Album Reviews: Master Holy & Ade Hakim - Blood Brother, and Caleb Giles - Under The Shade
If you hadn’t already figured it out from the steady stream of albums released this year from the likes of Slauson Malone, MIKE, and the just issued collaboration between the London-based rapper and producer Rago Foot and King Carter Slums—there has never been a better time to direct your attention to the underground, independent, genre-bending rap music that is coming out of New York right now.
Either directly associated with the respective collectives Standing on The Corner or sLUms, or somehow loosely connected, these artists have seemingly gone out of their way to provide an alternative to much of the rap music that is within the popular culture right now—breathing exuberance into a genre that become stagnant and boring for long periods of time, and turning heads by making music that is both innovative and meaningful—a stark and welcomed contrast to the current crop of inexplicably popular Soundcloud rappers of ambiguous ethnicity and face tattoos.
Released within days of each other, there are now two more staggeringly brilliant and thought-provoking albums added to the growing body of work for this group of friends and collaborators.
Shouted out briefly, but memorably, on “Nowhere2go,” by Earl Sweatshirt (“Nowadays I be with Sage and with Six-press, ya dig?”), the artist formerly known as Sixpress now goes under the name, Ade Hakim. It’s the name he used when releasing On to Better Things last fall, and it’s the way he’s credited as the executive producer of and featured artist on a handful of the tunes from Blood Brother, a dizzying 10 song collection released by Hakim’s actual blood brother, Rasheed Dixon, under the moniker Master Holy.
Hakim, as a producer, sticks very closely to the aesthetic of a number that his fellow sLUms collaborators work with—Blood Brother, touted as being recorded in The Bronx, is not as lo-fi as an album by MIKE, per se, but it does have that homemade, slightly ramshackle feeling, both in the construction of the beats, as well as in the way the vocals were recorded and then later mixed in.
In contrast, though, Blood Brother is nowhere near as dark or pensive of a listen as, say, MIKE’s most recent effort, Tears of Joy, or last year’s War in My Pen; no, far from it—Blood Brother is a damn near jubilant and celebratory affair from beginning to end.
Like all off the performers with association to both Standing on The Corner and sLUms, both Hakim and Dixon are in their early to mid 20s, though you can hear in Dixon’s voice almost as soon as the album begins, that he has a cadence that is beyond his years—and there are moments throughout where his voice is very, very reminiscent of how a young Gary Grice—The GZA—sounded on the seminal Liquid Swords.
Blood Brother, more or less, never ceases in its energy—it is always pushing itself forward, with the ending of one song and the beginning of another often colliding. The album opens with a bit of sampled dialogue about how time is an illusion (an interesting concept to think about) prior to the beginning of the time stretched “DREAM,” which finds Dixon’s voice sliding back and forth between heavy manipulation, against a off kilter, pitch shifted beat. “DREAM” seamlessly segues into the slithering “Peter Pan”—with a cavernous echo added onto the vocal track, it is one of the songs on the album that exudes the aforementioned lo-fi, home recorded, truly underground aesthetic.
Musically, Hakim, as a the constructor of these beats, is doing some pretty interesting stuff—occasionally tapping into something dark or dissonant, like the borderline mournful “Scars,” which is by far the most fascinating thing on the album from a production standpoint with the way it hazily sways with both something soulful and something mildly unnerving happening inside its all too brief 90 seconds. But overall, Blood Brother is meant, from an arrangement standpoint anyway, to be triumphant—a point that is made, if you hadn’t already figured it out, by the glitchy, hypnotic, and celebratory final track, “Back to The Basics.”
It’s also on “Back to The Basics” that Dixon doesn’t so much deliver a ‘key lyric’ to the album, but gives us one of the more memorable lines that also maybe is the best example of his confident, possibly self-aggrandizing, stream of conscious style: “No Magnums—I attack raw,” he says, stretching out that ‘aw’ in ‘raw,’ to rhyme with “I stay gifted—no Santa Claus.”
Like so many albums—specifically rap albums that I’ve listened to this year—Blood Brother is terribly short in its running time. It clocks in just slightly over 20 minutes, but what it lacks in length, it makes up for with its commitment to a specific energy, as well as a celebration of both a musical movement, and of actual brotherhood. It’s production values and beats are ‘lo-fi’ enough to be interesting, but are never inaccessible, and Blood Brother is a compelling, highly enjoyable experience that never tires after multiple listens.
I’ve seen a lot in these 21 summers…
Arriving in the album’s ninth song, “What’s Mine,” the key to understanding Under The Shade, the third album from Caleb Giles, is in that lyric.
From the moment it begins, it should come as no surprise to you to learn that Giles is a member of the ‘genre negative’ collective, Standing on The Corner—from a production standpoint, the distortion and manipulation occurring during Under The Shade’s opening track, “Sunshine,” is very indicative of the Standing on The Corner aesthetic.
Outside of playing saxophone in SOTC, he has become, rather quickly, an important, thought provoking voice in this underground movement of rappers and producers coming out of New York—a voice that has undergone an impressive and very noticeable amount of growth since his debut, Tower, released just two years ago.
The face that adorns the cover of Under The Shade is one that, by all accounts, has seen a lot. That’s what the album, at its core, is about. Like Blood Brother, Under The Shade is brutally short—only 23 minutes long—but within that short amount of time, Giles never deviates from the conceit of this collection: that struggling is a part of the human condition—but there is also a glimmer of hope.
Under The Shade, as possibly expected, given its thematic elements and running time, and as it should, given the intelligence of Giles’ lyrics, is absolutely unrelenting in its momentum and its messages—right out of the gate to, Giles never lets up, with the album’s first three tracks running nearly seamlessly together. With “Sunshine” setting the tone, and serving as a slow burning and eerie intro, it concludes after a mere two minutes with a blast of radio static and commercials pulled from over the airwaves, including a booming voice uttering the phrase ‘New York’s finest,’ and just before the track cuts out, a voice promising us a ‘timeless tale,’ and a ‘theatre experience like none other.”
“Nothing shines out here,” Giles says in a breathless verse at the start of “Too,” the album’s second track that builds a steady pace after a warbled, manipulated, very SOTC-esque production technique. He follows that up by saying, “So I’m in my room, cutting up these rhymes out here; like my neighbor at the stove, cutting lines out here. I’m in the middle, trying to keep my fucking mind’s eye clear.” It’s a stark juxtaposition—a device that Giles uses throughout Under The Shade, delivered in a raspy yet youthful voice that walks the line between pensive and exuberant, set atop a sharp percussive sound that echoes out, twinkling synthesizers, and a devastatingly mournful piano sample that, more or less, makes the entire song.
“Too” collides directly into the opening of “Gather,” which picks things up in a different direction, and sets off with a different, slightly less somber—though incredibly reflective—direction.
All of 50 seconds long, “Gather”1 wastes none of them as Giles explains what is, more or less, at the core of this record—living in poverty, the desire for something much larger, and the concern over those dreams. “Damn, I wish I had $100—I wish it all made sense…I wish a dream didn’t cost a dollar—but is a dream still a dream when you’re rich?,” he asks, without providing any real easy answer, and that’s just in the song’s opening stanza. It’s this kind of mentality—self aware of your upbringing and what that means, the undying want for more, and that anxiety and confusion over what happens if you ever ‘make it,’ that Giles has inserted throughout Under The Shade—making it the kind of album that, yes, is a lot of fun at times to listen to, but there are reminders throughout of the serious nature behind it.
Musically, Under The Shade becomes energetic and highly percussive on “Blxckberry,” then eerie, anxious, and slightly mournful on the skittering “Roundtable”—another song where Giles references the crux of the album: “I’m wishing—on that well water penny flippin’, that I could dip my cup and watch it runneth over drippin’.”
Following the halfway point, which features a very brief, though remarkably fascinating interlude (maybe one of the most interesting things on here, honestly) called “Syl’s Song,” Giles keeps that same energy as he brings the album to its reflective, melancholic closing. “Quicksand,” jittery, infectious, and enthusiastic in its execution, features a memorable, hazy and blunted feature from Livingston Matthews—a.k.a. Pink Siifu, the man who, truthfully, had I not discovered late in 2018, I probably would not be on my living room floor right now, writing about these records—his endless repping of friends and peers via social media has opened up doors for me, musically, and introduced me to a stable of artists I am so grateful are now in my life, and in my headphones.
As Under The Shade concludes, it saves its strongest moments for the end, and it plays what is its best song, and possibly one of the finest songs of 2019, close to the chest. “What’s Mine,” the album’s ninth track, begins with a flurry of piano key tinkles and a stuttering, reserved sounding beat—but it’s the viscerally somber tone of the song’s melody, and the way guest vocalist duendita’s mournful, soulful voice floats through it all—that makes it so powerful, all leading up to the moment when Giles delivers the stunning line to his verse: “I’ve seen a lot in these 21 summers.”
There’s a pause between his age, and the word ‘summers.’ It is there, primarily, because of the way he needs the words to fit within the rhythm of the song. But the pause comes as a surprise nevertheless, and it provides an opportunity to really think about this album—about Giles, about the face that is found on the album’s artwork, about the idea of knowing just how poor you are and understanding your struggle, but still having that hope inside for something more.
“My eyes stay dry these days, no tears come down—you ain’t seen it/ I really live what I know,” Giles says, delivered in a fascinating contrast of singing, and then back into rapping.
“I’m tired of being tired,” he utters, not dejectedly, but just honestly, near the end of the song.
Under The Shade closes with an “Outro,” structured around a chopped up, sorrowful, old soul sample, providing a ghostly, though somehow comforting backdrop for Giles to say his final, reflective words—about his struggle, his present and future, and about the loss he’s seen, specifically of his Uncle Climie, who is mentioned by name, and is also referenced in the album’s liner notes. “This for anybody who been through what I been through, seen what I’ve seen. To anybody who has lost somebody. Rest your head in the shade,” Giles shared on Twitter the day the album was released, then joked when people listened to the record and asked if he was ‘okay’—he insisted he is happy.
Under The Shade concludes without any real resolution—leaving a lingering, unsettling feeling. It’s a meditation on one’s spirituality, and one’s turmoil with the struggle of the human condition. It’s also a true artistic statement of beauty, and an incredible accomplishment for an artist that has, so far, only lived through 21 summers.
1- I really do hate to ‘review the review,’ or shit talk other music writers, but I do want to take a moment to express my disappointment with the Pitchfork write up of Under The Shade. Published a mere two days after the album’s release, writer Dean Van Nguyen appears to have spent little, if any time at all, with the record, and really only details the first three tracks before reaching a poorly drawn conclusion. I understand that a site like Pitchfork isn’t going to play ball with a 2,000+ word review, especially written from a subjective/personal standpoint, but Van Nguyen’s piece is less than 500 words and it ends with terribly backhanded statements about the album and Giles himself. This, like so many other things on Pitchfork, is just bad and lazy music writing at its worst.