Saturday, September 13, 2014

album review: 'preparanoia' by lmno

So last year, I received a request to review a hip-hop album from a rapper I had never heard of before, and yet managed to turn out as one of my favourite albums of last year thanks to great, well-structured bars and phenomenal production from a guest producer who I've already covered twice this year. That producer was Evidence, and the album was called After The Fact, by the prolific, highly skilled, and impressively monotone MC LMNO. 

And over the past year, I've begun to see more and more why LMNO has managed to carve out his niche defiantly outside of mainstream rap: not only does he produce new material at an impressive rate - not counting 2010, where he released ten albums worth of material in one year - but his delivery was icy, crisp, multisyllabic, and near devoid of inflection or drama. He was the sort of rapper who could deliver bars until the end of time, although his flat brand of intensity could prove to be a little difficult to tolerate.

Yet even with that, I really did respect his wordplay and creativity, and while it was a little disheartening to see him part ways with Evidence for his newest album Preparanoia, I still took the time to check it out regardless. What did I get?

Well, both more and less than I was expecting. On the one hand, Preparanoia by LMNO lives up exactly to the promise of its title, a paranoid record where LMNO tersely spits out the hard truth even as he fears those who might be listening - and fears even more who isn't. On the other hand, it's also a disjointed, unfocused record that flits from idea to idea and frequently feels like it leaves many of them unfinished or undercooked. In other words, I would not call it as good as After The Fact, but it's still an interesting hip-hop record for this year and is definitely worth a listen.

So let's start with LMNO himself - and look, if you're a fan of his methodical, slow-flow multisyllabic rhymes, nothing has changed. His is the sort of rapping that requires multiple listens because his voice doesn't so much draw attention but requires you engage with it, which definitely can be an acquired taste. I will say that to LMNO's credit, he seems to have amped up his investment in his material, showing more energy and visceral presence behind the microphone than previously, and his methodical tone does a lot to the conspiratorial atmosphere of this record in making his statements seem significantly more plausible. That being said, even when you are paying attention LMNO's flow and delivery can start to run together, and considering nobody has bothered to post the lyrics anywhere online, there are points where his lyricism seems to be spinning its wheels.

This is where we have to start asking the big question: namely, what the hell is this album about beyond paranoid conspiracy ramblings? Honestly, it gets more than a little hard to tell. LMNO has long had a taste for intricate wordplay and veiling his message in layered poetry, which when combined with the conspiratorial tone of the instrumentation can stretch the patience - if you're trying to speak the truth, why spend so much time talking around it? The best moments on this album are when LMNO is being refreshingly straightforward in exposing his targets: mostly political corruption, corrupt businesses, and shallow pop rappers who prop up the broken system. 'Breakaways', for instance, is a terrific takedown of the last group, casting LMNO and collaborator Mr. Brady as vegetarians in a butcher shop, figures outside of the meat market of the industry that grinds up its stars into hamburger. And yet it's a meat market that has its own temptations, which comes up on 'Last Long' where LMNO acknowledges his own very different view of artistic success separate of the monetary fortune that would from pop rap, one he finds equally as fulfilling. That, if anything, seems to be the underlying motivation for this record, the secret that if rappers chose to talk about real things that mattered, the industry built on flash and not longevity would collapse impotently around them. And despite the paranoid urgency that colours the album, LMNO seems quite aware that his method - doing things on his own, holding onto his integrity, and while never reaching the same commercial heights still doing well for himself - seems to be working fine. In other words, it's not all of his paranoia but the industry's.

And if you're all thinking that this is all so reminiscent of The Roots' ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin or Open Mike Eagle's Dark Comedy, well, you wouldn't be fair from the truth. However, this is where framing becomes an issue, because LMNO is aware that he's operating in his own lane and he's comfortable with it - and yet without the empathetic delivery of Open Mike Eagle or the sheer bombast of The Roots' last record, LMNO's criticism of the industry can lack some emotional investment. It's telling that when he goes for larger societal targets, his rhymes have more punch - but the shorter track length and LMNO's tendency to not be direct means that many of the ideas feel thinly sketched, which is the last thing you want to happen when you try to go political. And given the political tracks are framed with a certain of hushed, conspiratorial atmosphere, it can get hard for me to take it seriously, even if I do support the messages beneath them. 

Granted, some of that issue might be linked to the instrumentation and production, a mix of sample-heavy boom bap with thick, textured beats, scratching, and almost industrial fuzz at points. Now there are definitely beats that I like on this album - I like the heavy rumble of 'Go' against the strings, the washed out keyboards and guitars on 'Who', the massive distortion on 'Research', the grimy darkness of 'I Write' and 'Now', there is some good production on this record creating an old-school vibe reminiscent of Madlib if he was working with drearier material. But this creates a twofold problem: first, given the uniformity of the production, you run into points where songs start sounding very similar to each other, and not building distinct identities, especially melodically. And the second issue is tone: if you're going to soundtrack your album with the sort of sleazy music that would play in the back of a cheap VHS 90s thriller, it becomes harder to take your political statements seriously, especially when the very grim tone of the album doesn't switch up. The frustrating thing is that it really does fit LMNO's delivery quite well, but at the same time it reflects his problems, where neither he or the instrumentation evolve or change to escalate or press a point. 

And what it ultimately means is that this record, while being a good entry in LMNO's discography, does not do a whole bunch for me. There's still plenty of great wordplay and every time I listen through the album I find more elements lyrically to like, which is the mark of a rapper I can respect. But at the same time, Preparanoia is a bleak, meandering record that can feel like it repeats itself and yet never really makes a direct point beyond broad political shots. So I'm going to give this record a 7/10 and a recommendation, especially if you're into this brand of backpacker rap - and I mean that as a qualifier, not a slam - but it's one of those albums that does require a certain amount of patience to really take in. Thankfully, it's often worth it.

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