Album Reviews: Goya Gumbani & Kiina, and MIKE
Writing these reviews isn’t easy, but much like the music that I write about, the trick is to make it look effortless—that the drive to sit down and write comes naturally, and the words pour out of my stupid brain, and into a Pages document, with a furious torrent.
This is, of course, not the case.
Over the last seven years, in writing about music on a regular basis, I might have, inadvertently, taken the ‘fun’ out of listening to music. Rarely, if ever, is there something that I listen to just for ‘enjoyment’; no, almost everything, whether I do really sit down to write about it or not, is listened to with a critical ear, and a head filling with ways to use phrases like ‘fragmented lyrics,’ or ‘evocative imagery,’ or to talk about the atmosphere that a song creates, or the ‘shimmery guitar tones’ used in a song.
I never said writing about music was easy—and for every album that I do manage to put together a piece on, there are literally countless others that I have ever intention of writing something about, but nothing comes of that intention. The list of albums I keep on a Sticky Note on the desktop of my computer gets shuffled around regularly based on release dates, as well as what I deem to be the ‘importance’ of an album; if something new, or something unexpected, catches my ear—but more importantly, my attention, the list gets shuffled again, and things get moved from the ‘definitely’ portion of the Sticky Note, to the ‘maybe’ portion.
There reaches a point, perhaps when the release date has come and gone and we are weeks, or months, beyond it, or perhaps when my interest has waned slightly, or perhaps if the more I thought about a record, I just wasn’t quite sure where to begin with it—there reaches a point when albums are removed from the list completely. That isn’t to discredit their merit, or say that they aren’t good, or weren’t worth writing about—it just wasn’t going to happen.
There reaches a point, too, and maybe this is something that, in the last four years, I haven’t been able to unlearn from my time as a writer for a newspaper, but there reaches a point when I overwhelm myself with a possible workload—like, staring at the list of records that I’d like to write about, thinking about the time it will take to critically listen to them, and then the time to put into sitting down, and getting those thoughts out—it gets to be too much. And when this happens, the list is whittled down to what I feel is a more comfortable, or at least a less anxiety inducing amount of deadlines or projects I set for myself.
The amount of music out there is overwhelming, and the amount of music I want to write about is also overwhelming. Beginning in May, there has been a relatively steady streak of new rap records issued—specifically these two—that have all remained on the Sticky Note, but have been shuffled around in favor of other projects to sit down with. There are similarities, yes, in all of these albums, but they are also all wildly diverse—showing just how robust of a genre rap music can be.
Released digitally in May, and arriving on vinyl (his first physical release) two months later, The Lesser-Knowns is the third (and the longest) project in 2020 from the New York born, London residing emcee Goya Gumbani, following the Thousand Months EP—a collaborative effort between himself and producer NCJG, released in January via A Hallowed Ground Records, and Steps Across The Pond, from March—an additional collaborative EP with producer Bori.
The Lesser-Knowns, believe it or not, finds Gumbani, born Kenneth Cumberbatch, collaborating yet again—this time with Scottish producer Kiina, who weaves a blunted, jazz-influenced atmosphere throughout the record’s nine tracks (and unfortunately brief running time of 21 minutes.) I stop short of saying that the album is ‘laid back’ in its aesthetic, but it’s the kind of album that, from the moment the needle hits the vinyl and the old, dusty piano sample from “What’s The Prize” begins, you cannot help but be hypnotized by its incredibly charismatic groove—and it’s the kind of album that, for 21 minutes, keeps you completely enthralled in said groove, nodding your head with the rhythm to every track.
The Lesser-Knowns doesn’t play its hand right out of the gate, but “What’s The Prize” is, without a doubt, one of the album’s finest moments; not only is it, on its own, a strong opening track, but it also, with its very deliberately slow and slinging beat, and that piano sample strung throughout, sets the tone for the other eight songs to follow. That tone is, of course, continued with the warmth of the soulful, electric piano and light percussive elements on “Erica,” but changes slightly with the shuffling and playful rhythm and a smoothed out, ‘quiet storm’ leaning saxophone on “Catford.” That playful, almost jaunty feeling appears in “Babylon,” with a tempo that just bounces along underneath the familiar, though slightly altered warmth of the keyboard.
The first side of The Lesser-Knowns concludes with another one of the album’s finest moments: “Blasé,” which is arranged around a sharp, tight drum kit rhythm, with some seemingly reversed samples and additional atmospherics all tucked in underneath, making it one of the most sonically compelling pieces on the album—forward thinking, but remaining grounded within the slow simmering groove that the other tracks are all built around.
The tone of the album changes slightly as the second side begins, with “Same Strings”; I stop short of saying it has a psychedelic quality to it, but it is defiantly exponentially more blunted and looser in its aesthetic when compared to the production of the first side. Kiina, as a producer, manages to find the spaces in between both the very jazzy, hazy elements of the first half of the record, with this newly introduced aspect, and merge them on the excellent “Things I’d Never,” which combines a distant, reverb drenched horn with warm keyboards, and a skittering, trip-hop inspired beat.
As a lyricist and performer, Cumberbatch can be both impressive and clever without drawing too much attention to himself, or something that he’s just said, as well as simply allowing his words, and the way with which they are delivered, to coast just on the surface of the music. He rarely, if ever, raises the volume or inflection of his cadence—I don’t want to say his flow is ‘relaxed,’ because that makes it seem like he isn’t very compelling of an emcee, which is simply not the case. But his delivery has a very near ‘relaxed,’ or ‘laid back’ feeling to it; it’s not quiet, or delivered in a non-compelling way, but on the microphone, overall, Cumberbatch is very even tempered, which is, aside from the brilliant production of the album, one of the things that makes The Lesser-Knowns a record that lends itself well to multiple listens. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the overall aesthetic of the record, and to really pay attention to and appreciate Cumberbatch’s lyrics, it’s a record that, even at only nine tracks and 20 minutes in length, it is something that you have to sit with and listen to very closely to unpack all of the pieces that come together to make the whole. Outside of using a near ‘ten dollar word’ in the title of a song (“Blasé”), how many listens did it take for me to pick up the way he bends the word “lobby” to rhyme with “blasé”—a moment in the track that is stirring, evocative giving its framing, and fascinating in its results.
While Cumberbatch resides ‘across the pond,’ his connection to the New York rap renaissance is incredibly strong—peers MIKE and Medhane are featured guests on the fittingly titled Steps Across The Pond EP, but here on The Lesser-Knowns, Kiina’s detail to production, as well as the way Cumberbatch thrives in that sonic environment and folds his delivery in neatly within the downtempo, contemplative layers, makes him stand out as a compelling figure in the ‘underground/internet rap’ genre, and sets The Lesser-Knowns as a fascinating, self-contained effort—the kind of album smart enough in its delivery to completely envelop you as you sit down with it again and again.
The thing that I find so compelling and accessible about MIKE’s music is that he makes no attempt to hide his concerns about his mental health—not even dressing it up in vague metaphor, like his peer and friend Medhane does. The lyric that resonated the most with me, and cemented MIKE has a young performer to take an interest in, is found on his May God Bless Your Hustle LP—where he, without even batting an eyelash or stopping stopping to take a breath, utters the line, “Depression isn’t just a phase.”
Arriving exactly a year to the day after his last full-length, Tears of Joy, the strikingly titled Weight of The World continues rapper and producer MIKE’s exploration of ramshackle, lo-fi soundscapes, and breathlessly delivered narratives on the juxtaposition of grief and joy1, attempting, as so many others do, to find the place where the two can coexist. 16 songs may seem like ‘a lot’ but Weight of The World, in comparison, is a relatively concise affair; Tears of Joy sprawled over 20 tracks, running over 40 minutes.
Beginning with “Love Supremacy,” which, as it glitches and oscillates, kind of sounds, at first anyway, like it was lifted from a mid-1990s video game2, and ending with the appearance of a marquee name (Earl Sweatshirt) on “Allstar,” Weight of The World is a primarily self-produced affair (with MIKE operating under his DJ Blackpower alias) with additional production handled from KeiyaA on three tracks—and like so many other of MIKE’s previous efforts, it has an incredibly cohesive, insular sound, based around chopped up, glitchy, dizzying samples, and dusty, chintzy, lo-fi production values, making it a gritty, damn near claustrophobic, but not a ‘dark’ album, per se, from beginning to end.
But if it isn’t ‘dark,’ is it hopeful?
It’s tough to say, because there are moments of both sadness, or melancholy, as well as glimmers of hope, throughout. Like his peer Medhane said on the opening track to last year’s brilliant Own Pace: “Both the trauma and the grace mine.” MIKE, born Mike Bonema, clearly subscribes to that belief and spends a majority of the record ruminating in the space where those two things intersect.
Sonically a night and day difference if you are going to contrast it against the jazzy, blissed out atmosphere of The Lesser-Knowns, but the albums are similar in the sense that they both demand your attention. I mean, all music really demands your attention if you want to enjoy it or get something out of it. But with Weight of The World, when Bonema begins his trademarked ad-libbing on the microphone leading up to his unrelenting, breathless delivery of a verse, you know that it’s time to really focus, because once he starts, he doesn’t stop, and won’t wait for you to catch up with something you may have missed.
Bonema wastes no time getting introspective in his lyrics: in “Love Supremacy,” he fires off one of the album’s most memorable lines—“I know nothing’ lasts/Prayin’ that don’t bust the sadness.” Then, later, he unflinchingly mentions the passing of his mother—something he discussed at length within Tears of Joy: “Watch my brother's back, the enemy ain't come to stab him; I took another slash, lookin' for my mother's casket.” And only a line or two later: “I got my mother’s laugh—grinnin’ through a bunch of bad shit.”
He returns to this imagery off and on throughout the album, like on the album’s first single3—the hypnotic, two part “Weight of The World,” where during the refrain, like it’s a mantra, Bonema says, “Times I’d rather, than settle with it. I know my mama sing that song so I’ll never forget. And you still grievin’ over moms—no, I’ll never forget.” From there, in this instance, “Weight of The World” takes a surprising, somewhat spiteful turn. “And when I needed you, you gone—but you said we was friends. This shit I’ll never forget.”
I hesitate to say that Bonema uses a ‘stream of consciousness’ with the way he writes, and especially the way he delivers his lyrics, but there is a unremitting way with which he commands the microphone, rarely, if ever, coming for air from his sprawling, verses—with many songs being structures around just that, with no real ‘refrain’ to speak of. There always has been a ‘storytelling’ aspect to the songwriting within rap music—that is one of the things that makes it such a compelling genre; there’s a storytelling element to Weight of The World as well, but MIKE is the story. Even within his fragmented thoughts, he weaves a narrative, and even when it’s, at times, blurred slightly with ambiguity, his words have a very confessional element to them—like he’s pulling ideas or pieces from journal entries and building them into these short, colorful bursts of music.
Musically, Bonema, whether producing himself or working with others behind the boards, has never been one to shy away from the experimental, and Weight of The World features some of his boldest production ideas yet; if the kind of pensive introspection within the lyrics weren’t enough to make this a compelling album, the beats are simply astounding to hear when they are executed, like the surprisingly jittery bounce within the sample that the second half to “Weight of The World” is based around, or the somewhat out of character twinkling keyboard sequence that glimmers back and forth underneath the rhythm of “Da Screets.”
At 35 minutes in length, Weight of The World feels like it concludes before it even really gets started. The songs are all (purposefully) incredibly short—but they never feel like sketches, or underdeveloped, but the brevity of the record leaves you with the feeling of wanting to hear more from Bonema. There’s a comforting familiarity to both his lyrical content, his large, raspy voice, and even familiarity in the way the record sounds—though with each outing, Bonema continues to push himself further and further as a producer. It is, like so much of his vast canon, a record about struggle and balance, and how whether we want to or not, take up space in both of those things. “Remember cringin’ at the mirror—I was not myself,” he says on “Get Rich Quick Scheme.” “That’s still a lot to learn. I came back from lightin’ bridges I forgot to burn.”
1- This goes back to a conversation a friend and I had a year ago, which we never really finished; it’s an idea I think about a lot, though, and comes up more often than you’d think.
2- Just a quick aside: I know this is an awful comparison, or at least a difficult comparison to understand. There’s just something about how glitchy and flittering it sounds, and upon my initial listen, it reminded me of old Super Nintendo games I would play when I was, like, 11 or 12.
3- Point of clarification: the album’s first single was, really, just a slightly altered version of this song’s second part, issued under the title “Nothing2Say (Never Forget.)”
The Lesser-Knowns is out now as a digital download or limited edition LP; Weight of The World is available as a digital download.
The Lesser-Knowns is out now as a digital download or limited edition LP; Weight of The World is available as a digital download.