to be clearly received.
That’s most prominent on the album’s standout, title track “Diagnosis.” This is the one song where Morimoto really lets himself shine as a rapper, hamming up his voice and showing off with his rhymes. He explores life under capitalism’s boot, the feeling of working all day to afford the comforts you need to keep working, too exhausted to envision an alternative. “Capital manipulates the labor/ Make a bag, it feels like it’ll save ya/ The money never acts against its nature/ Fuck the cops, the banks, the legislature,” is his mic-drop moment at the end of the excellent second verse.
Often across Diagnosis, it feels like Morimoto takes on the role of a friend offering gentle but urgent advice. “At some point, you’ll have to start living your life instead of thinking about it,” he sings on “Bad State”; “Picking at scabs won’t heal them faster/ In fact, you’ll make a scar out of nothing,” on “What You Say.” That his tone is encouraging, as opposed to despondent, feels deliberate. Morimoto’s diagnosis is that it’s hard to concentrate on great art under a cold and cruel system; love, warmth, and kindness are the antidotes.