Thanks to @stkizzle and his accidentally bequeathed music collection, I’m slowly finding my way round alternative hip-hop, and not a minute too soon. With Kanye West’s stock at an all-time high—tell me, honestly, who thought he’d bounce back after Taylor Swift-gate?—now seems like a good moment to deflate his ego a little, with the suggestion that his couture rapping isn’t as hyperliterate as he thinks.
The first albums to whose charms I have succumbed is Madvillain‘s Madvillainy; it is as far away as you can get from the traditional gangland.
Madvillainy is all about the many masks and guises of MF DOOM; fittingly, the album evokes comparisons with the dark underbelly of Alan Moore‘s Watchmen. There are snitches of film dialogue from a bygone era; everyone’s either sitting on park benches peering out from behind newspapers, or committing dastardly deeds while dressed up as supervillains. It’s comic, but it’s not comic. DOOM’s rapping style is distinctive and punchy; it modulates between a sandpapered rasp and a treacle-sticky flow of inventive rhymes and disparate references. Behind him, Madlib‘s beats are Dilla-smooth, and interspersed with snippets of jazz standards that crackle off the vinyl (and are cryptically attributed to Yesterday’s New Quintet—a purely fictitious device). There’s a thick fug of weed-smoke hanging over the record, from which creep occasional pulses of bass.
“Pan it, can’t understand it, ban it;
The underhanded ranted, planned it and left him stranded;
The best, any who profess will be remanded.”
On “Money Folder” (above), over a tricksy breakbeat and a synthesised approximation of a double-bass, the pair treat us to every trick in their book. A brief snatch of repurposed narration, then we’re launched into the main attraction, with DOOM relentlessly spitting rhyme, and Madlib finding time to fit in a conspicuous jazz breakdown. Disembodied piano chords rise to the top of the mix, painfully slowly, practically inviting the fade-out which eventually follows, leading into a lengthier, chopped-and-screwed passage of narration, pieced together from different films and, who knows, different eras. It’s a mesmerising composition; a shadowy world reminiscent of the one dreamt up on DJ Shadow’s seminal Endtroducing…; and a showcase for one of the most exciting rappers of all time.
Knock-out classic from 1973, as used in J Dilla’s masterful “Stop”.
There’s a haunting tone to that guitar twang which sets the scene at the start, which then gets subsumed into Warwick’s lovesick vocals and the soaring string arrangement. Later on, the guitar returns, transformed into a brittle solo instrument, perfectly mirroring the anguish in Warwick’s voice.
The other thing you notice is the drums, which could themselves have appeared on a Dilla track. There is a viscous quality to them, which suggests they might be rolling off the beat when in fact they remain totally in the pocket.
UPDATED: The stunning video for the song has been released to YouTube.
I thought there were a pair of comparable albums to come out of the post-Klaxons beats+thrashy guitars+searing synths movement. The first, released in 2007, was These New Puritans’ Beat Pyramid; the second, Late Of The Pier’s Fantasy Black Channel, exhumed from some twisted nightmarish grave in 2008. For me, Beat Pyramid was the superior beast, displaying a lot less cheese, an attempt to tackle disparate conspiracist topics like numerology and doppelgängers, and generally coming across like the work of artists with a little more focus and sensibility. Fantasy Black Channel was more messy and sprawling and clumsy, while Beat Pyramid tried out some interesting conceptual manœuvres (refrains, lyrical and music themes that re-surfaced elsewhere on the album, intra-album remixing) that they pulled off with some aplomb.
And so I’m rather glad that These New Puritans are back, this time wielding a seven-minute-plus single called “We Want War”, which precedes the 2010 release of Hidden, their sophomore album. “We Want War” is undoubtedly a more ambitious and high-budget affair, boasting woodwind arrangements, choirs, and the actual sounds of warfare. It’s also lost some of the DIY charm of the band’s previous work – where before they had beats that sound like they’d been punched in the chest and run over by an articulated lorry, this new material rides in on suspiciously crisp taiko drumming. Though the tone is supposed to be foreboding and doom-laden, it’s actually much less harrowing and brutal than songs like “Infinity ytinifni”.
For all that, it’s still a storming track, boasting several sudden shifts in tone and pace, and a combination of samples and loops and kitchen sinks that thrills and astonishes me. They’re clearly a band of wild ambition and excess, but key to “We Want War”‘s appeal is that it reins in any really extraneous excess, and we end up with a long, long song, that doesn’t outstay its welcome. The comparison I imagine will be made will be with Massive Attack – this song shares that Bristol group’s unnerving sense of dread and apocalypse. “We Want War” also rides along the same kind of lazily terrifying beat as Massive Attack’s “Inertia Creeps”. Expect Hidden to be a less unkempt album, but certainly no less indicative of the band’s manifold talents and experiments.
These New Puritans – We Want War