Synthesis, Synchronicity, and Singularity
How Three of Hip-Hop’s Most Ingenious Independents Helped Make 2012 a Year to Remember
Tree’s story is an endearing one, and you can read all about it in the article that appeared in the Chicago Reader, but you’d do just as well to listen closely to his lyrics, which might omit or embellish some factual details but carry more emotional weight than any news feature could. While critics label it “everyman rap,” or even worse “reality rap” — a classification that, if you ask me, is just as ignorantly condescending as the phrase “conscious hip-hop” — the truth of the matter is that Tree’s music is enjoyable simply because it’s at once uniquely vibrant, evocative, sophisticated, and accessible. And above all, it’s ridiculously infectious. This summer, I played Sunday School so many times my closest friends went from liking it to loving it to getting a little annoyed with it to hating it to loving it all over again.
Since then, Tree has released a bunch of loosies, plus an EP he did with producer Tony Baines called The Lit. Although it doesn’t feature any of Tree’s beats, it does provide him further opportunity to showcase his mic skills and also evinces his good ear is not limited to sample selection. Another new collaborative project called Trillin just dropped, and his first purchasable release, an iTunes album called Soul Trap, is due out soon. Whether it can live up to or exceed the high standards set by Sunday School remains to be seen. However, if Tree’s discography thus far tells us anything, it’s that he’s only getting better, both as a rapper and as a producer.
… And then there’s Ka, whose 2012 album Grief Pedigree is very much grounded in one geographic location: the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, NY. Beyond the fact that many of his lyrics directly reference growing up and living there, Ka’s gravelly delivery, economized bar structure, and minimalistic production values say something about making the best out of what little you have, something with which the area’s residents are surely accustomed. And for all the would-be Williamsburg denizens out there, it just sounds hard, like “wrong side of the tracks” hard, like an eviler, one-man version of Mobb Deep.
So, if Ka’s music isn’t representative of some kind of subgenre synthesis, then why has it captured the hearts and minds of so many and so many different types of hip-hop listeners? Many reasons come to mind, but here are a few:
01. It has the makings of a classic hip-hop album. Short and to the point, it contains 11 tracks or 10 songs and features only one guest, Hempstead, NY’s Roc Marciano. More importantly, none of the songs are skippable, and in fact the album works so well as a cohesive whole it’s pretty much impossible to single out any one song as a favorite. There are a million different ways to say this album is great, but don’t take my word for it. Just listen for yourself if you haven’t already.
02. Aesop Rock might’ve said it best, writing, “The record sounds like a guy going through old records in his room and piecing together eerie loops to zone out to. You can really hear the process in there as much as you can hear the finished product, and while I find that so much of today’s rap music is too crispy-clean for me, this record just jumped out as something much more personal. You can tell Ka made it because that’s just what he does—whether or not you ever hear it.” Word. In an era in which everyone fancies themselves a musician or artist of some kind, a fully realized and dissectible DIY project such as this is extremely relatable. The sense of authenticity to which Aesop refers is further reinforced by Ka’s mission statement/YouTube bio, in which he writes:
I’ve been rhyming for over 20 years and appreciate any hip-hop fan who respects lyrics … If you’re going to rhyme, you should have something relevant and unique to say. I decided a long time ago that I would make music for the love of it. If you can make money from art, that’s a beautiful thing. But money shouldn’t be the reason you make art. You make art because you can’t help it. I can honestly say there’s not a day that goes by that lines don’t come to me. My words are an extension of who I am, and I was never willing to compromise that for anyone.
03. A picture says a thousand words, and for this, his musical manifesto, Ka didn’t just throw his name on a photo of a street corner and call it an album cover; he assembled a collage of images representative of the album’s various themes and plot points. Likewise, he didn’t just film two or three videos, one for each “single,” and call it a day. Hell, there were no singles. He directed and released 10 videos (one for each song on the album), giving his potential fans numerous opportunities to discover his music, and providing existing fans with something to look forward to month after month as well as additional cause to revisit the album again and again.
Finally, while it might not have anything to do with why the album was so fully embraced by fans and critics alike, it shouldn’t be overlooked that Ka was active during the era mentioned at the start of this feature. Formerly a member of the college radio wunderkind Natural Elements (albeit one with a background role) and one half of the unsung duo Nightbreed, Ka has been around for a minute, and though his recent success represents a huge progression from his previous efforts, what’s more relevant to our discussion is the simple fact that he shares such a concrete link to this past era. And he’s not the only independent artist with roots in the late 1990s and early 2000s who came correct this year. For other examples, see Aesop Rock’s Skelethon, Roc Marciano’s Reloaded, and my pick for album of the year, billy woods’ History Will Absolve Me.
The thing that really made 2012 a year to remember in my eyes is that of all the year’s best independent releases, no two sound alike, and moreover, more fans are beginning to ignore stylistic divisions, which truthfully never should’ve been a factor in the first place. In reality, most die-hard hip-hop fans and music enthusiasts in general don’t really care much about regional affiliations or target demographics or any of that nonsense. Those are really just marketing tools used by A&Rs and journalists for branding purposes. If you’re like me, you grew up listening to Nirvana and The Wu-Tang Clan, Company Flow, and Project Pat, because they’re all great in their own right. And that’s all that matters: is the music uniquely good or not?
Many hip-hop purists look on modern music technology as some kind of invading force, as if iPod owners only listen to shuffled songs, rarely taking the time to appreciate an album as a whole. This holds true for some, but I think shuffling has had another effect that hasn’t been as readily acknowledged. The randomization of music libraries makes it commonplace for a heavy-metal song to be followed by a reggae tune or for an introspective street rap to be followed by a hipster-hop anthem celebrating wanton Molly popping. After a while, this becomes so unremarkable that we don’t even notice it. Therefore, even the most casual listeners have begun to ignore genre and subgenre classifications. Go into a bar and ask someone what he or she listens to. Nine times out of ten, the answer is “Everything.”
Rap producers and rappers have been listening to everything since the genre’s inception. It’s the nature of the beast. Furthermore, each of hip-hop music’s most defining years offers multiple examples of groundbreaking artistic experimentation that shattered conventions and defied expectations. I don’t know if 2012 will go down in history with 1988 and 1994 as one of the best years to be a hip-hop fan, but if the main criteria for inclusion are an annual output’s overall variety, originality, and quality, it just might.