This week, we delve into new releases from Knox, Andre Mariette, Anchormen, Why Khaliq, Ken-C, Radio Ahlee, and Bionik.
KnoX - #OnChief
Knox's latest dropped last night and already struck me as a standout of recent rap releases. He shines at embedding contemplative raps with a studied delivery, downplaying the intricacy of his rhyme patterns by focusing on messaging. #OnChief improves as the listen progresses, benefitting from an album format where many rappers lose focus. He grasps particular beats better than others, and the best tracks utilize simple slow grooves evocative of Tupac or UGK's introspective moments to provide a non-intrusive backdrop.
His flow can turn straightforward day-to-day events -- for instance, the "Expletives" bar: "Mellow than a motherfucker, you can catch a nigga reading books on the bus/Back from work, high as hell, tweetin hooks," a simple visual that stands out thanks to Knox's execution -- into larger than life moments, an intentional attempt to move beyond his criminal past and an artistry that would glorify it. He'll mention it as a means to add perspective, but rarely to add romanticized flavor to the music.
"Wouldn't Believe Me If I Told You" finds Knox hitting all his strengths, using impressively constructed rhyme patterns and downtempo beats to deconstruct the average battle-of-the-sexes relationship song, simultaneously expressing and complicating his own views on women by digging into his own faults and understanding of monogamy. In a similar wheelhouse as the internal rhyme-heavy message music of Tall Paul or Metasota, Knox showcases a tight rap sensibility, plainly stating his thoughts with a flow that reflects an understated complexity.
Andre Mariette - Cloud 8.9
Andre Mariette's self-produced Cloud 8.9 has a smooth, breezy quality to it that belies its busyness, embedding a long string of influences within a stripped-down framework. Referencing Migos to comment on over-consumption in "Anti" is ironic, in that Mariette's own work is at its best when in conversation with the Atlanta trio's remarkably complex and modern triplet flows within a Native Works mindset.
In clear conversation with the chop-rap crooning of Chance The Rapper, Mariette's mush-mouth flow is individual enough to avoid any pure mimicry and manages to stand out from its inspirations. The pop sensibility throughout is one of the main strengths, pulling from his genre-blending work with swing-rap group Menage Quad
. His producer sensibilities provide an ear for how his voice should fit into the mix, and every soulful, sample-based beat is given a slinky push forward with seemingly effortless and smoothly realized vocal contortions.
Anchormen - Above Sea Level
Cultivating the sound of smoke cypher sessions over soulful sample-based productions, T La Shawn, BiG WiZ, and Aquafresh join forces for their sophomore effort as the trio Anchormen on Above Sea Level. Pulling from their circle for production and guest raps, including AG of DITC, Baby Shel, and Mike the Martyr, the album moves in multiple directions but maintains a consistent South Side boom-bap whole.
Aquafresh's manic pimp raps play off T La Shawn's straightforward flows and BiG Wiz's weed-fueled rasp, providing enough sonic diversity to maintain the long album. The record reflects a throwback ethic, and even in moments where the crew lands outside their classically minded comfort zone, there's a pureness to the approach.
Why Khaliq - The Other Side: The Six5
One of the great strengths of the current wave of the local scene is how naturally younger rappers blend current aesthetics with underground sensibility, while still focusing on bar structure. St. Paul's Why Khaliq is a great example of this, mixing a bit of Rocky Diamonds vocal fry with the politically minded slick flows of Greg Grease on his latest, The Other Side: The Six5.
On tracks like "Inner City," where he dissects the racial messaging hidden in the children's movies of his youth and ties it into the #BlackLivesMatter protest movement, Khaliq simultaneously slurs his voice a la Lil Boosie and invokes some spoken word influence. With a great handle on melodic hook work, the album is packed with captivating flows and guest spots from a wide range of vocalists, who add to what winds up as a rich tapestry of post-Section 80 underground.
This level of consistency usually comes with a blurred sameness over the course of a full project, but Why Khaliq has a creative self-awareness that keeps lines fresh and meaningful, as well as a skill for songwriting that prevents any track from going stale. The features tend toward sung hooks from a wide range of voices that compliment the beats and Khaliq's tone. This project proves that Khaliq is one of the most engaging up-and-coming rappers, crafting a tightly realized sound that rarely misses.
Ken-C - The Pleasure Project
Ken-C of Skoolboy Entertainment dropped some of the leftovers from his latest concept record The Pleasure Project a few months ago, and is gearing up for a full release on May 15. The album touches on what happens when you chase your dreams, and the fallout in personal relationships that can ensue. The well-tread thematic territory of infidelity and personal-versus-professional dynamics benefits from Ken-C's full-length focus, as he delves deep and reveals a self-awareness about the situation.
The record frequently pivots into R&B territory, and Ken-C has a strong mid-range melodic voice that carries the material. Left-field samples, including Enya and Garth Brooks, are surprisingly workable, and it's clear that Ken-C is pulling from emotional jumping points outside of hip-hop. Aiming for a storytelling vibe, the best work here blends an emotional release with specific life details. Tracks like "O Superman (The Vent)" off the upcoming release stand among the most revealing, allowing Ken-C to spill his guts and provide some context to his story.
Radio Ahlee - "FR333"
A loosie from Radio Ahlee's Soundcloud page shows lots of promise for an upcoming project. "FR333" captures a particular soft-spoken smooth vibe that's aligned with West Coast underground, tightly sweeping between melodic vibes and showy chopping to present a style all his own.
It's a deceptively simple approach, immediately familiar and captivating, but uniquely affecting. Digging deeper on his page reveals a number of tracks with their own sensibilities and nuances, hitting on similar themes of individual freedom and expression. "Ms. L" is a particular highlight, with a guest spot from Allan Kingdom that fits well into the airy wheelhouse. Keep an eye out for more from this upcoming talent.
Bionik - Sonik Boom
Respected producer Bionik has had a stellar few months, releasing another project with frequent collaborator, Aceyalone, as well as his own solo production record, complete with it's own remix album.
The multi-tiered and difficult-to-classify production on Sonik Boom jumps between stylistic points to include countless genres and sounds, grabbing attention immediately and holding it indefinitely. This is primarily an instrumental record, and every track sounds full and multi-faceted, but maintains hip-hop's sparse rawness, gliding between grooves with a distinct cohesiveness. Straddling rap and EDM production, Bionik commands a mastery of sound that is distinctly striking.
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