February’s roll call of the most crucial hip-hop albums to hit Bandcamp includes firebrand politicized poetics from Oakland, an aggressive, krump culture-influenced workout, and a posthumous project honoring a true Brooklyn rap legend. We also dig into a little something tagged “glamorous emo hip-hop.”
Whereas Yugen Blakrok’s contributions to the Black Panther soundtrack situated the South African MC within the Marvel universe, ANIMA MYSTERIUM gives us all a one-way ticket into her own vivid sci-fi domain. As a rapper, Blakrok’s flow is complex but assured: on the opening track, “Gorgon Madonna,” she warns of shapeshifting trickery, thunderbolts, and mad scientist tactics. Kanif’s moody beats, all atmospheric haze and dusty distortion, carry the mystical rap attack ever onwards, cementing this journey as a beguilingly unearthly adventure to remember.
Clear Soul Forces
The quartet of Emile Vincent, Ilajide, Noveliss, and L.A.Z. has been bubbling around the Detroit scene for a few years now. Their breakthrough was 2012’s album Detroit Revolution(s), featuring the viral single “Get No Better,” but their latest, Still, is the most definitive Clear Soul Forces release yet. The production, which is mostly handled by Ilajide, fits snugly into the sort of dusky space-funk zone that Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and J Dilla made together as The Ummah, with tracks like “Diamond Rhymin’” and “Say (What)” fueled by cozy low-end tones and warm keys. “Hit Me Now” rolls with pulsing bass and shuffling percussion, before lyrical references to video game characters from the Legend Of Zelda and Fatal Fury franchises give way to a hook that hits home like a lost ‘90s Busta Rhymes chorus chant.
The Good People
Good For Nuthin
Good For Nuthin heartily embraces the tenor synonymous with golden era hip-hop, with the duo of rapper Emskee and producer Saint excelling at dropping sharp lyrics and positive vibes over even sharper beats created from meticulously-dug soul and funk samples. What’s more, they even offer some sagely life advice on “Self Destruct,” by way of present-day TMZ drama: “No more Kanye and Kim K consuming your day / ‘Cause they don’t care about you anyway.” Guest appearances from Sadat X, Large Professor, and Lil Fame deepen the proud vintage spirit running through the album, leaving us with knockouts like “Higher,” which finds the Mash Out Posse man rightly revelling in his veteran status: “I’m just an O.G. spitting old gems / Kicking your young ass with these old Timbs.”
Three The Bronx Way
Back in the mid-’90s, the Bronx-based trio of Molecules, Cee-Low, and Chucky Smash made some noise rolling with D.I.T.C.’s Showbiz and A.G., plus Dres from Black Sheep. Over two decades later, Three The Bronx Way proves unadulterated power of their brawny, hardcore East Coast beats and no-holds-barred rapping. Fellow Gotham dwellers Dres and Sadat X contribute guest spots to the jazz-powered “Make It Hot” and organ-infused “Word,” respectively, but the heart of this potent album is The Legion’s deep sense of heritage and Bronx pride. Case in point: Molecules’s formidable beat for “1980 Something” is topped by verses referencing Dapper Dan outfits, Motorola beepers, and the anti-tourist guide’s advice that you might wind up in the Bronx River should you step out of line.
Originally out last summer, Memphis rapper Lukah’s Chickenwire just received a cassette rerelease via the newly-launched Labour label. Sequenced into A and B sides to pay fidelity to the format, the production is a seamless blend of melancholy soul loops and hushed drums hooked up by Cities Aviv, Suni Katz, and Lukah himself. This lush palette is smartly, subtly contrasted with the MC’s smooth but sinister flow on songs like “Sheermagix,” where Lukah states his demands atop a shimmering, cymbal heavy beat: “Feel the tension that I’m presenting in these fuckin’ writtens.” But what turns Chickenwire into an essential listen is the way the rapper’s numerous threats that foes will soon be “sleeping with the sea urchins” are balanced by flashbacks and laments, like when a funeral organ loop returns Lukah to hardscrabble days when his mom lived in fear of the electric bill turning up in the mailbox, and when taking a bath meant boiling water on the stove.
Sean Price & Small Professor
Before he passed away in 2015, NYC rapper Sean Price hit the studio with Philadelphia beatmaker Small Professor to record a full-length album; those sessions are captured on 86 Witness. Like many posthumous albums, it’s an appearance-heavy affair, but the caliber and character of the guest MCs is a natural fit with Price’s weighty presence: Quelle Chris joins the beatbox-based “Latoya Jackson,” ELUCID blesses the guitar-spiked “Midnight Rounds,” and a remix of the tough “John Gotti” drafts in Philly representers Zilla Rocca, Curly Castro, and Reef the Lost Cauze, with the latter shouting out Price’s wife and kids during his verse. Consider 86 Witness a rugged and respectful addition to Price’s legacy.
SB the Moor
Prospering in the alt-rap zone, SPIRIT REALM.FINAL finds the California artist (also known by their Shakespeare-inspired moniker Signor Benedick The Moor) presenting a third studio album defined as “glamorous emo hip-hop.” This means electronic drum machine beats, hazy synth lines, and breezy flows split the difference between melodic sing-song spitting and straight-up wailing, sometimes within the same song. “Regular rhythms make me so cold,” croons SB on the woozy “Hidden Temple,” after literally belching into the microphone. Investigate further if you’re hankering for experimental rap thrills.
The SOL of Black Folk
Headquartered in Oakland, SOL Development is a hip-hop, soul, and jazz collective focused on bringing social justice issues to the fore through music. Appropriately for an album titled in homage to W.E.B. Du Bois’s institutional sociopolitical work The Souls of Black Folk, an activist state of mind runs through tracks like “Helicopter,” which unravels the reality of living in a surveillance state: “Pressure is building for real / This ain’t no movie or reel / This pressure could kill.” Later, on “Alone,” the outfit parlay their palpable rage into a dazzling, six-minute-long spiritual sojourn which opens with spoken word-style commentary on dealing with feelings of isolation in the social media age, before crescendoing into a thundering soul-jazz workout.
Recording as Junk Science, the Brooklyn-based duo of MC Baje One and producer SNAFU have released a stream of smart and creatively-composed hip-hop since the mid-2000s. SNAFU’s solo debut album, Now This Is Happening, is an instrumental experience that melds together vintage boom-bap beats with dusty crate-digging compositional tendencies. It’s a smart blend: robust but warm drums bring to mind the tone of a well-worn mixtape cassette, while additional live instrumentation from musicians including Dan Fisher, Eli Lake, and Scott Thorough bring a low-key melodic aura to the album. (Side note: Don’t sleep on Thorough’s meditative Bird collection.) The 23-song project also includes a field recording interlude featuring Kool Keith, where everyone’s favorite hip-hop oddball embraces the album’s Big Apple subplot and rhapsodizes, “You hear the traffic, you hear the people moving… the sounds of the city, my man.”
Making A Mxrderer
Tight Eyez was a key figure in the development of krump, the high-octane dance style defined by wild improvised stomping and arm swinging. Making A Mxrderer is an equally dramatic experience that fuses the California-residing MC’s commanding, guttural voice with brooding, minimal backdrops that bring to mind the angst and energy of DMX and Denzel Curry. Firing off video game lasers and intimidating brassy synth stabs, “Impulse wilin” turns the format of a krump battle into top-shelf braggadocio; at one point, Tight Eyez boasts how his dance moves will bring forth a metaphorical death blow, leaving us with the following glorious image: “The chest bang is stupid / The arm swing is wilin’ / The impulse is wilin’ / My footwork is stylish / The jab pattern gruesome / The buck up deadly!” Upping the drama stakes, the vicious, stripped-down “BVCK 4 BVCK” has our host defining his role in the game as “like Lucifer before he got kicked out of heaven.”