2 Albums that Represent Hip Hop Essentialism
I remember when everyone started freely using the term “conscious rap” and how bad it made me feel. On one side the conscious artists were going to be expecting to think deep thoughts all the time. Any Common fart joke would elicit a gasp, meanwhile the implication on the other side was that DJ Quik wasn’t conscious. Insulting categorization had set improper expectations.
Before that it had always been a mix. When you pressed play on Big Daddy Kane’s new album you knew that his flow along with his content would switch to include gloriously ambitious threats, pick up lines, political discussion, thoughts on future generations and that gumbo of thought carried over from Kane to Guru and Jeru Tha Damaja.
Along the line rap albums got broken up into sections: club friendly single, song for my Mom, posse cut, etc. If you valued lyricism you felt a need to conceptualize or theme on a scale that would be recognized. Kendrick Lamar taught the world how to call him a genius. That became a model.
No one should be bummed out by this, things are always changing. It is hard to explain the understanding that the audience used to have with the performers, before Kendrick and before 2pac-Me Against The World, that all we had to do was press play and Rakim would get to it all in his time in whatever mixture he wanted. The essential parts would always be present without being stressed. I love these two albums, they brought me back to that feeling.
Midnight Express by Griff/Scorcese
This is not just a collaborative album between producer Jason Griff and rapper Scorcese Lorde Jones. Midnight Express is a house party with a bunch of the undergrounds illest voices. Nine total songs with eight total guests it is an ambitious celebration of the craft in action. Scorcese has said online that he wanted to measure himself against the best. This is an intimidating crew to measure yourself against: Alaska, Curly Castro, Zilla Rocca, Sleep Sinatra, Eddie Kaine, Flashius Clayton, and Aasir. None of these names is a silky voiced singer who swoops in for the hook. This isn’t about the hook.
Pro-wrestling as a theme makes perfect sense here. It makes you feel the live event excitement these performances should make you feel. When you hear Bobby Heenan and Vince McMahon calling the first ever casket match on Survivor Series 92 you can feel the bated breath from that audience. It feels like Curly Castro and Scorcese are addressing them! This is a show, a celebration of nerd knowledge from comic books to hip hop to basketball and wrestling. Everyone is in the right place to succeed which is what makes the project so much fun. Marvel vs DC is a fun trading of comic book references between Scorcese and Zilla Rocca on a level that would make Gail Simone order a 5 panel Wrecking Crew hat. The references run from Jay Garrick to Nathan Summers to Brian Michael Bendis. Ode To Camp Lo is one of the best songs of the year and what set me on the path to the term Essentialism. Uptown Saturday Night feels like it has everything in it and any given song on that album connects you to the whole. Ode To Camp Lo carries that weight, as Alaska talks financial freedom he ends a line “Fat ass, flat earth and all my shirts are monogramed.” The jokes, the bragging, the references (Scorcese “We Heroes 4 Hire with firsts like iron”) sometimes the lyrics are meaningful sometimes they are funny but always fly and rhyme well with interesting images.
You don’t need to unpack Midnight Express. The lyrics packed into the song Bobby Seale do connect to Bobby’s message and life work but Scorcese might switch from thinking about hatred in the world to rappers sounding like Griselda. As these songs trail off you’ll recognize it switching into a different beat and Scorcese rapping as the last few seconds fade out, it’s a reminder that doing this is athletic and intellectual and when well done, validated beyond any words likes or hashtags I can give. A reminder of what is essential.
Stream then buy/download Midnight Express below:
Hijinx by Henry Canyons/Googie
Seven of the eleven total songs on Hijinx are produced by either Matt Bowen or Fresh Kils and the 6 straight undeniable jams that open it are 100% one of these two producers. When the writer(s) can lock in with the producer(s) and establish the character of the album have a better chance of running smoothly. So many big budget albums are a messy patchwork of odd producer/guest/star that don’t cohere. Hijinx feels so locked in it locks you in with them. It makes sense that fans clamored for this full length because these voices are perfect together. Henry Canyons makes a smooth slide up and down in register that is always conversational, while Googie has a deeper voice braced to roar even when rapping about having a nice buzz and popping open the sun roof. Big Bad Wolf takes full advantage of the smooth depth of Googie’s voice on the hook for a slick song that showcases great cadences that will move your body. Going from Big Bad Wolf to the ill Jazzy bassline (with chimes?) on Kiss The Sky feels very Pharcyde, a mid-tempo dance of different confident voices over songs that won’t ever be mistaken for one another.
Googie and Henry Canyons play with the spacing between words, the sonic backgrounds, the imagery (Googie calls himself Black Gilligan during Synonymisms while sounding cooler than I have ever sounded). On the second half the content gets heavier like on Mood Right where chalk outlines are never far away and alcoholism is a real worry but as Canyons puts it “you feel a certain harmony within this disorder,” it’s all part of a big conversation about everything. Even a directly themed song like You Could Be fits into the conversation bouncing from the plug, love, food, and everything else.
Stream then buy/download Hijinx below:
Wikipedia defines Essentialism as “…the view that every entity has a set of attributes that are necessary to its identity and function.” It’s a recipe with a basic identity made a thousand ways by generations of diverse groups within the same goal: to make dope music. I put it on these albums specifically because it is loose enough for them to grow into at their pace and teach me how unalike they are from what I anticipated.