Swollen Members – Dagger Mouth

DAGGER

This can’t help but feel like an apology for their previous, atrocious album. For an album that’s so apologetic it also sounds like a roaring comeback that threatens to be their defining work. It’s an odd contrast that doesn’t really make sense and makes you wonder what Armed to the Teeth was all about anyway if they’re doing the complete opposite here.

Swollen Members are about classic Boom Bap only with more charisma. Instead of mumbling about New York and other such cliches, they flirt with horrorcore while never becoming as obnoxious as Necro. This versatility let them either slide completely into the genre, take it into more personal places (“Bad Dreams”) or to just expand beyond the typical boundaries of Hip-Hop. That’s why Black Magic is so good and why it received such a lukewarm reception. Before Kanye West’s new found fame, the only way to make an acclaimed album was to imitate crappy New York rappers I won’t bother to name.

So when they dropped Armed to the Teeth, it made no sense except that the people at Subnoize used it as a device to spread their misogyny. While the addition of guitars were cool, tracks like “Porn Star” were not. It’s exactly what I feared and what we got. For some reason they think that if they hate women, then every artist on Subnoize must sing about hating women. Even beyond the occasional misogyny the album lacked spirit. The only time it did, it’s because it had song titles like “Reclaim the Throne”. Clearly, they weren’t over the whole D&D thing.

From the beginning there is a suicidal fatal darkness to this album that never lets go. The opening track goes off about emotions and fear. “The Shining” talks about a spinning world that makes you feel lost. Just look at the song titles from that track on – “Devil”, “The Predator”, “Chemical Imbalance”. Swollen aim for a balance between the murder raps of Necro and the depressive introspection of Sadistik – self-harm as a sign of strength.

The result is absolutely badass and fun. It’s over-the-top, yes, but its darkness doesn’t mean a lack of fun. Swollen just trade in being warriors to being creepy dudes. “Night Vision” and “Chemical Imbalance” are the pumping heart of the album, where Mad Child swings from self-hating to bragging, often in the same line. You can hear his passion, too. He repeats the same rhymes a few times, but its his fury, his anger, how it’s directed at everyone (including himself) and no one at the same that makes the verse of “Night Vision” one of the best verses in Hip-Hop ever. Some rappers may have written more clever rhymes, but such passion is rare, especially in Boom Bap.

You can also look at this album as not just Swollen taking their style to the extreme, but also pushing the Boom Bap genre to actual darkness. Rob the Viking also shines here, knowing that the lyrics would be nothing without creepy sounds. While they don’t really go the danceable route – “Fire”, “Sound of the Drum” and “Devil” are the only times they raise the tempo and let the drums kick hard – he creates great soundscapes. Odd, unclear sounds surround these songs. A generator-like hum makes “Night Vision” way creepier. Rob knows that if the drums don’t take a central place, something else must. His atmospheric is actually atmospheric and enveloping. Calling it ‘camp’ is just silly. There was no other way of achieving this besides piling the odd noises.

Mad Child is the star here, which can sometimes be sad. All of the struggles he talked about in Armed to the Teeth are here out in the open. It might as well be an exorcism of his demons. Some songs are solo, like “Chemical Imbalance”. That leaves Prevail a bit in the dust, since his lyrics don’t have that personal nature but just cool imagery of satanic rituals, killing people, the undead and general darkness. He can never capture Mad Child’s fury who raps like a man possessed. It’s most apparent in “Night Vision” where his verse is almost useless. That said, he’s still an integral part. Without him this would become an incoherent and self-centered work. Prevail’s slightly more lighthearted approach is necessary.

The best thing about this album is how it manages to be unique, a whole piece without straying too far. Traditional Hip-Hop is an extremely minimalist genre so you get a lot of rappers saying nothing over white noise. It’s almost frightening how similar most of the canon is. Swollen Members don’t pull any tricks here, it’s just they got a more interesting concept and more passion. In the end Hip-Hop is sound art, and no matter how clever your lyrics are you need passion and to rap with conviction. Dagger Mouth is a strong contender for the best Boom Bap rap album ever. It actually takes advantage of the genre’s style and limits. It uses the minimalist beats to let the rappers go crazy, so the rappers actually go crazy. At the same time the beats remain important, providing odd sounds that change the tone of the songs – whether it’s the aggressive “Night Vision”, the moody “Chemical Imbalance” or the self-congratulating “Mr. Impossible”. I want to blame Subnoize for this album’s lack of success, but then again if they didn’t shat out Armed to the Teeth they wouldn’t feel the need to apologize and make a glorious comeback.

4 daggers out of 5

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Brother Ali – All The Beauty in This Whole Life

allbeauty
Some time ago, Brother Ali had vitality and passion. It was a time everyone hated Hip-Hop made for partying, so some did bland, unmusical Boom Bap and others decided Hip-Hop could be about things other than killing and fucking. Nowadays it’s not mind-blowing anymore and that’s okay, since that era gave us Atmosphere whose followers – like Grieves and Sadistik – are the future. Brother Ali had his sure of fantastic tracks.

When I say ‘vitality’, I don’t mean that Brother Ali gone soft or any of that crap. The best song here is “Out of Here”, and his best song overall is “Faheem”, a heartbreaking song for his son that’s arresting from the first note and the moment Ali opens his mouth. There is vulnerability in his voice, one of an everyman who struggles with everyman issues that despite being common they’re still so huge we need music to deal with them. For a long time, it was one of the first songs I offered any time someone went off on ‘Hip-Hop is not music’ rants.

This album continues with the more introspective, less political nature. Nothing here goes hard like “Whatcha Got”, and that’s okay. The problem is, Ali doesn’t sound like he’s really into making music. Many of these songs ramble and don’t go anywhere. When they do, these are messages we’re familiar with and their delivary isn’t interesting or adds something new.

I’m not even sure if Ali is capable anymore. Like any rapper in this style, he had a tendency to make songs that are too dense to be interesting, but “Out of Here” should’ve been more powerful, darker. It should’ve brought the same vulnerability that made “Faheem” so arresting, yet it just coasts along. If it never sends a comforting message like how life goes on, it also doesn’t provide much insight into the topic. Losing someone to suicide is confusing. It shifts paradigms. We don’t just realize someone is gone, but it was death by choice. Someone actively decided that this whole project called life isn’t worthwhile.

According to the story, Ali took a break from music and went on a trip around the world to learn a bit about the beauty and love and life. Just look at the title. This kind of optimism leads to two things. Either there is a madness, an untamed desire to live and experience and contain everything which often leads to gender-bending music or you get dull, non-confrontational Zen bullshit. As if being complacent, or passive or placid, or whatever bastardization of Buddhism we invent is somehow profound.

Ali’s new found optimism isn’t mad and engrossing. All it does is make him less confrontational, with less desire to jump fully into his ideas. “Before They Called You White” reeks of tokenism, not of anger or of intelligence. Ali wants to take on the invention of whiteness. That’s an interesting topic that people don’t say interesting thing about. I can’t even get angry at Ali missing the cases and histories of racism not done by whites. Nothing is more West-centric than pretending whiteness is the great evil, but at least the idiots who spew that are passionate about it. At his most passionate in his song Ali says ‘Post-Traumatic Slavemaster Syndrom”, which is kind of cool. As for the final hook, it’s ironic. If the eye can’t see itself and needs critique, can I do it to all cultures?

Don’t get the impression that this album provides insight into the racial struggles. Nothing here is like Macklemore’s “White Privilege”, an abomination that was at least interesting. The second time Ali talks about race with focus is on “Dear Black Son”, but since race is everywhere in contemporary discourse the song is not interesting. I don’t mind songs about the Black experience, but don’t expect a “The Blacker the Berry”, something that shows the pain of being marginalized, of being always afraid a random cop will shoot you or that everyone still gives you funny looks despite claiming constantly they’re not racist. There is genuine pain to explore here, but this song is nothing but ‘you’re beautiful and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise’. Considering Ali experienced losing someone to suicide, I think if anyone needs this message, they are people who don’t an identity to give their life meaning.

I digress. This review should talk about how dull Ali’s rapping is on this album. Whatever interesting thing he has to say on “Never Learn”, the best thing about is the bluesy beat. Mostly, it makes me wish I was listening to Grieves who is so talented even when the songs are about nothing he imbues them with emotion. “Never Learn” is just cookie cutter serious Hip-Hop, pleasant on the ear and nothing else. Most of the songs are like this. I don’t get it. Ali is a talented rapper and the first single, “Own Light”, has some life in it. In fact, it does hint that the album might be necessary, taking introspective Hip-Hop to a more optimistic direction and creating the antithesis of Sadistik.

Sadly, the end result is introspective Hip-Hop without much going for it, either in subject matter, atmosphere, tone, wit or anything. The impression is that Ali found peace, and now he doesn’t have much he needs to let out in music besides some joy in “Own Light” and sorrow in “Out of Here”. In the title-track which closes the song, he praises God and overall existence. Forget, for a moment, Ligotti’s pessimism and how existence is always bad. Is that how the passion and love for life should sound like? Isn’t happiness and love wild, untamed emotions which we just can’t contain? Aren’t the best smiles those we can’t control? I’m happy for Ali that he’s at peace, really, but if his heart isn’t in music then he doesn’t have to make music.

Anyone remember “Fresh Air”? Now that’s a song that could cure depression.

2 out of 5 here