Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Album Reviews Round-Up: 2016 First Quarter

Jonny blogs some thoughts on the new EPs/LPs from the first quarter of the year. This was initially intended to be released in a few weeks but we've been overwhelmed by the number of releases so far this year. As a result, you can expect a second round-up from the first quarter in a few weeks featuring new releases from Wee D, Catchlick Emcees, Big Shamu and more.

Profound Mercenary - Subterranean

You have to admire an emcee that produces his own beats. Rapping to your own beats not only gives you an artistic license to let your imagination go crazy, it also means that you can map out your words and images more clearly before you put pen to pad. 
It's this approach that allows Edinburgh newcomer Profound Mercenary's singular voice shines through on this mixtape. There are plenty of kinks to iron out, but by following his own path he's done himself a favour.

Mercenary clearly has a natural feel for making smooth throwback hip hop. He neatly cuts up samples, tastefully lays out drums and layers instruments with settled ease. 'What You Wanna Be' stands out most in this respect, an upbeat piano-led beat that gives him a platform to play around with his flow. 
Sure, the mixing could be better - he buries his vocals for example, either due to lack of experience or lack of confidence - but every track here has personality. 

The raps are a mixed bag on the whole. The fact that are his flows feel dated may bother some listeners - although I'd be lying if I didn't say I like the sing-song CL Smooth-esque flow on 'Petty'. It's more that his projection just isn't at the level it needs to be yet. Unlike his instrumentals, his vocals tend to lack flavour, which is a problem when your content tends to revolve around weed, approaching women and boring aspirational tropes. 

With the notable exception of the choruses (rappers that can't sing really shouldn't sing), pushing the boat out is what usually works best. On 'Rags to Riches' he delivers witty punchlines about celebrities that actually grab your attention, probably because he doesn't sound bored out of his skull. Profound Mercenary has more charisma than he's letting on but lacks faith in his ability. The best moments on this project are unsurprisingly the ones where he actually sounds like he's enjoying himself. 

MacKenzie - Chaos

Andrew MacKenzie tagging his new album as 'POST HIP-HOP EXPERIMENTAL FUTURISTIC MYSTICISM' pretty much sums up his ambitions as an artist. MacKenzie isn't ashamed about his mission to produce genuine art - I mean, this is a guy who practically stepped in to win a battle competition last year because of 'quality control'.

Let's be clear, though: this isn't an album that seeks to transcend Scottish hip hop, it's an album that proudly represents its best features. It's loud, brash and it doesn't give a fuck about what anyone thinks about it (not that that'll stop us reviewing it, of course). 

They say that venting frustration is the best form of art and there's a lot of frustration on this record. In terms of dystopian vision, this isn't far off Loki's 'G.I.M.P.' or some of Texture's more nihilistic material but even more heavy and erratic. The production is muddy and industrial, but never so much so that MacKenzie isn't the focal point. 

In fact, it'd be fair to say that I've slept on his talents as an emcee. His writing is impeccable as expected, displaying a syllabic dexterity that is matched by few in Scotland, but his flows are off the chain as well. On the likes of 'Tommy Dreamer' he's all over the place, dementedly jumping between flows and vocal styles. He sounds particularly agitated on the title track, the song that most effectively sum up the 'chaos' theme of the album. 

Though commentary on the 'chaos theory' - which, broadly speaking, means the concept of unpredictable phenomena - is hardly anything new, MacKenzie tackles it creatively. He strategically employs eerie samples throughout the record, enforcing a sense of disorder before he touches the mic on several tracks. He doesn't overdo it with the features either: Ciaran Mac spits manic multisyllabics on 'Devil Dances' and Conscious Route steals the show on 'Freezing'.

Do all of MacKenzie's experiments work? Not quite. Steelioz Gawngallaz' contribution is a highlight on 'Bells of War', but he just sounds lost on the trap-flavoured 'Inspire the Pursuit'. Closing track 'Strings' meanwhile, though stunning, sounds like it's drifted onto the wrong album entirely. But slight missteps are understandable, especially as Scottish hip hop is in such dire need of experimental voices. Whether we judge on style, content or execution, MacKenzie passes with flying colours. 

K9 Kev - Dear Diary

As explained in our podcast interview, my review of K9 Kev is likely to be riddled with hometown bias. For those unfamiliar with Kev, he's been playing shows since the days when Scottish rappers' only source of feedback was the old forums. In the lengthy period since he last released music (see his old collaborations with Chad the Lad), he's done everything from getting signed and dropped by a prospective label to rapping his way onto national radio to playing legendary shows in his (and my) hometown of Oban.

So, with all that said and all apparent objectivity out the window ... this is easily K9 Kev's best work. 

Being honest, it's easy enough to point to Kev's limitations as an emcee: his rhyme schemes are generally pretty simplistic, he doesn't particularly attempt wordplay and strong writing has always been his blind spot. 'Dear Diary' works well because it manages to downplay virtually all of these traits and accentuate what he's good at. 

By constructing the EP as a retrospective of his career (or rather his time as a rapper), Kev manages to maintain his cheeky-chap persona while still moralising like an elder statesman. Okay, so he's only 28, but Kev's experience of being a youth worker and tireless advocate for the west highland scene have given him a sense of perspective. Rather than rapping over tacky fruity loops instrumentals, he uses the local talent at his disposal. Kevin Smith, and Dave Ayling (We Might Be Giants) are just a couple of the Oban songwriters that contribute hooks and acoustic guitar loops.

This folk-hop hybrid works surprisingly well, giving the EP an air of authenticity. Kev openly embraces all the cheesy cliches that come with the territory, most notably singing along to choruses, most notably on the ridiculously catchy 'School Days' and 'West Coast Town'. Even though he delivers his "journey" narrative without a hint of irony, only a great cynic could say his stories and images aren't incredibly evocative.

Kev's gameplan is straight forward and effective: relatable lyrics, catchy beats and sing-along choruses. Yes, this is a sentimental project, but it's all the better for it. Capturing the spirit of the Oban scene and distilling it into a hip hop context isn't an easy thing to do, so this is a refreshing perspective in a scene that can be pretty miserable at times.

Silvertongue - Black Sheep


It's hard not to be jealous of Edinburgh rapper Silvertongue, who's currently living it up in Perth (the sunny Perth that is). It's no small feat that he's managed to transition from being one of Scotland's best emcees to one of Australia's best emcees. 'Black Sheep' is another collection of tracks that reminds us that he's actually putting in the work down under.

There are a few noticeable differences on this new tape. First of all, you can hear a slight refinement of his vocals - perhaps even an accent creeping in. His themes have also become more universal, with many tracks grappling with the personal challenges of moving on and learning from mistakes. Usually he does this light-heartedly, delivering punchlines with tongue firmly in cheek. Occasionally he's more philosophical, though, as on 'Tairy Fails' where he muses that "everybody knows a person they would burn in a sec, but ironically everybody's perfect in death".

Silvertongue has always been able to write like this, structuring rhymes well with cadence, ever since his battling days. Whether he's having fun or writing introspectively, he manages to maintain this standard throughout. He's very much a rapper's rapper: his flows are precise, his delivery is confident and his breath control is top notch. 

The beats on this tape are varied and full of character, although there doesn't seem to be much attempt at cohesion. For example, on 'Sit Back, Relax' we're encouraged to... well, sit back and relax, except he then grips you back in one track later with the most vicious (and probably best in isolation) on the mixtape, 'Full Plate'. Two songs later, he instructs you to 'Relax Yourself' again. 

That said, these quibbles are partly explained by the format - this isn't technically a full blown LP. Even though it has an intro and an outro, 'Black Sheep' feels like an inconsistent set of tracks that nevertheless showcase Silvertongue's considerable talents as an emcee. I'd be keen to hear a full conceptual album from him, sure, but this will serve as a terrific starting points for those hearing him for the first time.

Part Two of the first quarter will drop over the next couple of weeks.