November was rough. With the revealed Chicago police cover-up of the murder of Laquan McDonald, the sociopath white terrorist shooting up Planned Parenthood, soulless politicians passing a House bill to bar Syrian refugees (ironically on the week before Thanksgiving), and the new brazenly neo-Nazi policies Donald Trump has started spewing, the United States of America isn’t looking very united or American. It’s looking like a rapidly approaching war-zone hell-hole. Maybe that’s why hip-hop killed it in Seattle last month—hip-hop was born of and thrives on strife. Locally, hip-hop tackled our messed-up world from every angle. We had Silas Blak diving headfirst into the thick of it, DoNormaal exploring death and the world that lies beyond it, and Porter Ray levitating on a weed cloud above it. Let’s get into it:
Jump or Die
Ballard rapper DoNormaal put out not only one of the best local records of the month, but one of my favorite local records of the year: her debut LP Jump or Die. What really makes it shine amid the sea of staccato cipher-showoffs is MC Christianne Karefa-Johnson’s ingeniously weird and hooky melodies, which pepper and anchor nearly every song—whether she’s whinnying them like a cartoon character, warbling them like a phantom, or delivering them deadpan with her syrupy, shades-up, cool-kid reserve. The thoughtfulness and playfulness of her vocal delivery, born of her lifelong pursuit writing poetry, is completely her own, as is the album’s subject matter—death, transformation, and divine purpose. The diverse roster of producers employed on the album keep that lofty, trippy theme in focus with their wild, inventive beats, like OmniPsyke’s nightmare skronking “Orange.” The track sounds like a scary Balkan folk band being sucked into a black hole before suddenly shifting into a cheery accordion-driven bounce for the coda, which Karefa-Johnson’s partner Raven Matthews accentuates by mumble-cackling “BOUUUUNCE, BOUUUNCE.” This album is like an inflatable hip-hop bounce house.
A year and a half ago, Sub Pop announced that newly appointed A&R guy Ishmael Butler of Shabazz Palaces was flexing his muscles at the label for the first time by signing Central District rapper Porter Ray. We still don’t have an official Sub Pop LP from the MC, but to whet people’s appetites, Porter dropped the Nightfall EP this month for free on Bandcamp. Its laid-back, jazzy production from KMTK, Spence Mo, Dez Anthony and AYoB is low-key excellent and the real star of the record—subtle, soulful beats that draw their power from their cool, sophisticated restraint. That maturity makes an interesting contrast to Porter Ray’s verses, the subjects of which are, more often than not, his penis and the things he wants people to do with it—“Free me from my demons shorty/Swallow my semen” (from “Bless Me”); “We can’t kiss if you suck my dick” (from “Moon Goddess”); “I feed her champagne and the sex insane” (from “Dreaming”); etc.
Now I’m not saying that living in 2015 in the midst of third-wave feminism, dudes can’t talk about their dicks anymore. In “For Free?”, Kendrick Lamar ingeniously subverts the “dick” as a symbol of power—using his own to illustrate the pressure capitalist society places on black men by repeating the line “This dick ain’t free!” while enumerating the toll he pays for having one. All of this is simply to say that if you are a man talking about your dick in 2015, you really, really need to justify it. Lazy Led Zeppelin–style phallus-worship is passé and advances nothing.
But, when Porter takes welcome breaks from all the wanton cock-rocking, as he does on the noirish highlight “Outside Looking In,” his rhymes are undeniably brilliant—reveling in complexity and delivered with an effortless cool that really compliments the shuffling streetlight production. Here’s hoping Porter grows out of the dick stuff whenever that LP drops.
To accompany the music video for “Cops on My Back,” 20-plus-year Seattle rap veteran Silas Blak released a staggering list of more than 70 names the song is dedicated to—Tamir Rice, Shantel Davis, Nehemiah Dillard—each an unarmed person of color killed by police. “Cops on my back like bullies/Throwing bullets at me like rocks/All I wanna do is suffocate them/Reshape time/Reawaken,” he mourns on the chorus over sullen, swirling production. With the onslaught of horrific headlines flying our way every day on Facebook and Twitter, it’s easy to become numb and let the violence wash over you. The reason Silas Blak is a crucial voice in Seattle, as he continues to prove on the aptly titled Editorials: (wartunes), is the unfettered way he dives into America’s violent, broken system, wades through it, and earnestly attempts to shed some light in that darkness with his incisive vision. It’s a mission he states right out of the gate on opening track “Tool,” reminding the listener that he will “cultivate the truth I saw on every beat that I walk.” And damn, Blak walks through a hefty 22 tracks on the record (produced by Hightek Lowlives’ Kjell Nelson), tackling everything from racism to collective historical amnesia to false political promises.