Album Review: Medhane - Cold Water
Near the end of “No Cap,” the frenetic, stream of consciously delivered second track on Cold Water, the sophomore full-length release from Medhane, he utters the lyric, without even blinking, or coming up for air, “Fuck the pigs.”
Released on Tuesday, March 26th, how could Medhane have known that that kind of blunt sentiment would be so timely—I mean, it always is, isn’t it? There’s a reason that expression, or some variant of it, has been featured time and time again throughout the history of rap music. But those three words rang out louder than perhaps intended as the news of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police began to circulate. In a city located less than an hour away from me, Floyd, a black man, was pinned on the ground, pleading for help and for air, held down by the knee of a white police officer on his throat for nearly 10 minutes, while three additional officers looked on.
The death sent shockwaves of racial tension through the city—stores were looted, property was severely damaged, and eventually, a police station was set ablaze, all of it unfolding in literal real time on social media.
Similar protests, often turning volatile, occurred in other cities throughout the country, and elsewhere around the world, with law enforcement doubling down on the distrust many already feel, by shooting rubber bullets, or paint, at demonstrators, and forcing crowds to disperse by lobbing canisters of tear gas toward them.
Fuck the pigs—it’s a short expression; I hesitate to call it ‘simple,’ because it packs so much weight behind it; so much tension and anger.
Fuck the pigs—in hearing it in “No Cap,” and seeing that sentiment wholeheartedly shared on social media (mostly Twitter and Instagram) over the last week, I started to wonder about the origin of referring to a police officer as a ‘pig.’
The first time I can recall hearing it, though being entirely too young to really understand it, is its brief usage in the 1992 movie Wayne’s World, of all places, where the characters of Wayne and Garth give a police officer in a donut shop a hard time by loudly saying, “I smell bacon. Does anyone else smell bacon?,” when they see him sitting at the counter.
According to the internet, the derogatory term originated in the 19th century, but was revived as part of the anti-establishment culture of the 1960s and 70s—the Wikipedia entry on ‘police slang’ cites the film Fritz The Cat’s portrayal of police officers as pigs with helping the popularity of the term.
“Fuck the pigs, free my ni**as out the chains,” Medhane says in his low, pensive, somewhat raspy voice, all before switching thoughts completely—“Just the other day that I couldn’t feel; Nothing really—took a minute for them cuts to heal. Scarred still—if it’s hidden, time is gon reveal.”
I would have never called Medhane a ‘reclusive’ artist, but prior to the release of his debut full-length, Own Pace, released just seven months ago, I would have also never dubbed his output prolific. That, however, has changed drastically; the self-produced Full Circle EP arrived just three months back and now Medhane, born Medhane-Alam Olushola (friendly reminder that it’s pronounced Medhonny) has found is way to an unbreakable stride.
Dipping back into the slow burning, reflective territory of Own Pace, Cold Water runs slightly longer, both its length and the amount of content included, than its predecessor, and it finds Olushola working within gorgeous, gritty production, underscoring his thoughtful, ambiguous, and often clever lyrics—continuing to cement his status as one of the most fascinating and literate figures working within hip-hop today.
I’ve mentioned in in both pieces I’ve written bout Olushola, and it has certainly been talked about elsewhere too; however, it is, even briefly worth mentioning again that Olushola is part of a revolving collective full of other fascinating and literate figures working within hip-hop—including close friend and regular collaborator Mike Bonema (the rapper simply known as MIKE), along with Maxo, Pink Siifu1, and Caleb Giles, just to name a few from the circles he runs in. It’s a tightly knit group, and you can hear the enthusiasm, exuberance, and respect they have for working with one another when there are featured guest appearances on Cold Water—shadowy British rapper Jadasea appears on “Watch My Step,” the aforementioned Maxo (born Max Allen) contributes to “Full Hands,” and perhaps the most notable guest verse belongs to skateboarder, Supreme model, and Earl Sweatshirt associate Sage Essler, aka Navy Blue, who delivers a startling lyric on “TRS”—“Psychiatric pleases past the needs of seeking help/mental health was nothing that we learned as seeds. I had to learn the ropes ‘cuz tying ropes is such a lonesome spell.”
Aside from being one of the most fascinating and literate figures working in hip-hop right now, Olushola is among the ranks of rappers—Earl Sweatshirt and MIKE also included here—that are completely unafraid to discuss mental health in their lyrics, and it’s incredibly refreshing to hear within the genre. “Depression isn’t just a phase,” Bonema says on “Pigeonfeet,” from his sprawling and experimental album May God Bless Your Hustle; “Spent most of most of my life depressed,” Earl Sweatshirt deadpans on “Nowhere2go” from his dizzying 2018 album, Some Rap Songs.
And as he alluded to in a number of moments on Own Pace, and as he has been very candid about in interviews, Olushola experienced a severe depressive episode a few years back after returning from a trip to London—disappearing from social media, doing poorly in school, and ignoring his friends. “It was a deep, real mental breakdown,” he explained in a long interview with Pitchfork following the release of Cold Water. “It was a feeling of ‘I can’t handle this.’ Everything”
On Own Pace, Olushola embraced the darkness that he is continually trying to outrun with the statement, “Both the trauma and the grace mine,” and you can hear echoes of that sentiment throughout Cold Water, through his unrelenting, stream of conscious delivery, and usage of vague, murky phrasing. “In my ways, know the pain,” he slips in to the rhyme scheme that’s stretched throughout the entirety of the album’s sorrowful and soulful sounding opening track, “Off Tha Strength,” which features haunting guest vocals from KeiyaA2.
This bring us back to the lyrics of “No Cap”—the ones that come, as he changes thought mid-song, following the blunt “Fuck the pigs.” “Just the other day that I couldn’t feel; Nothing really—took a minute for them cuts to heal. Scarred still—if it’s hidden, time is gon reveal,” as well as the similar imagery used in the next song on the album, “Late”: “Spent time tryna cut the grief—shit was bleak,” he says. “Wore my armor but the cuts beneath cut me deep.”
There is, of course, glimmers of hope, as was implied by the juxtaposition of “Trauma” and “Grace”; on “All Facts,” Olushola, near the end of the song, raps, “I ain’t get to build the bridge, I was in my head—two weeks in the hospital bed. Mind moving weird; crazy that I made it through the year,” with the track ending on the line, “Kept some hope to share.”
While Full Circle was an entirely self produced affair (under Olushola’s AFB alias) Cold Water sees him returning to beats constructed by myriad producers, including Navy Blue and Chuck Strangers, among others. With too many producers making contributions, one can fear that the album would lack a cohesive sound—but, as was the case with Own Pace, Cold Water is intrinsically Medhane, steeped in a lo-fi, gritty, at times even triumphant, and always incredibly beautiful and exciting sound.
I could, truthfully, listen to an never ending, instrumental loop of “Off Tha Strength”—or instrumental in the sense that it removes the snippet of dialogue tacked at the end (a Medhane trademark) but retains the lush and layered backing vocals of KeiyaA. One of three tracks produced by Scott Caudle, also known as Ohbliv (a producer who has also worked with MIKE and the dark, claustrophobic hip-hop duo Armand Hammer) the beat, built around an unwavering rhythm, relies heavily the tinkling of electric piano keys, and a jazzy, smooth, but palpably somber aesthetic, which is, what makes it, hands down, one of the most memorable on Cold Water.
Caudle is also behind the boards for the jittery, bouncing, and surprisingly sparse “No Cap,” as well as the dizzying, swirling, borderline slow groove of “Bun Down Babylon,” which arrives near the conclusion of the record. And while “No Cap” may be skeletal in its construction, it collides headfirst with the glitchy, cacophony from “Late,” a self-produced track for Olushola, reminiscent of some of the more experimental, noisy production that his peer MIKE often finds himself working (and thriving) within; “Watch My Step,” while less noisy, is still very experimental, and jittery with its oscillating sounds—it, too, is self-produced, and comes built-in familiarity.
While there is a mild claustrophobic, dark aesthetic that courses throughout Cold Water, a bulk of its production balances mild psychedelic tones, alongside heavily blunted, smooth, jazzy vibes. Even with as personal and introspective as Olushola can be, musically it can be a very…I hesitate to say ‘calming’ listen, but it full of the kind of head nodding grooves you cannot help but lose yourself to.
There’s this pull quote on the back of my paperback copy of Oblivion, the final collection of short stories from David Foster Wallace3—“Reading David Foster Wallace is like listening to the best kind of rock band.” It’s something that I think about a lot, both with authors, and musicians, and how their work makes you feel, or what immersing yourself in their work feels like to you.
Olushola’s work is so breathtaking, intelligent, and literate that I would make the case that listening to Methane—specifically, now, with Cold Water, is like reading a book from the best kind of writer; or, at least, your ‘favorite’ writer. He’s an artist whose output is so good that, when the album is over, it sends you out into the world, searching for something similar—something even half as good, and when you come up short, it’s like the volume has been turned down on every other record you pick up. They just aren’t nearly as interesting.
Rap music has almost always been rooted in ‘the art of storytelling,’ and it has been known for the blurring of the lines between fact and fiction. Cold Water is an evocative blend of personal reflection, stream of conscious, and fractured imagery—it’s accessible enough for a listener who is able to allow it to sink in and understand some of the larger, deeper meanings behind the confessional statements, but what makes it so compelling is the murky, shadowy, ambiguity that pulls you in and has you ruminating on the lyrics that aren’t as easy to decipher right away. It’s a bold, fearless artistic statement carefully and thoughtfully crafted by a bold, fearless, engaging artist—an album, and a voice, that both demand you pay attention.
1- For every album that I spend time with, and dive into writing some kind of stupidly verbose review of, there are countless other albums that I do not get to; many of them regrettably so. Sometimes I just overwhelm myself with the idea of writing and deadlines (I think even after four years it’s tough to shake that feeling that I had when I worked at the newspaper); sometimes I’m just so depressed, also, that it’s difficult to just thoughtfully and efficiently shit these things out. Pink Siifu AKA Livingston Matthews’ latest LP, NEGO, is one of those albums. It is one of the most volatile, punk rock things I have ever heard in my life, and it is the kind of record that needs to be heard RIGHT NOW given everything happening in the world. So please take a listen and put your fears and biases aside.
2- KeiyaA’s startling, spacey, and soulful debut, Forever, Ya Girl, came out at the end of March. It’s great. Please listen to it. It is one of those albums that I had every intent of writing about, and did not.
3- In her arresting, haunting memoir, In The Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado makes reference to David Foster Wallace’s treatment of Mary Karr in the early 1990s—he was obsessed with her, and was physically abusive toward her on more than one occasion while they were briefly romantically involved. For the last 12 years, I’ve had a lengthy quote from Infinite Jest at the end of my personal emails, and after both my best friend I read Machado’s book, she asked me how I felt about all of that. And the truth is, it’s impossible to reconcile. It doesn’t make me feel good. It’s like how I can barely listen to David Bowie now after the story about him coercing an underage groupie into sex when he was in his 20s was unearthed after his death. The reason I am even mentioning any of this is because I mentioned DFW here, and it may be the wrong kind of reference to make, but it’s the best I could do, to capture a feeling. I still don’t know how to really ‘feel’ about him and what I am supposed to feel about his work. Maybe I never will.