Thursday, November 28, 2013

album review: 'knock madness' by hopsin

Before we start, I want to take care of a brief piece of old business from one of my most viewed - and most openly reviled - reviews, when I covered Cage's album Kill The Architect. Since that review, I've relistened to that album several times, trying to see what others clearly found so inspirational and powerful that they felt content to hurl all manner of abuse at me, and I'd like to make a small correction to that review, as I feel I didn't quite represent myself as well as I could have. In that review, I drew several comparisons to Eminem's Encore (which with its reflective themes, depressing tone, and bleak ambiance, to say nothing of the awful singing, felt more than appropriate) and I made the comment that Cage had lost his ability to shock me in his raps. Some took umbrage to that by stating that Cage wasn't trying to do that on this album, instead opting for an introspective focus and message (even though there were enough sinister elements that could easily be construed as threatening...). 

And here's where I feel I have to make a clarification: my issue with Kill The Architect was never the change in subject matter or tone, moving towards what some would argue more 'mature' subject matter. My issue was that it didn't resonate with me as compelling, half because Cage's delivery was more low-key and lacking in energy than ever, and half because the insights he was providing into his current state of affairs felt strangely muted and distant. It was an awkward fit for the guy, and while some might empathize with his inner turmoil (and hell, there were points where I did), it felt like steps taken in a downward spiral without the slightest desire to climb back up. And as I've said time and time again, nihilistic artwork can get boring or absolutely intolerable if there's no deeper context or nuance. In contrast, Nine Inch Nails and The National both made dark, somewhat depressing albums this year, but they tempered their depression with rich context and compelling instrumentation and coherent focus, none of which I felt Cage brought to the table.

But this prompted an interesting question: most critics tend to be harsher on acts that shift their artistic direction and subject matter from their established formulas. Hell, I'd argue I'm even somewhat guilty of this, so why do we do it? Well, part of it is obviously linked to comfort with the familiar, but I think a greater portion is that when artists decide to shift direction, critics have an automatic expectation that the artist is knowledgeable enough about the genre that they can execute the shift and still maintain their artistic strengths (which can be unfair). And to be fair, not a lot of artists can pull that off. 

So instead, let's talk about an artist who seemed to be on the right track: Hopsin. A reasonably new arrival to the scene, he's an L.A. rapper who drew a lot of his inspiration and flow from Eminem for his first releases, which had trace elements of horrorcore fused with straightforward, hard-hitting hip-hop. But in 2012, he released Ill Mind of Hopsin 5, a charged track targeting trends in youth today with vitriol and biting insight. It was a phenomenal change of pace and it showed that Hopsin had potential for societal commentary beyond his previous work. But then he released Ill Mind of Hopsin 6: Old Friend (later retitled as 'Old Friend') earlier this year, and I didn't like it quite as much. Sure, it felt genuine and emotionally grounded, but the sharp anti-drug screed felt less like it was appealing to my mind and more trying to tug on my heartstrings (particularly with Hopsin's delivery), and I felt it was a step down artistically from the previous track. It shows one of the occasional weaknesses of message-driven music: jettisoning the nuance in favour of broader emotional messaging that might prove more accessible to a wider audience, but doesn't quite contain the same punch or impact (at least for me). 

And thus, I wasn't quite sure what to expect with his most recent album Knock Madness. Recorded over a period of two years, how was Hopsin going to reflect his dramatic shifts in direction over his recording period?

Well, funny you should mention that, because it might just be the overarching thematic progression of this album. Yes, Hopsin has chosen to use Knock Madness as a chance to dive deep into exploring the dichotomy between his personal life and his rap alter-ego, and I cannot deny that it's an interesting little adventure I can recommend. But is the album any good? Well, yeah, it's really quite good, even though there are several issues that really don't help this album's overall presentation. I find it more than a little interesting that this album and The Marshall Mathers LP 2 were released so close together, because in my mind's eye, I can't help but see them as two sides of the same coin. 

Okay, that's a pretty big assertion, so let me start with Hopsin himself. On a technical level, this guy is extremely strong, and I'd be hardpressed to find even a few poorly constructed lyrics or punchlines. He has a phenomenal flow, a gift for many different technical rapping styles and cadences, and he can hold his own at impressive speeds. In other words, this is an album where he can collaborate with Tech N9ne and match that rapper's lyrical dexterity and speed. He has great rapport and chemistry with frequent collaborator SwizZz on their track 'Jungle Beat' (one of the highlights of the album), and unlike Eminem, Hopsin is actually a halfway decent singer. He's by no means great, but he's passable enough on the hooks to avoid the cavalcade of female singers Eminem keeps recruiting for his hooks, and it can occasionally add a little more emotional resonance to the tracks. My one big criticism is that sometimes he can come across as a little 'broad' in his emotional delivery, particularly during some of the sillier tracks - I know they're part of the character that's he's playing, but there isn't a lot of subtlety in his delivery even when he's playing for more serious beats, like on 'Old Friend'. 

And believe it or not, this is somewhat echoed in his instrumentation, which I do like for the most part. There are some phenomenal grooves on this album and a fair amount of instrumental diversity that keeps me engaged, with some extremely solid hooks that stick in the memory. Yeah, at points it does feel a little too 'classy' and 'slick' to really fit with the subject matter, with the piano and the strings and funk and disco inspired grooves on tracks like 'Gimme That Money' and 'Still Got Love For You', but the melodies are solid and I did like that Hopsin was experimenting with various instrumental styles and he's growing as a producer. However, more often than not, the instrumentation and production just a little too exaggerated and cartoonish and lacking in those quieter moments that could add real impact and deeper character to the songs. It's a similar issue I've run into with Tech N9ne in the past, where I find the songs can be a little better when they opt for less grandiose or bombastic instrumentation, or at least have some juxtaposition, move into drama rather than melodrama. Once again, it reflects a lack of subtlety - which, sure, that can be appealing with the straightforward honesty in which Hopsin presents his content, but when instrumental texture is compromised, it doesn't quite match up with the well-constructed lyricism. A bigger problem is that it can run contrary to the messages put forward in the music - with exaggerated instrumentation, it becomes a little harder to take Hopsin as seriously as he would want.

And here's where we have to talk about lyrics and themes, and what Hopsin's trying to do with this release. From his point-of-view, he's experiencing fame and some degree of success as a rapper, and yet his personal life hasn't gone the way he wants, how he still feels incomplete. And really, the best moments on this album are when he directly tackles these themes and tries to get to the root of frustrations with his career, his peers, and society at large. You can tell from songs like 'The Fiends Are Knocking' that he's stunned he's having any sort of impact on people, and you hear his deep-seated rage at the mainstream hip-hop scene that other rappers aren't using their fame to say anything of value. Even if I disagree with his opinion on Yeezus (an album where Kanye drove his persona to extremes and then skewered everyone he could in their blatant acceptance of it), I can understand the context behind the Kanye diss on 'Hop Is Back'. Tracks like 'Tear To Snow', 'I Need Help', 'Hip Hop Sinister' and especially 'Caught In The Rain' show Hopsin's struggle to connect with fans beyond his Hopsin alter-ego, his open contempt for the music industry, and his struggles with the lack of genuine people who flock to him after he was successful. It seems like surrounded by success, he feels lonelier than ever, and he's more than willing to retire and settle into a 'normal' life rather than compromise his artistic principles - which, to be fair, that's a powerful statement coming from a successful rapper. And the best thing about it is that it feels genuine, and while the character of Hopsin can spit all manner of crushing, potent vitriol (also, he might be the only rapper to make Pokemon references not sound stupid), he's sick of that persona and wants to make more conscientious rap music, even if it doesn't get popular in the same way. And in that vein, you can see the parallel with The Marshall Mathers LP 2, with both rappers reacting with some disbelief that people actually bought into their broader message and they had any impact at all. 

And here's where things get interesting, because there is a marked difference between the antics of Slim Shady and Hopsin, and it comes down to artistic framing. See, Eminem has always hammered on that the despicable things and threats of violence that he has made as Slim Shady were always meant to be viewed with revulsion and disgust and hatred - we are not supposed to empathize with the material, let alone embrace it as so many angry white boys did in the late 90s and early 2000s. Sure, he's blurred the line between himself and his character, but neither one was someone the audience was supposed to idolize. And here is where Hopsin gets into tricky territory, because his character is less focused on the over-the-top debauched nightmares and more on cutting societal commentary, looking at the problems in the world and screaming 'what the hell is wrong with you people', and there are many points that the blurring of the line can make his character slightly more sympathetic.

And this, bizarrely enough, becomes a bit of a problem. As much as he tries to separate his Hopsin alter-ego from himself, the line still blurs, and he begins to lose rationalization for using homophobic slurs and casual sexism. In fact, if we're to look for a weak spot on this album, Hopsin's issues with women would be it. The worst song on the album by a mile is 'Good Guys Get Left Behind', because it paints Hopsin's bitterness at being used by an ex to such stark degrees it's hard to be excusable under 'well, it's all just a character'. It makes matters all the worse that he uses comparisons to Bella and Edward from Twilight to describe his 'nice-guy' relationship with the girl in question, and having read those godforsaken books, I couldn't think of a worse metaphor to articulate a 'good' relationship. This has been an issue since Ill Mind of Hopsin 5, and frankly, the slut-shaming gets a whole lot worse on this album - and considering how much solid societal commentary Hopsin has on the youth of today, it's frustrating his gender politics remain lodged in some of the bad conventions of the hip-hop genre - you'd think he'd be better. What makes matters all the worse is the bitterness on songs like 'Still Got Love For You', where he is trying to support a girl pregnant with a baby that isn't his, or 'Gimme That Money' (where the only person who manages to get money from him is an ex), or even 'Dream Forever', where Hopsin retreats into a fantasy because that's the only place he can find his idealized woman. 

And look, I can empathize with Hopsin here: given his wealth and success and how some women probably throw themselves at him for a chance at fame, I can understand his frustration at his lack of genuine relationships and his feelings of isolation and loneliness. But I don't think his response will help matters because, at points, he can come across a bit petulant, which will probably be the biggest complaint some people will have with this record. Again, this is an issue with delivery: Hopsin, for the majority of this album, is flying on all cylinders, with the frustration and rage providing the raw energy to power through the songs (which means this album really feels like a quick listen), but without those quieter, reflective moments (of which Hopsin is very much capable) where his insight could be more focused, this album lacks a bit of weight. Honestly, I think more songs from 'Marcus' could have really elevated this album into something truly striking, see more of the man behind the alter-ego and contacts. I feel that with the sort of commentary Hopsin makes needs introspection to balance it out, and while some of it is there, it's not quite as nuanced or fully-fleshed out, which can make his petulant moments come across as a little overwrought and hard to take seriously. And believe me, that really does suck because I know it comes from a real place... but it didn't quite land with me as well as I was hoping.

So in summary, despite all of my criticisms, I really did like Knock Madness by Hopsin. If you're looking at records for sheer tradecraft, you're not going to find many better ones this year, because Hopsin has a gift for great wordplay and infusing it with solid messages - and if I was looking for a rapper to elevate conscious rap to mainstream acceptance, Hopsin would be on my list of rappers to do it. I'm as harsh as I am on this album because he's a rapper I want to see succeed. With all of that in mind, I really struggled with a rating for this album, but in recognition of some great wordplay and the fact that people should be listening to this guy, I'm giving him an 8/10 and a definite recommendation for this album.

And Hopsin, if you happen to come across this review... dude, I like what you're doing, but sometimes you should let the words and the message speak for themselves. You don't need to oversell it, man, because trust me when I say a lot of our generation is waking up to it. And keep rapping - we need guys like you.

No comments:

Post a Comment