It’s funny that recent months and years have witnessed increasing comments on just how amorphous rap has apparently become. Funny, because from its very beginning, rap has been based on the kind of street plunderphonics and sonic thievery that lends itself to wily versatility, to disparate sounds and styles that confound any attempt to pin rap outfits to a particular genre-tag beyond one that signifies little else than the occasional presence of vocal gymnastics. I mean, It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was as much funk, soul, and thrash metal as it was rap, while the no-less canonical Paul’s Boutique sampled everyone from Johnny Cash to the Incredible Bongo Band. At least where African-Americans were involved, these borrowings were in part counter-appropriations and retaliation-thefts against the white musicians who’d made lucrative careers stealing from blues, soul, and jazz, so it was only inevitable that, in aurally vandalizing the work of so many other artists, even the earliest hip-hop was already more diverse and nebulous than people gave it credit for.
So where does that leave True Neutral Crew, the experimental rap collective of Signor Benedick The Moor, Margot Padilla, and Brian Kinsman (ex-Foot Village, ex-Gang Wizard, TMT contributor)? Well, their debut album is undoubtedly a varied and multifaceted run through hip-hop à la ambient, noise, psychedelia, and indie, and there’s no denying it features an impressive roster of contributors and guests, including Daveed Diggs (clipping.), Shadi, They Hate Change, Hareld, Drew Daniel (Soft Pink Truth, Matmos), and Brian Chippendale (Lightning Bolt). Still, the disregard for convention and the fluid stylistic borders displayed on the appropriately named Soft Rules are in fact entirely in conformity with rap tradition, so that it’s really only the source material the album draws inspiration from that’s changed, taking in contemporary breeds of experimental music rather than, say, the rock, soul, and funk that featured heavily during the Golden Age of Hip-Hop.
And if nothing else, Soft Rules reminds us that this reflective absorption of subcultures and popular currents is one of the primary services rendered to society by hip-hop, which mirrors the present by gobbling it up and spitting it back out in the form of concentrated nuggets of anger, indignation, humor, pathos, or whatever other sentiment you could imagine. This comes out with the hallucinatory ambience and jittering electronics of opener “Monotheism,” and it comes out with the seedy club-strutting of “Florence,” where nocturnal grooves and “Fuck you” philosophizing suddenly make way for a jazzy string-laden bridge. At all points, it’s evident that True Neutral Crew are doing what the best rap groups do so well, which is critically embodying their surrounding environment by recycling and recombining its materials to penetrative effect. However, in their case, this environment happens to be the fractured, isolated, solipsistic, and imaginary domain of the hyper-mediated and hyper-alienated 21st-century, and not the multicultural urban jungles of NYC or LA.
Yet Soft Rules isn’t just an album that, via an eclectic refusal to stick to any particular genre, represents the individual’s disinterested disconnection from his or her concrete reality. It doesn’t only feature tribal pounders like “God is bored” that depict how even God Himself is detached from His own creation, but it also finds True Neutral Crew taking aim at some of the issues and injustices that have served to make their world such an alienating habitat in the first place. For example, if you get a hold of the album’s CD version, there’s the dystopian majesty and 8-bit video-gaming of “Monsanto,” which in true Neil Young-style has Diggs taking aim at the agrochemical/agricultural giant responsible for producing toxic chemicals by the bucket loads and stalling efforts to provide food with GMO labeling. There’s also the parodic punk-rock skree of “Modern Art,” which makes light of mass-produced art and the art world’s pretensions to profundity, with Diggs speedily confessing, “Vomit it like I’m an alcoholic/ Then throw all my vomit onto the wall/ Frame it, talk about it, draw critics.”
It’s tempting to level just this accusation of artlessness at True Neutral Crew themselves, given just how sprawling and all-encompassing their brand of rap is. That said, the initially overwhelming elements of Soft Rules — from the industrial menace of “More A Kid (prod. Robedoor)” to the shoegaze-y drifting of “Can’t Stop Loving You” — all end up cohering remarkably well, coalescing and compounding into deceptively well-wrought songs that yield satisfying hooks and similarly satisfying consummations. It’s a testament to the ingenuity and deliberateness of Signor Benedick, Padilla, and Kinsman (and everyone else) that their bid to confront our strange, often polarized/fragmented/conflicted world with its own warped reflection comes off so well. And this is a good thing, not just because it results in one of the most intriguing rap (double-)albums of the year, but because it also gives us some hope that this crazy world of ours just might be hiding some meaning and sense beneath all its insanity.