Wednesday, August 5, 2015

album review: 'kill the wolf' by b. dolan

Let's talk a little about poetry.

Now you'd think this would be a concept that gets discussed more frequently in hip-hop culture, but it's a lot less common than you'd think that you could describe rappers as poets with a straight face. Putting aside the technical considerations - which tend to be fluid with poetry anyway - that label, fairly or not, tends to imply a level of writing sophistication that hip-hop can occasionally fall short of, especially in the mainstream and especially nowadays with the greater focus on production over lyricism.

But if you start digging deep into the underground, you'll actually find a fair few artists who have an established background in a more literary circle, and it shouldn't surprise many people that a few of these poets I'd also identify as some of my favourite rappers, like Dessa or Sage Francis. And if you want to go even deeper, you need to talk about B. Dolan, rapper and spoken word artist from Rhode Island, affiliated with Sage Francis and who broke into the scene in 2008 with the harrowing and absolutely fascinating record The Failure. And for a hip-hop traditionalist, The Failure is far from an easy listen - the beats and production is minimal, much more focused on the words themselves, and when they are there it's abrasive and nasty as hell. And yet the bars themselves earn that harrowing production, an incendiary record targeting politics, religion, and philosophy with naked abandon that chars everyone in its path, including B. Dolan himself.

And thus it's not exactly surprising that his 2010 record Fallen House Sunken City was a slightly more conventional hip-hop record in terms of its construction - still politically charged, still with abrasive and nasty production, still with fiery and intense wordplay... but I dunno, it didn't quite have the same unbelievable moments of visceral intensity that came with songs like 'Kate' and 'Joan Of Arcadia' and 'Skycycle Blues' with the sole exception being the haunting story track of 'Marvin' about the death of Marvin Gaye. Worse still were the elements of conspiracy theory nonsense creeping into his material on tracks like 'The Reptilian Agenda' - yeah, I appreciate the shots at Cheney and Bush as much as anyone, but that Illuminati horseshit is patently ridiculous when a far more dispiriting and honest explanation is that people are lazy, stupid, overwhelmed, or incompetent, stuck in venial sins than grand conspiracies - think The Wire instead of House Of Cards.

But even beyond that, I was in the mood for some hard-edged politics, and right now, rap has all the more reason to get political, so how does Kill The Wolf turn out?

Well, it turns out exactly as strong as you'd expect, managing to combine some of the visceral gutpunch of his best spoken word pieces with rough-edged beats that might flirt with post-grunge and rap rock but manage to feel fresh all the same. What you can definitely tell with this record is a level of care and meticulous craftsmanship that came with the five years since B. Dolan has released a full-length LP, equalling probably his most consistent work yet and a damn great rap record that I can easily recommend, even if I know it's not especially an easy listen.

So why do I say that? Well, part of it is B. Dolan himself - what he brings to his work is a level of visceral intensity makes his political material feel urgent and definitely populist - the guy has been an activist for years, and pitching the conspiracy theory nonsense for deeper insight and nuance is definitely a welcome change. It helps that he's got a handle on that desperate edge that makes so much of Sage Francis' conscious material work as well - the similarities between the two artists are unmistakable and I'd be lying if I said that B. Dolan's persona doesn't quite strike as hard, mostly because his stories don't feel so intensely personal, at least not compared to what he had on The Failure. But I would argue B. Dolan can play to a larger audience with Kill The Wolf, mostly because tracks like 'Alright', 'Stay Inspired', and even 'Graffiti Busters' play for simpler targets in asserting lyrical dominance and taking apart his enemies piece by piece, and he's brutally effective in that lane.

And a big part of his strength plays into the production, a ramshackle blend of rap rock and industrial-flavoured hip-hop that can definitely feel late 90s-inspired but still manages to bring in enough instrumental ideas to stand out while still preserving melodies. 'Lazarus' pairs guitars with eerie mournful keys that eventually roars into noisy, distorted drums, the skittering and low strings against the textured percussion and squealing howl of 'Graffiti Busters', the scratchy rumble of 'Stay Inspired' that features one of the more memorable melodic stingers on the chorus, and then there's 'Jailbreak' which might as well feel pulled straight from 1999 as an outright rock track with chugging grooves and Dave Lamb delivering a post-grunge inspired chorus and an guitar solo before Aesop Rock's verse. Of course, the grimier, industrial edges definitely rear their heads, like on the warped glitchy sample of Men Without Hats' 'Safety Dance' on 'Safety Theater' that's genuinely chilling, the sparse industrial accenting with a fuzzed-out melody on 'Run The Machine' to the noisy percussion and atonal guitar fragments that pepper 'Alright'. And yet on some level this album is at its most effective on its quieter moments, like the echoing hollowness of 'These Rooms' with the rattling strums, especially with the pianos or the funereal 'Memory Of Bombs', the latter of which doesn't exactly work with the hook as well as I'd like, but still has real impact. And easily the instrumentation that hits the hardest is 'Who Killed Russell Jones?', sparse cymbals, guitar, and strings accenting live, echoing vocals from B. Dolan in one of the most potent and biting spoken word pieces I've heard in a while. It's a piece digging into the life and unfortunate death of Ole Dirty Bastard, and as everyone tries to absolve themselves of blame, the slow realization comes that everyone deserves their fair share, from the Wu-Tang Clan who didn't step in on time to the promoters who fed him drugs to the record industry who shoved him under the spotlight to the fans who were enamoured with the image but not the man who shaped it. It truly is one of the most gripping pieces of raw poetry I've heard all year...

And in a sense, that becomes a problem for this record. I'll say it, B. Dolan is a great rapper, but his spoken poetry is on an entirely different level which can hit like a ton of bricks, and it can get a little exasperating when his actual bars don't cut as deep, even despite the wealth of imagination on display. 'Graffiti Busters' parallels Dolan's brand of wordplay to taking down graffiti in the destruction of his rivals, and that's a potent and layered metaphor when it comes to the role of street art in hip-hop, and what it means to destroy it. 'Safety Theater' is more inside B. Dolan's usual wheelhouse in terms of attacking government surveillance and the price people pay for accepting it, but the most telling lines are when he points out the insurance companies never pay out for what really kills you in the end, the price you pay for your security ultimately never paying its due. 'Run The Machine' goes deeper into the bowels of this machine, with Dolan disclosing his own compensation before diving into working class desperation and anxiety as his flow accelerates and diversifies, attacking trickle-down economics with ruthless efficiency. And that's before we get to the heartbreakingly nuanced 'Memory Of Bombs', initially taking the perspective of an ostracised, lonely, and angry kid who never was able to succeed in school becoming a cop who takes out his hatred on anyone he considers beneath him, whether they deserve it or not, and the whole wretched system continues again.

So what thematically ties all of it together? In this case, it's a question not of legacy or what comes after death or even a celebration of life but a desperate hope to wring something better out of it before death's chill inevitability, even if said hope might be fleeting. The album opens with B. Dolan bellowing for 'Lazarus' to break free of his tomb, and yet throughout this album you could make the argument that with the oppressive, broken system, he'd be better off underground. But life is clung to regardless of the fact everything might be forgotten or consumed in the end, which circles back to the touring closer track 'These Rooms', where B. Dolan uses the hotel rooms as metaphors representing how the world so quickly forgets you if you're left behind unless you can make something of an impact. For B. Dolan, it's spreading that message and fighting to stay inspired and focused, and even despite his awareness of death's inevitability, he's going to fight regardless.

In short, I really dig this album. I don't quite think it's perfect - I think there could have been a little more roughness in the production overall to perhaps darken the outright rock elements a bit, and songs like 'Rats Get Fat' do feel a little too on-the-nose for me as a parable about abuse of wealth and their comeuppance, and I do think that B. Dolan could push himself into more visceral territory to match his best work a little more often, Kill The Wolf is an excellent listen. For me, a strong 8/10 and definitely a recommendation if you're a fan of Sage Francis-esque poetry with an edge and urgency that demands attention. And even if you're not, it's probably B. Dolan's most polished rap record to date, so definitely check it out regardless.

No comments:

Post a Comment