What Makes a Lyrical Rapper?

With tomorrow marking the release of Aesop Rock’s new album , “The Impossible Kid”, I’ve been thinking a lot this week about lyricism in HipHop and the role it plays in how I assess rappers. I also spent some time this week discussing with friends the excellent study by Matt Daniels, in which he analysed the bodies of work by a large number of well known rappers, and graphically represented their relative lexicographical strength for all to see.

I then considered weather variety of words is as important as optimal selection, with rappers like J. Cole and Yelawolf being favorites of mine. I feel they are both very lyrical rappers, but they don’t use exotic or unusual vocabulary, they just find the ideal phrasing to conjure an image or a feeling. If you take a song like Cole’s hit “Wet Dreams” he doesn’t use any complex word play or showy patterns, he just perfectly depicts teenage romance in a way which we can all relate to, and it’s undeniably a brilliant piece of uncomplicated lyricism.

In contrast I also really enjoy the verbal acrobatics and technical prowess of someone like Chino XL, R.A. the Rugged Man or Tech N9ne, with their work often being hugely impressive, built around complex rhyme patterns, clever double meanings and very intricate word play.

It is my opinion that a truly great lyricist combines all these traits, striking a balance between being relate-able, but also poetic and challenging their listeners. I have compiled a list below of five rappers who are my favorite lyricists. It is by no means a perfect list and I don’t wish to offend anyone if I have any choices you don’t agree with. It is always tricky putting a list like this together and hopefully it may help you discover a few new artists you didn’t know, or think differently about what great lyricism means to you.

Sadistik – “Petrichor” taken from the album “Flowers for my Father”

Sadistik is a Seattle based underground rapper, who doesn’t often concern himself with trivial subject matter. The album “Flowers for my Father”, from which the above track is taken, was written in the aftermath of the deaths of his father and best friend, and focuses on him trying to process the events emotionally, it’s far from upbeat but it is stunningly beautiful and you can’t help but feel his pain.

Aesop Rock “Ruby ’81” taken from the album “Skelethon”

Aesop Rock is a known lyrical beast, and critics favorite, there isn’t much to say that hasn’t already been said. His style is generally full of references to very obscure pop-culture, metaphors, and various other clever distractions; and often I find a new album of his takes me 20 or 30 plays before I can piece together the true meaning of songs. With that said, the above song is one of his more straightforward and I think one of his most powerful.

Killer Mike “Untitled” taken from the album R.A.P Music

Killer Mike’s lyrical brilliance is clear, with his witty, politically charged raps making him one of the most recognised rappers in the game, but it is even more notable once you look into his recording process. The usual lyrical process for rappers of refining and crafting a verse over hours and hours doesn’t appeal to him, he will have a clear idea in mind, and just go for it. El-P (Mike’s band mate in Run the Jewels, and the sole producer on R.A.P Music) stated in an interview that Mike freestyled “Untitled” which speaks volumes for the intelligence of the man. To be able to describe a feeling as complex as the fear of leaving your wife with no provider should you die before her, and to do so eloquently and beautifully with nothing more than a single thought is a powerful thing.

Eyedea “Even Shadows Have Shadows”

Eyedea is the best friend of Sadistik who’s death I mentioned earlier, and was truly worthy of being labeled a genius. He wrote the above song aged 19, and at such a young age he understood his own mental state better than most. He also articulates it brilliantly and I find this song helps me empathise more with some of my friends who have suffered with mental illness and depression. He has a huge catalog, and despite passing away in 2010 new material is still being discovered, with Sadistik having started with a recording he found of an Eyedea verse and engineered a song around it for the brilliant “Chemical Burns”.

Vinnie Paz “You Cannot be Neutral on a Moving Train” taken from the album God of the Serengeti

Vinnie Paz is a lyricist who is capable of brilliance, but also more than capable of generic “I’m a better rapper than you….” themed nonsense. However when he is on form he is one of the best in the game. He is known to have a passion for conspiracy, and exposing mis-taught histories, and some of his best work is centered around educating his listeners to these injustices. In this respect he reminds me of the great teacher KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions, who had an entire album exposing historical and political lies entitled Edutainment.

Ocean Wisdom – Chaos ’93

This is an album that I’ve been waiting for for months, ever since Ocean’s exclusive bars on the High Focus Youtube channel in early 2015. Many fans have been waiting longer; it’s been a year since the first video – “Walkin'” created his buzz, which grew into a frenzied hype as more and more incredible videos were released. As such it’s no surprise to anyone who follows HipHop that an album from a relative unknown has debuted at no. 10 on the iTunes album chart. He might be signed to an independent label, but Ocean Wisdom is a major talent.

The Brighton born rapper of Jamaican heritage has surrounded himself with a number of amazing allies including some of the biggest names in UKHH. He is signed to High Focus – the label owned by Fliptrix of the Four Owls, and managed by one of the labels heaviest hitters –  the legendary rapper and producer Dirty Dike. Dike also produced every track on Chaos ’93, and rapped on one. In fact the list of guests is hugely impressive, and representative of how respected Ocean Wisdom is, despite his young age and this being his first album. Features include the Four Owls, Remus, Jam Baxter, Foreign Beggars, Edward Scissortongue, Klashnekoff, Lunar C and of course Dirty Dike.

Ocean’s style is characterised by fast double time raps with amazing clarity, intricate word play and clever lyricism. In some ways he reminds me of legendary New York MC R.A. the Rugged Man, the way his incredible technique allows him to spit long, technical lines with perfect diction. He has a great, characterful voice and really diverse flows, he shows on tracks such as “Freeze” that he is far from a one trick pony, with a much slower flow on a really moody, dark beat, and on “‘Mazin’ Hazin'” he shows that he can out-grime most Grime MC’s as well.

Dike’s production is varied, with a lot of the British style of BoomBap that he and Leaf Dog have chiseled out over the last decade, but also, as I said, there’s space on the album for grime, for more ambient beats, for the aptly named “Real Smooth”, and varied tempo’s and styles, allowing Ocean to show his versatility. Whilst I view him as a HipHop MC, rather than a Grime one, he does say on one song that he grew up on Bob Marley, Wu-Tang, early Dizzee Rascal and others; a real diverse set of influences. On “‘Mazin’ Hazin'” he characterises his relationship to various genres with the line “Marry Rap? I do. Date Grime?  Might do. I might just go third base with Trap and I might take Dance for Thai food. Might just holla at Raggae and Jazz just once in a while for a hug, not a spoon.” I think this just about encompasses the influences which you pick up on as a listener.

Lyrically he is really really British, which I enjoy, using loads of slang and casual parlance which gives a really conversational patter and it feels very natural. He also includes a lot of his sense of humor in his lyrics; both of the above traits are on show in the line “Coming back from Thailand with dreadlocks, a skin condition and a vague idea of how to throw a kick does not qualify you as a fu*#?ng therapist…. you eggy eggy breds……”  Some of the other things that come up a lot in his lyrics are daily life, general views and philosophies and a lot of clever pop-culture and sport references.

All in all, I have to say this is the best debut album I’ve heard for years, possibly ever and a definite favorite for album of the year; Given that there’s a Deftones release at the end of April that’s just about the highest praise I can give. Anyway I hope you enjoy this incredible project from a unique artist, who’s skill is an amazing thing to behold.

My Top Ten Albums of 2015

Apologies for not posting in ages. I have been busy, and also somewhat distracted, but I’m back and this should be a good one. My top 10 albums of 2015. This needs no further introduction so let’s get started.

10    Northlane – Node

Northlane is an Australian Metalcore band, with Node being their third album, and first with new vocalist Marcus Bridge. A really hard hitting album which sits somewhere between Deftones and Architects; I was pleasantly surprised by the variety and creativity shown.

9     Jedi Mind Tricks – The Thief and The Fallen

Jedi Mind Tricks are a legendary Philly HipHop group, and this is their eighth album in a stellar career, and marks the return of producer / all around genius Stoupe the Enemy of Mankind. This is their best album for years in my opinion, with a number of great songs, and Vinnie Paz taking his Emceeing to the next level.

8     Oranges – Taxonomy

Oranges are the latest highly skilled and totally mad Post-Hardcore band to find their way onto Blue Swan Records’ roster. Their debut is unpredictable, high energy and generally brilliant, but it gives me the feeling that even greater things are to come for this band in 2016.

7     Marriages – Salome

Marriages are an American Post-Rock three piece formed from the ashes of Red Sparrows, and this is their debut full length following an EP in 2012. As with a lot of albums of this style it’s a grower, and the more I listened to it, the more I enjoyed it, Highly recommended to fans of This Will Destroy You and Explosions In The Sky.

6     The Four Owls – Natural Order

High Focus Records never seem to disappoint. The Label’s headliners all combine to form the best group in UK HipHop, and this, their second album, is even better than their excellent 2011 debut, Nature’s Greatest Mystery. The only word I need to use to describe this is authentic.

5     CZARFACE  – Every Hero Needs a Villain

CZARFACE are back with their second project. A HipHop concept album with a running theme of comic-book style heros and villains; this album is consistent, and polished with amazing beats, amazing rhymes and a list of features that reads like a who’s who of HipHop.

4     Good Tiger – A Head Full of Moonlight

This is a brand new band but it’s full of names that might be familiar. Elliot Coleman, who briefly fronted TesseracT, Alex Rudinger who has drummed with EVERYONE including Monuments and The Faceless and ex-The Safety Fire guitarists Derya Nagle and Joaquin Ardiles. For these reasons I don’t think anyone was too surprised when their Crowd-Funded debut turned out to be a total masterpiece.

3     Mr Key and Greenwood Sharps – Yesterdays Futures

Mr Key and Greenwood Sharps came completely under the radar to put out one of the most honest, heart-felt albums I have ever heard. Lyrically this is truthful and beautiful, and covers all manor of dark, upsetting subject matter. Mr Key is comfortable talking about things other rappers might not want to touch. Greenwood Sharps’ beats frame it perfectly to produce what I believe is the HipHop record of the year.

2     TesseracT  – Polaris

This is a stupidly good album, and could easily have been top of my list. I Have ranted and raved about how great this band are a few times on here, but this third album cemented them as the most consistently excellent metal band I know of. A Djent masterpiece for anyone who likes to be challenged by the music that they listen to.

1      Eidola – Degeneraterra

Simply put; I think this is the best heavy rock/metal album I own. By anyone. Ever.

The band from Salt Lake City, Utah have been backed and heavily pushed by Will Swan of Dance Gavin Dance and Blue Swan Records, with Will saying that Degeneraterra combines the best of Tool, and Circa Survive. For me the strength of the album is that despite the band obviously being technically gifted musicians who do showcase their skills, at no point does musicality surrender to technicality, and their ability to make music with soul and guts, as well as being highly technical and very interesting to listen to is an amazing thing.

 

Slept On HipHop

I thought instead of talking about specific artists or albums I would simply string together a few songs which are little known to most, but deserve your attention. That’s not to say that none of these are from artists with quality catalogs or even that they have not been taken from quality albums, they’re simply great songs that don’t seem to get as much of our focus as they should.

Clear Soul Forces X Boog Brown – Sound of the City – Produced by Black Milk

Clear Soul Forces are a heavy hitting underground group from Detroit, their last two albums are well worth a listen (Gold PP7’s and Fab Five). They are lyrical, authentic and have worked with some great producers. Boog Brown is also from Detroit, She has been around for a while and has built a reputation as a talented rapper in the Detroit underground. Black Milk is a well known producer, also from Detroit who has received critical acclaim for several of his albums including the excellent No Poison, No Paradise.

Juggaknots – Trouble Man

Juggaknots are an underground group from New York formed in the mid 90’s. In 1996, Juggaknots first album, Clear Blue Skies, was released on the vinyl-only New York independent Fondle ‘Em Records. It’s a cult classic and a sort after album for collectors of rare HipHop vinyl regularly reaching silly prices on ebay, but doesn’t seem to get much play outside of these circles.

Apollo Brown and Guilty Simpson – Nasty Feat. Planet Asia. – Produced Apollo Brown

This song is taken form the album Dice Game which is a collaborative album by Detroit-based producer Apollo Brown and rapper Guilty Simpson, also of Detroit. It was released independently under Mello Music Group, a label full of little known gems. The beats are amazing throughout, and Guilty Simpson, whilst never being showy or complex, delivers vivid stories of street life.

Smif N Wessun – K.I.M – Produced by Mr. Walt of Da Beatminerz

Smif N Wessun were prominent in Brookly in the mid 90’s, with their debut album Dah Shinin dropping in 95 to critical acclaim, they became part of HipHop supergroup Boot Camp Click and operated on the legendary Duck Down records.

Hieroglyphics – At the Helm – Produced by Domino

Hieroglyphics is an underground group based in Oakland, California. The collective was founded in the early-1990s by rapper Del the Funky Homosapien. Their 98 release 3rd Eye Vision is a classic album which is too often overlooked.

Ces Cru – Klick Clack Bang – Produced by Info Gates

Ces are one of my favorite rap groups still recording today, although I believe they did their best work when they first joined Tech N9nes Strange music in 2012, and their debut EP, 13 is totally excellent. This is just one of the amazing tracks they released during a stellar first 18 months on Strange.

Danger Mouse and Jemini – Medieval Feat. the Pharcyde – Produced by Danger Mouse

My final offering today is another should-be classic. This is taken from a 2003 album released on Lex Records. DangerMouse is very well known and is almost a super-producer at this point, best known as the producer for Gnarls Barkley with Ceelo Green. Jemini is a rapper who I have never seen do anything aside from this album, which i find baffling because he’s totally excellent on it, reminiscent of Brand Nubian MC’s Lord Jamar and Grand Puba.

The Dear Hunter – Thoughts on the New Album and Recent Gig

As I touched on briefly in my anticipated albums list, I was lucky enough to see the Dear Hunter play in Cardiff a few weeks ago. I thought it would be nice to talk about this as well as the new album. I was hugely excited for the show, having been a fan for eight years, and also having had tickets for the band’s previous UK dates, which were later canceled.

They were playing in a very small venue, around 100-150 people, and were supported by two British bands, the first was a Welsh Rock band called The People The Poet. They sounded great and engaged the crowd really well, incorporating humor into their songs and their conversations with the crowd. Second was a much heavier band from Exeter called Black Foxxes. They had a really raw, aggressive sound, with singer/guitarist Mark Holley stealing the show. I thought Black Foxxes were excellent and they went down really well with the crowd. Both support acts were really good and I recommend you take time to check them out.

The Dear Hunter were as stupidly good as I had hoped they would be. The show was incredibly polished, with front-man Casey Crescenzo sounding amazing throughout. Casey’s brother Nick – the drummer, was pure class, with dynamic, powerful playing. He also pulled amazing faces throughout which amused me greatly. The songs which really blew me away were Mustard gas (act III), A Night On The Town (act IV), Home (the colour spectrum) and Whisper (migrant). My only real complaint was that they didn’t play my two favorite songs of theirs, namely Red Hands and Lilian, but they have a huge back catalog, and so much of it is so good that they could have played any twenty songs and still put on a great show. Unfortunately i can’t find much quality live footage of the songs I have mentioned, so I will include two video’s from the new album.

Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise is the latest in the acts saga which is expected to be released in a total of six parts. I have discussed the acts on here previously so I shan’t rehash the whole plot, but it’s worth mentioning to those who don’t know that their albums are all an interconnected story, and somewhat unsurprisingly act IV picks up where act III left off. I feel that as a band they have really developed and defined a unique sound over the years, which may sound unlikely, given their use of a range of instrumentation, and ability to produce music of so many styles, but the one constant is stunning melodies which feel very natural to the listener. With act IV, I think they have reached a new height in terms of the quality of the song writing and It’s definitely a contender for their strongest album. The above track, as well as Waves are both near flawless, and I love how in “A Night On The Town” Casey musically references some of the characters memories from previous acts by extracting and reusing old melodies. My Only real complaint about an otherwise incredible album is track eleven, King of Swords (Reversed), which is Disco Funk, and not at all in-keeping with the rest of the album. I usually enjoy Casey’s forays into unexpected corners of music, but this one, for me, doesn’t really work. However, please don’t let that deter you from enjoying a truly great piece of work. They have cemented themselves as a favorite of mine and I can’t wait for them to come back to Europe; a great live band and a great album.

TESSERACT – POLARIS

I want to talk about the newest TesseracT album, Polaris which came out today on Kscope. The album has been available to listen to online for a few days; a service of which I have taken full advantage. The simple reason being that it’s ridiculously good.

TesseracT are a British Djent/ Progressive Metal band I have discussed on here previously, and I am a huge fan of their creativity and unique sound. For information on their older work, band history and more please read my previous blog, Djentlemen’s Club.

The first listen of this album I liked it a lot, but I didn’t fully appreciate how great it is until i binged it about six times in a row, during which my interest did not wain at any point. Polaris is a natural follow to up 2013’s Altered State, continuing along the more melodic and beautiful path they have forged since 2011’s explosive debut One. I didn’t necessarily expect that to be the case, due to the band reverting back to their original vocalist Daniel Tomkins. I am a huge fan of Dan, but Ashe O’Hara who sang on altered state had a very pure voice with a high register which complimented the sound superbly and contrasted with Dan’s powerful, guttural vocals which shone on One. That said, Dan has changed, and raised his game on Polaris. The vocals are haunting in a way which is reminiscent of Chino Moreno’s best performances with Deftones, and along with the incredibly pure, glassy tones of the guitars it sets an amazing mood. All of the above contrasts with the way bassist Amos Williams and drummer Jay Postones lock the band into hypnotic almost unnatural grooves and they have forged a sound all of their own, and unlike any of their Djent peers.

To me, despite only having had three of four days to digest it, this is clearly their finest album. Taking nothing away from One or Altered State, both of which are near flawless albums, the direction in which the band have subsequently moved has taken them to new heights. I would highly recommend this to any open minded music fan and especially to metal fans looking to hear something new and exciting. This album made my list of anticpated releases a few weeks ago and it has surpassed my expectations, and is a candidate for the album of 2015 for sure. Its hard to imagine heavy music getting better than this.

Anticipated Releases For The Rest Of 2015

I can’t speak for everyone, but for me 2015 so far has had only a few stand out albums, and some which I had high hopes for were very underwhelming when they finally came out (Hopsin’s Pound Syndrome springs to mind). Fortunately a few old favorites, and some new bands for whom I have high hopes have since released teasers and release dates and that’ve got me rather excited. Heres just a few which I suspect will be incredible.

Arcane Roots; Heaven & Earth EP released 16th October

Arcane Roots are a band that I’ve discussed before, and I have nothing but praise for their creativity and unique style. At the moment I would go as far as to say that they’re the best band in the country, and Andrew Groves has an endless wealth of talent. His vocals soar, his guitar playing is powerful and his beard makes me feel totally inadequate.

TesseracT; Polaris released 18th September

TesseracT are another favorite of mine, and with this being their third album, they are now one of the established stars of the progressive metal / Djent scenes. This album marks the return of the bands first singer, Dan Tomkins, and based on the teaser seems to see a shift to a mellower, more melodic sound.

Icarus The Owl; Pilot Waves, which is available October 16th

Icarus the Owl are a pop-punk/post hardcore band who are fairly new to me, but this will in fact be their fourth album, and first since signing for Will Swan’s Blue Swan Records, which is home to a number of my favorite bands. They seem to me to sit somewhere between pop-punk bands like Receiving End of Sirens and the less heavy post-hardcore bands like Artifex Pereo. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what they come up with.

Oranges; Taxonomy out September 22nd

Oranges are a new progressive post-hardcore band from Las Vegas, who, somewhat unsurprisingly sound a lot like Stolas. This is definitely a good thing. Like Icarus the Owl they’re a new addition to the Blue Swan roster, and I am expecting yet more proggy excellence from the best label in rock/metal today. A guaranteed hit with fans of A Lot Like Birds, Stolas and Hail The Sun.

The Dear Hunter;  Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise comes out September 4th

The fourth installment in the Acts saga, and first for several years, after the band taking a break to produce other records that do not comprise part of the narrative. Fans will be delighted to hear that the band have continued to write ridiculously good, melodic and powerful rock music. I am lucky enough to have a chance to see them in a week or two and I cannot wait.

Ocean Wisdom; Choas 93, unknown date, suspected late 2015

Ocean Wisdom is currently one of the hot artists in UK hiphop, having developed a big buzz over the last couple of years, his debut album on Fliptrix’s label – High Focus is highly anticipated. His Video’s on YouTube have attracted a lot of views and positivity due to his obvious skill. The world is watching to see if he can realise his potential.

Sianvar; Debut Full Length, unknown date, suspected late 2015

Sianvar are a supergroup consisting of members of Hail The Sun, Stolas, Dance Gavin Dance, and A Lot Like Birds. The above song was taken from an EP they put out in 2014, and they have shown images of them recording the follow up. I am expecting this to be a masterpiece, and a focal point for the pregressive post-hardcore scene when it comes out.