by Ricky Robertson Jr.
PIRATA is the most recent group to emerge from New York’s legendary Atoms Family hip hop collective. Once home to as many as 30 MCs, Atoms Family birthed the oft-celebrated Cannibal Ox as well as several highly underrated groups like Hangar 18, ATOMS, and IT.
This latest offshoot sees the duo of Cryptic One and Jestoneart unite in the rebellious spirit of a pirate radio station for their eponymous debut. Cryptic One handles the MCing, mixing, and mastering while Jestoneart provides nearly all of the production.
In tune with their pirate radio image, PIRATA is a rallying cry for those disillusioned with the industry to remember why they fell in love with hip hop to begin with. To create beats and rhymes for themselves. For the rush of getting a positive reaction from those in their immediate circle. For fellow hip hop heads to appreciate because they’re capable of recognizing real skill – no outside validation required.
This message is especially resonant with those who have endured a difficult breakup with a creative outlet, only to return years later and find their love for the medium rekindled stronger than ever. If you look into where many Definitive Jux affiliates (an umbrella under which Atoms Family certainly falls) ended up following the label’s closure in 2010, you’ll find it was an experience shared by many at the time.
You can hear Cryptic One (as well as Atoms Fam and IT groupmate, Alaska) discuss this experience in DJ Pawl of Hangar 18’s acclaimed 2015 documentary, “Adult Rappers“. It was this project that inadvertently renewed Cryptic One’s interest in releasing music when he was asked to provide the excellent film score.
Appropriately, PIRATA explores Cryptic One’s odyssey from stepping away from the hip hop industry to returning and making music strictly on his own terms. Jestoneart’s production perfectly mirrors these sentiments, resulting in a unified sound that deftly propels the album’s message. It’s this dramatic, years-long journey that provides the backdrop for the album and emanates in an underlying atmosphere of heartbreak left behind and passion reborn.
Like many, I first became acquainted with Jestoneart’s production on Def Jux’s 2003 DVD “Revenge of the Robots”, where Vast Aire was seen rhyming to a variety of beats Jest had made as he scrolled through them on his PC. His sound was mesmerizing like nothing heard before and viewers were left waiting for these beats to appear on an album. While that exact album would never materialize, Jestoneart’s production has become even more incredible with time.
Jest would go on to fuse symbiotically with producer DecoyOctopus to release the albums Dark City and Dark City Dos (DubSessions) under the handle TheParadoxicalState. The former of which, Cryptic One and Alaska have cited as being the “best Atoms album”. Though Cryptic has clarified, while it is the best, “As far as representative of the Atoms sound, I’m not sure we ever accurately portrayed it on a release. The energy and vibe of the cyphers in (Long Island) was hard to capture … (The) Prequel had moments that were close but unpolished”. On PIRATA, Jest’s beats are more vibrant and varied than ever, shifting from earthy samples to haunting sci-fi synths and usually anchored by his signature trip hop-esque drums.
My introduction to Cryptic One was on Cannibal Ox’s 2001 classic “The Cold Vein”, justifiably hailed by many as one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time. I found Cryptic’s rhymes instantly relatable, as they are often comprised of meaningful life lessons summed up in succinct, clever turns of phrase and delivered with genuine conviction. When Cryptic claimed he had a “William Wallace heart that’s brave” on “Atom”, there was never any doubt that you were listening to one of the most passionate MCs to ever pick up a mic.
Cryptic One would continue to impress on his mostly self-produced solo debut, “The Anti-Mobius Strip Theory”. An album that didn’t receive the attention it should have upon release in 2004, due to unfortunate label issues that caused it to be delayed far past its intended ’01 release date. However, it has since become known as one of the most underrated albums of the 2000s, and one that I would personally consider to be a major influence. It’s astounding then to note that, on PIRATA, Cryptic’s pen is even sharper and more focused than ever. The variety of flows employed here are at an all-time high and the writing and delivery have been refined to new levels of brilliance.
As PIRATA opens, its intro succinctly lays out the group’s mission statement with the help of a now incredibly nostalgic quote from ‘The Matrix’ (1999). From the first moments, it’s understood that PIRATA is here to bring hope to hip hop creators and listeners who have had theirs taken away by an exploitative industry and manufactured mainstream. Not only is Morpheus’ quote modified to speak about PIRATA reaching out to weary hip hop heads rather than survivors of the robot apocalypse, but Cryptic One’s verse also cleverly refers back to it; instilling it with even more meaning. While quotes can sometimes seem tacked on and detached from a track, here it is made essential. It’s clear that a great deal of care was put into making every element of the song work as a cohesive composition – a remarkable level of quality that extends through the duration of PIRATA‘s debut.
“Lion’s Den” continues this theme, working as a clever metaphor for escaping the pitfalls of the music industry while extolling the freedom that comes with being a DIY artist. On this beat, Jest demonstrates the heavenly sound I often associate with Cryptic One due to his cult classic track “Life After” and many of his other original productions. Once again, a quote is used to great effect to close out the track and bring its message full circle.
PIRATA’s first single, “Davey Jones Locker”, sees Jestoneart combine eerily cascading piano keys with an unorthodox guitar sample – creating a uniquely off-kilter and disorienting sound. Cryptic One grounds the track with a fitting callback to the vocal sample on Nas’ “Halftime” before breaking into a verbal assault detailing what separates PIRATA from the masses. In one particularly potent line describing the versatility of his influences and sound, as well as his refusal to be placed in a box, Cryptic states:
“my playlist has always been shapeless,
I’ve never played it safe
it’s my nature to take risks”
Throughout the album, Cryptic One also reflects on the political turmoil of the past four years, most notably on what is essentially the album’s closer, “Political Tinder”. Few artists have been able to articulate the depths of the madness the world has been subjected to during this time. Fewer still have addressed these events tactfully in a grounded and genuine manner that transcends a cheap bid for shock value and social relevance. Songs that chronicle historic injustices and abuses of power are so important because they help the listeners make sense of that shared experience. Every listen is a therapeutic journey that reminds us we aren’t alone in believing in a just society.
My favorite block of the album is the trifecta of “Skeleton Key”, “Mountain Movers”, and “Wasted (Three Sheets)”. There is really no moment in the album’s running time that isn’t thoroughly impressive and enjoyable – it’s just that on these tracks, PIRATA seem to be at their most laid back. I find myself revisiting these songs with the greatest frequency, especially appreciating the sound achieved on them and how well they work together in sequence.
On “Skeleton Key”, Jest’s drums skip gracefully over one of the most infectious basslines I’ve heard in years in an unorthodox, almost too-fast fashion that no other producer would even attempt. Cryptic One’s flow catches the pocket with glorious precision as he delves out a flurry of quips about the creative process. The result is one of those songs where each second of its composition is so overwhelmingly perfect that I have to spin it back three of four times whenever I hear it. It also features a strong contender for best ad-libbed outro ever.
“Mountain Movers” is the sole production credited to DecoyOctopus, who fans may recall from some of the mixing credits on “The Anti-Mobius Strip Theory” as well as the production credits for TheParadoxicalState. That previous working relationship is likely why this beat fits in so seamlessly among the rest of the production – almost as if it was made by Jest himself. This track is like a motivational poster for creatives, chronicling the process of overcoming the insurmountable. Only in this case, the message truly inspires.
“Wasted (Three Sheets)” rounds out this trilogy in a comical first-hand account of a night of drinking far too much, featuring a dramatically vivid retelling of a stumbling journey to reach the bathroom before puking. Though, as our protagonist recounts successfully navigating the numerous obstacles along the way, some semblance of positivity can be found even in this hilariously lurid tale of debauchery.
Preceding these tracks is the phenomenal “City Breathes”. Its train of thought storytelling and jazzy instrumentation evoke such effective film noir imagery it’s difficult not to begin storyboarding the music video as you listen.
“Catch & Release” must also be mentioned for its head-nodding pace and incredible lyrical content, featuring what is possibly my favorite quote of the record:
“from backpacks to briefcase, we all growns up
leave the past in a past place, all sewn up
with a lifetime supply of that needle and thread
and an itchy stitchin’ finger for the evil ahead
yeah, you reap what you sow and I’m sewin’ my wounds
‘til the reaper greets me at the door to my tomb”
When it comes to the album’s masterful writing, Cryptic One lives up to his moniker. The rhymes are often so dense with meaning that they present a rewarding challenge to decipher. I feel I have a general idea of the concepts behind “Ostrich Syndrome” and “Brothers Blue” but, even after dozens of listens, I have yet to unravel their full picture. It’s for that very reason I find such intricate rap writing so compelling. Other times, like on “CSB”, I thought for sure I understood one of my favorite couplets – only to learn later through Cryptic One’s explanation of the song that I grasped only a fraction of the lyrics’ actual intent.
Every element of PIRATA’s execution is thoughtfully crafted and has clearly been laboriously refined to perfection. With a playtime of 35 minutes, it’s careful to never overextend itself, delivering nothing but flawless verses that are overflowing with meaning and technical proficiency, an incredibly well-sequenced tracklisting of phenomenal beats, and excellently placed interludes.
It is an album designed for the repeat listens required to fully understand its intricacies. It turns the story of heartache, discovery, and redemption that led to its inception into a call to arms for the disillusioned to get busy. PIRATA is a masterpiece to aspire to and to be inspired by.
PIRATA is available on streaming services for the first time starting on 09/03/2021.
As a Freemusicempire reader, you can receive a free PIRATA CD (just pay shipping) using the following link.
PIRATA can also be purchased on Bandcamp in limited edition CD and Cassette formats, as well as a standard digital download. Preorders for a vinyl release are set to be announced in the near future.