Thursday, December 19, 2013

album review: 'sonic dopamine' by cousin ayjay

Let's talk about weed albums. 

I was once told by a friend that if I ever started smoking pot, I would inevitably start listening to either trance or hip-hop, and the more I've delved into the latter, the more that statement makes sense. There is a lot of talk about marijuana in rap music, from casual mentions to glorification to the rare anti-drug screed, and some rappers like Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa (hell, most of the G-funk scene) built their entire personas off of association with pot. Now I'm not puritanical when it comes to weed, and I am in favour of legalization and taxation just like cigarettes and alcohol, but I'm also aware of the fact that like any drug, abusing it can have detrimental impacts on your life. As for me, I'm not one to smoke pot and that always leads to an interesting question: do I need marijuana to truly appreciate or understand albums focused around the drug?

Now, the obvious answer is no: if the artist is good enough, they can recreate the feel and emotions of getting high through their production and the delivery and their subject matter. Acts like Gorillaz and the supergroup 213 were fantastic at this, but even then there were some tracks where I had to accept as a critic that they weren't going to make sense. Like with The Beatles' famous 'I Am The Walrus' or The Barenaked Ladies' raps in 'One Week', some songs are intentionally nonsensical. The issue that I've run into, however, is unique to weed albums, where I've called out elements for not making the slightest element of sense and then get criticized for not being 'on the same level, man'- implying that the truths these albums are conveying only become coherent or are relevant under the influence. 

But even with that possibility in mind, I was curious to check out the album from Cousin Ayjay, who approached me back in September to take a look. And while it is later than I'd prefer, I still was curious to take a look at his new record/mixtape Sonic Dopamine, which from the track titles and the few samples I heard definitely had the hallmarks of a weed album. Did it work for me?

Well, mostly. Let me make this clear, Sonic Dopamine by Cousin Ayjay is good, but it isn't quite great, mostly suffering from a number of little peripheral issues that just undermine in enough. It definitely bears the hallmarks of a weed album, though, in the listless pacing, hazy production, and seemingly random asides that tend to reveal a lot more than one might expect in the loose narrative that ties this record together.

Let's start with Cousin Ayjay himself - he reminds me a lot of Drake if the Canadian rapper was a massive stoner and did not give the slightest care about what people thought of him. Unlike Wiz Khalifa, who hasn't quite mastered the ability to casually spit insightful verses or look like he's not trying, Cousin Ayjay drops in the Snoop Dogg stoner-rap template effortlessly, and his easy-going, multi-tempo flow with a lot of variety and texture. For his sung hooks, he pulls heavily from Kanye's 808s & Heartbreak template, but where Kanye used the Autotune to greater emphasize his isolation, Cousin Ayjay uses it to emphasize his spaced-out laid-back escapism. It does mean it can become difficult to pick up on any emotional resonance, but then again, that's part of the point - the marijuana is a way out of the tedium of his ordinary existence, and emotional detachment is a major theme of the album. 

And if Cousin Ayjay's delivery doesn't hammer home that point, his instrumentation and production will. Both show a surprising amount of texture and polish for an up-and-coming artist, and do a phenomenal job marrying the grime of backpacker rap with the minimalist, slightly eerie and off-kilter synths of modern hip-hop production. Honestly, the production and instrumentation are the highlights of this album for me, because it so perfectly captured the escapist depression of being alone and watching time slip away in a haze of pot smoke. The sound is dense, but never overwhelming, and the only criticism I'll level at the production is that sometimes a few percussion elements sound a bit too 'sharp' in the mix, a little too jarring and loud (and the beatboxing did get old), but that's minor and only comes up on a few tracks. An issue some might find is that this record doesn't really have strong hooks or much momentum, but I'd argue that fits the tone - the album does feel long and listless, but it's trying to evoke that hazy, drifting atmosphere, and it nails it.

Okay, so what about the lyrics? Well, here's where we run into slightly bigger issues, because while Cousin Ayjay has some interesting ideas and manages to paint some detailed and captivating pictures, he's not the best at expressing them. As a technical rapper, he's pretty uneven, with occasionally strong bars and verses but some of his rhymes are sloppy and he relies too heavily on repeating phrases to fill up space in his raps (it fits in weed rap a little better, so I'm not marking him down heavily for that). And while Cousin Ayjay is smart enough to try and build some empathy towards him early on this album with tracks like 'Laid Off' and 'Mood Swings', most of that empathy is burned away by the end of the album and I wasn't entirely impressed.

See, Sonic Dopamine has a narrative, mostly delivered piecemeal through the verses or a robotic narrator (which I'm not entirely convinced is reliable). And like most weed albums with a narrative, it's loose, scattershot, and definitely incoherent, as Cousin Ayjay gets laid off, gets high, trips out, observes a police investigation next door (where a girl that he has/had a relationship with lives), texts another girl to come over, misses an interview because he got high, and finally smokes even more with his hook-up so he can have sex and send her out in the rain when finished, to which the girl next door reacts badly. It's a tricky narrative to follow (and the lack of lyrics online don't help matters), and one that's not helped by Cousin Ayjay's random digressions that don't have a lot of focus. Sure, they fit the weed-saturated atmosphere, but they don't really contribute much to the narrative and thus they feel a little extraneous (and on an album as long as this, that's not always good). Where this album works best is exploring the themes of emotional detachment - Cousin Ayjay never really explores his inner demons in detail, preferring to get high and ignore them, but the album does manage to score a major hit with 'Heaven Blvd Midnight Mail', a track where he dreams about flying to Heaven and meeting his idols, and yet when he tries to leave, he can't. It's an extended metaphor about the downsides of emotionally isolating through weed or otherwise - because sometimes when you get stuck in that frame of mind, you can't escape. 

But the framing of this album is murky, and I'm not sure it provides quite the dramatic payoff Cousin Ayjay was looking for. As much as he makes wry commentary while getting stoned, his real life is deteriorating around him and yet Cousin Ayjay doesn't seem to care. It's framed in a way that this escape is ideal - forget the trivial nonsense of the world, just keep smoking weed and it'll all be okay, and if life gets worse, smoke even more. The album is a stoner fantasy, right down to managing to snag a girl through lazy text messages and getting high, and I'm not quite sure it's self-aware enough to know how ultimately shallow that fantasy is. As much as this album might claim that 'it's only for people with triple-digit IQs' (which did feel a little obnoxious to me), it still feels remarkably short-sighted to me. Even the metaphor in 'Heaven Blvd Midnight Mail' leaves Cousin Ayjay trapped in Heaven, not Hell. And the gender politics of this album are decidedly iffy - ultimately, the message put forward by the 'Sonic Dopamine' narrator seems to boil down to 'Bitches be crazy', and you should avoid women in that vein - when in reality, Cousin Ayjay's behaviour seems just as self-destructive and potentially damaging as that of the women he describes.

Ugh, look, I wanted to like this album more than I do. Cousin Ayjay might not be the most technically skilled rapper, but he has some good ideas, and his ability to create interesting and detailed text is impressive, and there's definitely potential to show real insight. But as much as I might like that and the instrumentation and production, I can't help but feel this album could have worked better with a tighter focus and a little more plotting. With the slow, meandering pace, Sonic Dopamine is already long, but it feels twice its length because chunks of this album don't really pay off on any level, intellectual or emotional. With that, I'm giving this record a cautious 7/10 and a recommendation, especially if you like weed rap. For a starting record, Cousin Ayjay shows a fair bit of promise, and I'd like to see the result when he finally comes down.

1 comment:

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