Thursday, October 15, 2015

album review: 'halfway' by uncommon nasa

Goddamn it, how does this keep happening? It seems like when it comes to rappers who dropped great albums in the late summer, early autumn of 2014, I'm just late to the party here!

Now to be at least a little fair here, I get the feeling the majority of people were late to the party with Uncommon Nasa. New York MC, a member of The Presence in the late 90s, affiliated with Def Jux and El-P throughout the early 2000s, he founded Uncommon Records and has steadily been cranking out experimental, rough-edged hip-hop albums, either under his name or the alias Adam Warlock. And if you go digging through his featuring credits across the past fifteen or so years, you'll see enough cosigns to respect his credentials as a thoughtful, articulate MC, but what impressed me a lot more was the production. I was reminded a little of Ratking in terms of the unmistakable New York focus, and dense, clattering textures, but Uncommon Nasa was more conceptual in his writing, not quite as blunt and immediate but just as skilled in creating a starkly vivid, gritty picture. It wasn't always easy material to approach - his flows could run a little off-kilter and sometimes the mix could get a little cacophonous for its own good, but with Land of the Way It Is and especially his critically well-received and fascinating 2014 record New York Telephone, he definitely stood as a veteran that it'd be worth keeping an eye on.

As such, when he approached me directly to cover his 2015 album Halfway, I was all the more interested - how did it turn out?

Well, it's a fascinating listen, I'll say that for damn sure, and a pretty chilling one too. If Uncommon Nasa was looking to make the sort of album that feels both personal and relevant that did manage to get under my skin, he did it with Halfway. And this isn't coming from someone who might be at that halfway point of their life and who is seeing the spectre of encroaching age - I can't imagine how hard this album might hit someone in that audience - but more because the framing and introspection aims for more of a universal focus than that. Oh, and it's also because the album is damn great, a cerebral, hard-hitting entry into the list of fantastic hip-hop albums that have filled 2015 that might not be an easy listen for more ways than one, but definitely is worth it.

So let's start with Uncommon Nasa himself, and I'll say that his flow can require a bit of getting used to: the rhyme patterns aren't always conventional, his delivery can flit from rambling spoken word to hard-edged rapping, the dense multi-tracking can occasionally make a word or two tough to parse out, and at his trickiest, the assertive delivery paired with more abstract imagery can you leave you initially with the feeling that something very profound was said and it just went over your head. And more often than not it can - reminiscent of Sage Francis in that way albeit more ruthless than expressive - but what I appreciated about this record is how straightforward it really felt. With few exceptions the themes and central ideas behind the songs are well articulated either through the excellent sampling or the hook or one of the many conversations Uncommon Nasa has with his wife across this album. It's almost to the point where while there are guest stars like the more contemplative Short Fuze on 'Ghosts Over Your Shoulder' and verses from album producer Black-Tokyo and Carl Kavorkian on 'Having Too Good A Time', Uncommon Nasa's personality and delivery overshadows them all, and the one place it doesn't is the excellent verse from Skech185 on 'Skin Tells Stories', a more conceptual track exploring the metaphor of skin as a track record of time and experiences and how he has to communicate the realities of skin colour in America to his children, how he only hopes the oppression fiction... that is, if he and his generation did their jobs right.

Yeah, might as well dive straight into the themes and lyrics on this album, because it is shockingly dense, starting from the basic premise of contemplating mortality at the halfway point of life and exploding from there. And while some of the underlying paranoia that was laced through the background of New York Telephone comes through here, Uncommon Nasa is smart enough to put forward a number of facets to the melancholy he feels. The paralysing distraction that can come with contemplating death instead of living life, the hyper-detailed pipe dreams that materialize when we realize there's so much more we want to do, the awkward fear that comes with the knowledge that every sleep might be his last, a fear even he seems to think is insignificant but still bugs him. Hell, one of the running motifs is that we think more about death and mortality when we're at our best, contemplating the greater loss and legacy all the more. But not just that, because there are also songs that dig into the relationships around us - while I do think 'Love The Cold Like A Brother' meanders a bit, I do find the underlying concepts intriguing, how he doesn't have those familial bonds but a window to his fans through his music... but he knows on some level it's not as deep of a connection. And it leads to questions of why the young are brought down by the old especially when they might be in the same lane, relating more to those younger and older than those at the same age. And that takes us to arguably the most cerebral and abstract track on the album, 'The Study', which plays out almost like an impressionist murder mystery, two friends at a party in the titular room but one has been poisoned by the other - and the poisoner doesn't know his target. A strong tragic story - especially considering the open metaphor of how we can drive away people in our obsessions, even those closest by accident, the most chilling thing that said friend might not ever be replaced, because we get to a certain point in our lives where we can't make any more 'old friends' - there just isn't enough time.

Now I would usually call this a concept record, but that might imply Uncommon Nasa's bars are self-contained and don't touch beyond that halfway point - which they definitely do. I was originally a little irked by 'Why I Stopped Watching The News', which originally felt like your standard media commentary track - albeit one of the best ones, featuring one of the most potent lines: 'the storyteller of our era is the editor'. But the track takes a sharp turn into pitch blackness as it shifts to the death of Eric Garner, a story that makes no sense even as the news tries to normalize it by wedging it into a narrative that normalizes those deaths. This leads into the most political track on the album, 'We Living In These Dark Times', which rips into not just police brutality, but circles it back to how it can impact anyone... except, of course, those who have enough privilege to not care. And it leads into another fantastic track, 'Having Too Good A Time', which opens with one of the most poignant samples on the album: a girl steps to the edge of the roof and her friend tries to pull her back, but she's in no danger: the guy won't come closer to pull her back, because deep down, there's something within him that might jump. But she never will, she's savouring the life she has, and it circles back to an underlying core of desperate hope on this record. That song speaks against suicide, and while the spectre of death looms ever closer, the skeleton of conversations Uncommon Nasa has with his wife shows exactly why he hasn't succumbed. He's made his peace with that cold, but he's not about to leave his wife and the work they've created together, all the more potent of a legacy.

Now some of you might have realized that I haven't talked much about the actual production and instrumentation on this album yet. Well, that's more because I found the lyrics and samples and themes so damn compelling, but the production from Black Tokyo across this album really is great, and there are plenty of shining moments. Most of this record does stick with the off-kilter, lo-fi boombap vibe that Uncommon Nasa usually utilized, with rigid, thickened beats with sparse percussion that build their own eclectic rhythms, but the production isn't as noisy or cacophonous as New York Telephone while still maintaining a pretty potent New York feel, especially in the choppy lo-fi jazz and soul sampling. Hell, the only production complaint I have is that sometimes the vocals can feel a little too low or high to blend well with the instrumentation, but that's minor when you have tracks that can feel melancholic without wallowing in sorrow. The oily lo-fi gurgle of the synths of 'Pipe Dreams', the warped, skittering guitar that comes after the elegant strings on 'Perchance To Dream', the creaking guitar rollick with interjects of flutes and ebbing vocals on 'Why I Stopped Watching The News' to the cleaner guitars drifting off of the strings swells and punctuation of horns on 'The Study'. But, as usual for me, when this album gets more melodic it shines all the more starkly, from the burnished acoustic elements against the sandy cymbals and dreary guitars of 'We Living In These Dark Times' against what I'd swear is live drums to that snarled synth that throbs beneath 'Having Too Good A Time' with a really great subtle vocal flourish, to the very bright cascade of keys against borderline R&B vocal coos around the edges of a surprisingly spacious mix. There are a few instrumentals I don't quite love: 'Ghosts Over Your Shoulder' feels like its missing a change-up, the vocal sample against the evolving guitars on 'Music Is Our Children' doesn't quite connect for me, and 'Clown Cars' just feels a little too sparse with only that faded chime and beat, probably my least favourite song even despite a pretty potent message discussing the 'false positive' of society trying to delude itself out of mortality as it packs itself ever tighter with its eyes shut.

But at the end of the day, when the writing is this incredibly solid and deep and the presentation this organic and complex, I definitely can't complain all too much. Halfway by Uncommon Nasa is not a particularly easy listen - it's dense, it goes for stark emotional truths and expects the audience to keep up and bear them, but it's the sort of layered consideration of one's own mortality that comes with real experience from an industry veteran. So for me it's an obvious 8/10 and of course I'm recommending it! Again, I may have gotten to Uncommon Nasa late, but halfway in is better than never.

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