so, while waiting for my car to get fixed I perused the rap section, looking for some fresh meat. I found two treasures, one Black Milk produced LP with a bunch of cryptic and aggressive names (Guilty Simpson and Sean Price) looking back at me with another LP, the odd and out of place looking debut by Grieves, not quite looking back at you in sepia tone and watercolor. The other cover is an absurd collage of photos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

They really are at polar opposites of rap these days. Not to say that there are only two extremes to oscillate between, but as far as the thematic intent, production style, and performance aesthetic, each LP uses the elements of hip hop to very different ends. One implies an actual band’s performance (a lie!!!) through well recorded and placed productions, the other operates off of Dilla’s logic. Samples are placed for the glitchiest effect, and nowhere does the record ever resemble a live performance. One tries to be real, the other never attempts reality.

Now, I feel that it should be mentioned that both albums have a lot of flaws. They both happily make their camp in genres. Grieves doesn’t often tell stories that don’t involve his (weathered, but still thankfully optimistic) heart. Language here remains a sculpture of meaning. If he didn’t keep slipping into the annoyingly cryptic and abstract, we might have a true virtuoso on our hands. He can certainly handle complex phrases and rhythms while also competently (you hear that, kanye!?!) singing hooks.

But, honestly, saying that one of the instruments used is “Grieves beautiful and angelic vocal cords” isn’t doing any help. This is far from an accomplished work by a master of the sang word. It’s more like “well, at least this isn’t a boring studio session musician”, although with the amount of tracks that just pile weary chorus after wearying verse, the amount of material he forces his album to have turns him into an ineffectual studio musician, cranking out them tunes. He certainly has the chops, but he doesn’t really flex them.

For as poetic and chastening a listen as Grieves album is, Random Axe give a much more grimy and cartoony stomp through a harsh world. But instead of sitting down and using the spotlight of rap as a poetic and dramatic magnet, Random Axe want you across the dance floor at a party instead of across a coffee table. They throw a lot of voices at you. Of course, it’s a more “street” album, you know.

As much as Grieves tries to be poetic, and distanced from the violent stereotypes surrounding rap, Random Axe revel in the stereotype, exaggerating death threats to comic heights until you realize they’re winking (“I’ll throw your favorite artist through a mural and date it/ my masterpiece”). These are guys who spent two years making sure their synths glitch right and their ad libs are perfectly polished. They are entertainers before gangsters. Leave the potential of reality at the door.

By contrast, everything about Grieves’ album feels like it was felt. Not that it’s necessarily a particularly new or different emotion, but, gosh damnit, Grieves will be able to sum up his feelings in a metaphor. And while his preponderance for abstract language cloys just a little bit more than his quiet almost whispering voice he always jumps into, this is an album where you leave the potential of expectations of fantasy at the door. Thankfully, the arrangements and productions are imaginative and dramatic, and can take the center stage when Grieves relents from unloading another round of an intense and complex emotion on his audience.

The differences in the album could be described just as well through their respective usage of silence. Whereas Grieves would quiet down a song to give focus to the heaviness of his lyrics or the overtones in a chord, Random Axe never want to let you fully soak in their sounds. Following this logic, Random Axe quiets down their productions only when they blink, or collapse. Outside of quick jolts to surprise a listener into a break of a beat. Grieves, by contrast, often gives space to his voice or instruments. Both certainly use sound to create mood, but the latter jolts the listener with bizarre samples and obscure death threats. It must be said, the instrumental flourishes of the former, and slickly delivered death threats of the latter, are both equally impressive. As inconsistent and occasionally brilliant are Grieves’ sense of figurative language and Black Milk’s production. Alternating between brilliant and dull, stealing the show or counting time until something new begins, they both remain the stars to watch on the album and in the future.

The differences in each album could also be illustrated by their two brief, and very defensive, references to race. Whereas Guilty Simpson raps on Random Axe about how “OGs are always gonna be black”, Grieves “has never worn a chain/Blame my ancestors”. Read in juxtaposition with each other, they kind of complete each other’s cycle: The Black rappers are gonna be excessive and murder someone, and the white rappers are going to remain free from prison, free to rhyme about the pain of heartbreak or his inability to fully change.

Some freedom.

I mean, it’s not like the albums are always like this. They can stray from their ethnologies enough to craft great songs (Lightspeed/Chewbacca), but they just feel like rap that’s still stuck in its own prison, that thinks it can only either be artistic or ludicrous, realist or caricature. Honestly, I hope there’s more to rap than the twenty bucks I just spent earlier today. I think rap wants to become something new, though. It just needs to get over what it thinks it can and can’t be.

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