Album Review: King Carter Slums - Haram

Occasionally, someone who knows that I write about music regularly, or that I am a ‘music guy,’ will inquire as to where I hear about new music—or at least the kind of slightly more idiosyncratic things I choose to write (at length) about.

I usually respond by politely saying that I ‘read a lot of music news.’

What I’ve learned from working alongside a very diverse mix of people is that we all consume music differently—some people just flat out don’t listen to music, which I’ll never understand, but that’s neither here nor there; some people don’t listen to albums from start to finish, which is also am not sure I understand—instead, they just listen to the songs provided to them on either the radio, or through a streaming service like Google or Pandora.

Some people hear about new artists through National Public Radio, or will read a profile in The New York Times.

It’s easy for me to lose sight of the fact that not everybody reads the same music websites that I do, or lurks on a message board where new releases are shared, or is on Twitter, constantly looking for that next, new, incredible thing to listen to.

Finding something new or interesting to listen to, across any genre, can be hard; finding something that is new, interesting, and is good enough for me to sit down and write up some kind of stupidly verbose review of is even harder; finding something that meets those first two qualifications, plus has the power to be memorable after I’ve finished writing a review—meaning it’s something I won’t lose interest in immediately, or get burned out on—is the hardest.

In 2012, when I first started getting really interested in experimental and ambient music, I found myself falling into a deep hole of cassette labels—small operations from various pockets of the country that were all somehow vaguely connected; either the operators of the labels themselves were friends, or an artist had issued releases for two or three of the labels in question. It was a fascinating dive into truly independent and underground music.

Now, seven years later, I’ve found myself on another fascinating dive into a different genre of truly independent and unground music.

Rap music is still, despite the dominance it has on Top 40 radio with very commercial and accessible artists, a very polarizing genre—I work with someone who often states he’ll listen to anything ‘except country and rap,’ which is a puzzling statement to someone like me.

Rap music can be, at times, an overcrowded marketplace—there are a lot of artists out there that are trying to make a name for themselves, and as expected, in an overcrowded marketplace, there is a lot of rap music out there—both mainstream and underground—that is just fucking awful. If you think it takes a lot of time and effort to find new music that is worth listening to, it takes even more time and more effort than I care to share to find rappers that are doing something remotely interesting and thought provoking.

I have, thankfully, been turned onto a group of artists—many of them are independent artists releasing their own material via Bandcamp or simply on Soundcloud (but are not ‘Soundcloud rappers’)—that are making some of the most impressive and invigorating rap music out there right now. Some of these artists are members of the same loose collectives or groups, others are simply peers who collaborate with each other, and support one another, regularly.

Most recently, thanks to Livingston Matthew (a.k.a. Pink Siifu)’s Instagram, I was pointed in the direction of King Carter—or, at times, dubbed King Carter Slums—is a member of the Slums (at times, stylized as sLUms) collective, an outfit that also features MIKE and Adé Hakim, among others, and has associations with Earl Sweatshirt and Slauson Malone.

Arriving roughly a year after the sprawling full length, Prisoner of The Mind, King Carter has returned with an all to brief EP, Haram, the kind of compelling and captivating listen that leaves you wanting more the moment it concludes. Bookended by an extended intro track featuring a monologue from Malcolm X (who also graces the EP’s cover), Haram, which means forbidden by Islamic law, concludes with a five minute snippet from a 1992 interview featuring a young, and idealistic Tupac Shakur; with that being said, the EP itself—musically speaking—is a brief 15 minutes, and King Carter wastes absolutely no time delivering a breathless and unrelenting set of seven tracks that showcase his clever, thoughtful lyrics, his rapid fire delivery, and fascinating production techniques.

Despite Kanye West’s inclusion of the phrase I Hate Being Bipolar, It’s Awesome on his album Ye from last year, mental health has never been something that gets discussed at length, or even mentioned in passing, in rap music—so one of the things that is so refreshing about an artist like King Carter Slums, or MIKE, or Earl Sweatshirt, is their willingness to be open about things like depression and anxiety. Late in Haram, on the stream of conscious “Smack TV,” King Cater utters the phrase, “My depression’s stacked up like bills”—my first thought was, “I feel so seen,” and my second thought was, “God damn this EP is incredible.”

There is a lot to be impressed by while listening to Haram—first and foremost is the blink and you’ll miss it asides that King Carter punctuates his lyrics with. Interjecting something clever, or having a sense of humor, within rap music isn’t a new idea, however, the delivery so straight faced—he never spend time or energy drawing attention to the joke or reference he’s just made—and this is what makes it so commendable. Sometimes a performer is almost too clever for their own good, and you can tell there’s maybe a bit of a wink to the listener within a specific line—and sometimes this is okay, and it works. Haram works in the sense that it never takes you out of the moment you’re in, but it takes you out of the next moment when you stop and ask yourself, “Did he just say….

There are almost too many examples to mention—clever asides, references, and punch lines—but beginning with the opening line to “Swollen Hands”—“Straight out the dungeon, dragon”—the witticisms that are peppered into King Carter’s lyrics are nearly as unrelenting as his delivery itself.

Musically, Haram, even with its brief running time, is a very diverse soundscape. There is no track on it that is poorly produced or constructed, but there are pieces that are better executed—the EP’s proper opening, “Problems,” featuring a blistering guest verse from Pink Siifu, is glitchy and skittering, and is probably the effort’s most robust sounding track; in turn, “Smack TV,” arriving near the EP’s conclusion, is the most lo-fi in its values, with a quiet, short sample looped over the aforementioned stream of consciousness delivery. “Swollen Hands” is the most bombastic, juxtaposed with a simmering slow jam loop on the reflective “Love Me.”

Haram concludes with its most jubilant track, the painfully short “Sunshine,” a two minute song that then, gives way, to the inclusion of the lengthy interview segment with Tupac Shakur—a fascinating way to wrap up the effort, providing the listener with possibly more questions than answers.

Lyrically speaking, outside of the impressive use of humor as a device on Haram, King Carter doesn’t stray too far from topics similar to that of his peers—like Earl Sweatshirt and MIKE, he is unafraid to mention mental health; like Maxo and Pink Siifu, he is introspective about his family and his upbringing. He’s charismatic and energetic—at times possibly becoming too unrelenting in his delivery, though he is always captivating to listen to.

Haram, due to its length, certainly does not overstay its welcome, and from the moment it concludes, leaves the listener wanting much, much more—Prisoner of The Mind is a great place to head to immediately after you’ve finished listening to this. As with his myriad peers who have released excellent material within the last year or so, Haram and King Carter Slums shows that movement within the underground and independent rap community is huge, and brimming with incredibly talented voices—voices that command, and voices that demand you listen.

Haram is out now via the King Carter Bandcamp page.