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Songs of Quarantine: Spiritual Jazz And Lyrical Miracles

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Despite the false-alarm (and now rolled-back) re-openings spurred by Gavin Newsom here in California, there’s no real end to quarantining and social distancing in sight (at least in the US). As I wrote about in my previous article, exploring records both new and old has been especially meaningful to me in this time. Music’s ability to transport and foster empathy is unmatched in the arts, and it goes a long way to fill the voids in human connection we’re all feeling right now. As such, I’ve gathered another handful of projects and songs I’ve been revisiting often in the last few weeks to explore what I’ve found so continually compelling about them. Read on, and be sure to check out the embedded tracks.

A final note before getting into my writeups: don’t interpret the decreasing frequency of protests and media coverage to mean the dial has been shifted in terms of police brutality and overall quality of life for Black people in America. It hasn’t. I again implore you to educate yourself and donate to anti-racist causes. You can find some great resources here:

Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist – Alfredo

Gary, Indiana MC Freddie Gibbs has been in the rap game a long time, having spent a number of years as a mostly-ignored part of Young Jeezy’s crew. But since breaking out on his own, his ambition, along with his songwriting and rapping abilities have seemingly increased exponentially project after project.

His output over the last six years has been both prolific and staggeringly varied. He’s put out two collabs with Madlib, one (Piñata) a bonafide classic and the other (Bandana) nearly as good. He’s also given us a batch of brilliantly brooding nocturnal bangers on Shadow of a Doubt, an LP full of cutting post-incarceration introspection on You Only Live 2wice, and a brief gauntlet of pummeling, adrenaline-pumping trap on Freddie.

Much like Denzel Curry and Kenny Beats’ Unlocked (which I wrote about last month), Alfredo finds two artists at the peak of their powers demonstrating why they’re some of the best to ever do it. But while Unlocked has an expected youthful energy and showiness to it, Alfredo relishes in its fairly slow pace; Alchemist creates wide, mid-to-downtempo soundscapes that Gibbs and a few guest MCs match with lengthy, vivid verses.

On the mid-album cut, “Something to Rap About,” Gangsta Gibbs drops the line “God made me sell crack so I’d have something to rap about.” And while it’s true the topics of discussion don’t venture far beyond slinging dope and bragging about how good of a rapper he is, Alfredo plays out like a great gangster movie, weaving the fullness of human experience through a would-be rote narrative.

The subject matter here serves as a conduit for Freddie to describe what drug dealing and being a successful Black man signify in American culture in a myriad of ways. Sometimes we get this through bleak, all-too-real imagery: “Pray my soul to keep, dear Lord lay me down / The SWAT team might machine gun or grenade me down / And if they do, tell my people just hold my babies down.” Sometimes with a dark sense of humor: “You n****s snitchin’, getting time shaved / Sold a book on my Boost Mobile, I boost the crime rate.” And sometimes with bars that are just cold as fuck: “Fuck rap, bitch, I’m poppin’ off of poppy seed / My name’s cocaine, they ain’t gon’ put me in the nominees / Since Gangsta Gibbs brought back the bars, I seen a lotta me’s.” But Gibbs rarely silos these approaches—all the bars I’ve written out here are contained within the same verse.

On a technical level, Freddie’s performances here are impeccable; right out of the gate with the opener, “1985,” he comes through with a relentless double-time flow and a mindbogglingly dense rhyme scheme—a stunning show of virtuosity that The Alchemist respects by leaving a lot of empty space in his instrumental. And check how he matches his flow to Alchemist’s double-tap snares on “God is Perfect”—this is next-level shit.

And while I mostly come away from Alfredo wowed by the onslaught of incredible bars and flows Gibbs delivers, The Alchemist also brings his A-game with instrumentals that give the record a good deal of variety and changes of pace while maintaining a consistent aesthetic. In fact, I’d rank two of the instrumentals here among his best ever. For “Scottie Beam,” he masterfully samples a brief keyboard passage from Wee’s “Alone (Reprise),” isolating and reordering elements to create an expansive and subtly progressive feel that far surpasses its source material. The beat on “Frank Lucas” is comparatively simple, but no less brilliant. It sounds like it came straight from the gutter, with a skipping, animalistic bassline and some wonderfully off-kilter stabs of dusty guitar power chords that occasionally cut through the rest of the instrumental.

The Alchemist’s output in the last 6 months alone has been relentless. Alfredo is his third collaborative LP of the year (after Conway’s LULU and Boldy James’s excellent The Price of Tea in China), not to mention placements on Eminem, Jay Electronica, and Westside Gunn’s latest LPs. But despite the deluge of material, Alc’s production here feels especially distinct from the rest of his recent work. With a few exceptions, he replaces the grit and heft that his production is known for with beats that are subtle, airy, possessed of gentle, shifting melodies. The result perfectly suits the record’s goal, which is to largely eschew concrete concepts to simply show Gibbs operating at the peak of his powers.

There’s precisely one track on Alfredo that stays anchored around a specific subject, and that’s the whirlwind penultimate cut, “Skinny Suge.” Over some cool-toned jazz guitar arpeggiation, Gibbs describes his early days as a rapper, not yet having earned enough success in the music business to leave trapping behind. The frantic desperation Gibbs conveys is damn near enough for me to break out in a cold sweat. The song is comprised of just one extended verse, and every bar cuts to the bone. I don’t normally quote lyrics at length, but there’s really no better way to get across just how weighty these bars are:

“Had powder on my table, the label called for their offer back /

Harry on my line, I ain’t got his bread, I can’t call him back /

Plus I got a show, the promoters ain’t got the dough for that /

These losses set me back, man, I’m literally sellin’ dope to rap /

How can a n**** cope with that? /

Man, my uncle died off a overdose /

And the fucked up apart about that is know I supplied the n**** that sold it /

Put a pistol to my head, I was way too scared, drunk off emotions /

I’m drinkin’ and takin’ these drugs ‘cause I can’t numb the pain with smokin’ /

Loner but I hate to be lonely.”

Fittingly, the track is like the hip-hop equivalent of the coke bender sequence in Goodfellas, both in its intensity and in the fact that it very nearly stands alone as its own work. And while Alfredo would still be a great album even without “Skinny Suge,” the inclusion of an uninterrupted moment of gravity pushes it far into the upper echelons of this year’s release.


Actually, who am I kidding? While a few come close, Alfredo is my favorite album of the year so far.


Since about 2015, I’ve kept a mental list of my top 5 “new” MCs (even though they’re all established vets at this point). The list is as follows: 1) Kendrick Lamar, 2) Young Thug, 3) Freddie Gibbs, 4) ScHoolboy Q, and 5) Danny Brown.


Despite the fact that no one else in the entire world cares about this list, I take my rankings very seriously. The number 4 and 5 spots are in constant contention; Pusha T, A$AP Rocky, and Future were on the list at one point, and Q and Danny Brown may not have much time left in the top 5 given the stellar output of MCs like Denzel Curry, Westside Gunn, and Earl Sweatshirt.


My top 3 in the order that I’ve listed them, however, have been locked in since 2016 or so. Ousting Kendrick from the number 1 spot is pretty much an impossibility—as far as I’m concerned, he’s neck and neck with Jay Z for the title of greatest rapper ever. But I think it’s time I face facts and make the incredibly culturally important decision to swap Gibbs and Thugger and proclaim the Half Manne, Half Cocaine himself, Gangsta Gibbs, the runner up to K.Dot.


Freddie has given us six projects in a row now that range from great to classic, and while I don’t think Alfredo will find the cultural foothold that Piñata and Bandana have, I’d put it in the same general tier of quality as those seminal records.


Gibbs and The Alchemist have both been killing it these last few years, and even if they somehow begin putting out absolute trash immediately after this (highly doubtful), the runs they’ve had over the last few years are ones for the hip-hop history books.



Royce da 5’9 – “Overcomer (ft. Westside Gunn)”


Royce da 5’9 of Slaughterhouse and Bad Meets Evil fame is the exact type of overly-technical, lyrical miracle rapper that I typically can’t stand. I haven’t enjoyed any of the Detroit MC’s projects—steeped as they are in word-vomit flows and obnoxious faux-intelligence—and I probably never will.


So I’m very surprised to report that “Overcomer,” his lead single off of his latest record, The Allegory (which as a whole, I didn’t enjoy), is still one of my favorite singles of the year.


The song revolves around a simple, implicit narrative that contrasts the perspectives of someone caught in and even revering the brutal cyclicality of street life with that of someone who’s been able to transcend the trap (the titular overcomer).


Playing the first of those two roles is Westside Gunn, who’s quickly become a towering presence in the realm of gritty, lyrical hip-hop. Holding down about half the track’s running time, Westside delivers an extended verse that’s brilliant in its blunt nihilism and violence. Anyone familiar with his solo work knows that he’s an avid wrestling fan, and here he revels in playing the heel, spitting some bars that even I (as jaded a hip-hop listener as I am) found somewhat shocking: “Sold grams for years, bagging up, taste the tears / Hit ‘em up close, you gotta face the fears / Where I’m from, driveby’s overrated / If you get five bodies, then you’re famous.”


Royce, as the overcomer, tackles comparatively higher-minded subject matter—social justice, politics, religion, and success and failure in the music industry. At times he comes through with bars that are incredibly memorable in their abstract poeticism, stuff like “In search of right like the birth of Christ / Breakin’ every generational curse in life,” “Martin got shot on the Lorraine balcony, became alchemy”, and “I was dubbed the greatest by the gossip / I’m King Tut to these haters in my Spyder cockpit.”


But for every line of that caliber, there’s a couplet that sounds like he put a dictionary in a blender and then constructed his bars by picking out scraps from the shredded pages. I’m tempted to say that the lines “Return who adverse to the earth / Make sure that my hearse is white / And the contract Jewish, to match a grind that’s foolish / A Qur’an that’s Buddhist,” are offensive, but I don’t know what the fuck they’re even supposed to mean. Elsewhere, he goes full hip-hop James Joyce with lines so riddled with free associative, deep cut allusions that I’m not sure if anyone is supposed to enjoy or understand them.


To give credit where credit is due, Royce produced the track, and the beat he creates by pulling together a few tasteful, vocal-driven samples from The Lintons’ “Lost Love” is fantastic. The breakdown that separates Westside Gunn’s verse from his own is particularly impressive, as the samples and drums grow louder and more hectic until West cuts through with his signature “BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM!” adlib and the instrumental circles back to where it started.


And ultimately, the track is more than the sum of its parts. Its message still resonates even if Royce’s half of the track muddles it, and the production and Westside Gunn’s contributions make for some of the most effective earworm hip-hop of the year so far.



Pharoah Sanders – “The Creator Has a Master Plan”


Much of the spiritually-minded music that’s found a foothold in popular consciousness is music that’s about faith. As performed by the masters of the genre—John and Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra, Idris Ackamoor, and so on—spiritual jazz is a religious practice in and of itself. The greatest spiritual jazz records display a palpable struggle to express and understand profound emotions, and as such, speak to the lifelong challenge we all face in reconciling the immediate and earthly with the transcendent and cosmic.


Pharoah Sanders’ “The Creator Has a Master Plan” is a stunning example of the genre’s power. It’s also exceptionally dense and imposing, clocking in at almost 33 minutes and featuring (by my count) about a half dozen percussion tracks playing independent rhythms underneath the bass, drums, piano, flute, French horn, vocals, and Sanders’ tenor sax.


While its sound is dense, its structure is simple at first glance. There are two main sections Sanders and his band move between. The first is an arrhythmic tidal wave of textured percussion, amorphous bass, and circular flute and horn phrases. It’s a kaleidoscopic wall of sound pierced only by Sanders’ searching sax melodies; with his penchant for overblowing notes, it sometimes sounds as if he’s trying to transcend the mix altogether.


The second section is comparatively normal; it’s got a simple chord progression, some vocals, and the instrumentalists all play identifiable rhythms, riffs, and melodies. There are still some psychedelic oddities here (like some slightly off-tempo mallet slides), but for the most part, it serves as a port in the storm.


(As a long sidenote: I’m fascinated by the repeated, namesake lyric in this section: “The creator has a master plan / Peace and happiness for every man / The creator makes but one demand / Happiness through all the land.” This is obviously a paradox: if we achieve universal peace and happiness on our own, then God’s grand design is made moot. Given the song’s incredibly abstract nature, and the fact that there aren’t many lyrics beyond these, it’s hard to form an argument about what significance these circular lines may (or may not) hold. Still, I find it to be another incredibly memorable quality of an already singular piece.)


For a bit over half the track, we move back and forth between these two movements relatively neatly. But around the 18-minute mark, the band begins to blur the lines between the two, and the result is awe-inspiring. Order and structure wrestle with freedom and chaos, and Sanders and vocalist Leon Thomas continually ratchet up the intensity by soloing simultaneously. Just when it feels like the studio they played it must’ve been close to combustion, the storm again clears, and we transition seamlessly back to the second section’s simple modal vamping, which continues until the song draws to a close.


I’ve listened to this track an absurd number of times in putting together this writeup and I continually notice new things in the mix, and more importantly, find that the song evokes new ideas and emotions that hadn’t previously come to mind. As a result of grappling with grand and unknowable ideas, “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” is, itself, something close to unknowable, and I fully expect that it will continue to unfurl and take on new meaning every time I revisit it.