Monday, July 18, 2016

album review: 'the maze' by a:j

Let's flash back to the end of 2013. I'm a mostly fresh-faced music critic coming up on my hundredth or so album review on YouTube, trying to ensure I've covered everything I need before the end of the year. And then, almost by accident, I find a record that's been languishing in my inbox for a few months, a hip-hop release by Cousin Ayjay, a relative unknown who still managed to capture my attention for some impressively layered production and an ambitious narrative framework exploring the listless day in the life of a perpetual stoner. Now if that's seems like an oxymoron, it's because this record falls into a weird spot for me: plenty of detail in creating the characters and world around him, but as a rapper Cousin Ayjay could feel a little sloppy. The production was lush and off-kilter, but it rarely developed any sort of momentum to drive the story. In other words, it did have many of the hallmarks of an indie hip-hop passion project: lush and expansive with little to no pop appeal, but also self-indulgent and overlong, not quite coming together as strongly as it could.

And yet say what you will about A:J - he dropped the 'Cousin' from his name a few years back - he's the sort of artist I like seeing in indie hip-hop, and thus when he approached me with his newest album, I was definitely intrigued to see where he was going next. So steeling myself for another complicated listen, I dove into The Maze - what did I find?

Well, this was a tricky record to analyze - but for very different reasons than Sonic Dopamine was. The Maze is a shorter listen and on the first few listens significantly more empty across the board, from production to bars to the themes themselves. That said, even if I do feel this record might be a shade weaker than Sonic Dopamine, it's no less fascinating, and I'm convinced that if A:J had a platform beyond Soundcloud or could get more critical attention beyond this review, he'd probably win over a lot of people.

So let's start with the biggest reason: the instrumentation and production. Now on the level of mood and atmosphere, this record does share some of the same qualities as his last album: dreary and stoned, easily feeling twice as long as it actually is thanks to muted melodies and slow tempos. It's a listless record, but while Sonic Dopamine was smothered in a thick, weed-choked atmosphere, The Maze is much more empty, the much heavier, louder bass and sparse, skittering hi-hats echoing out into a void where you'll pay more attention to the odd fragments spurting throughout it than any real melodic hook. Nearly everything is more ragged and windswept, from the plucky synths on 'Finessional' to the creaking trap percussion on 'You've Got Bodieees' to the crackles of glitch and static that splinter across the mix. You could definitely argue there's more of a road feel to this record, an empty look with fragments of soul and R&B samples that are chopped to ribbons and flutter against the muted synthesizers, with occasionally a mournful sax line like on 'But I Love Money More', the outro after the pretty damn great whistle and snap of the excellent 'Dear Sister', to even a collaboration with R&B singer Cadence on 'Infatuated' which is another album highlight. Of course, this also means that the record can start to run together in a long, empty expanse, with the bass hits booming across and the too-thin trap snares barely able to support them. And you know, for a while I was onboard - play this record on a lonely drive through an empty city at two in the morning and it fits pretty well... but as an overall aesthetic it can get tired.

And it's not exactly helped by A:J himself, who remains a rapper who has more ideas than solid execution. He's got wordplay and some cleverness - the message to the exploitative hip-hop genre on 'You've Got Bodieees' is solid if a little overdone, the conflicted relationship of 'Loveuhateu' was well structured enough even if I do think with only a single verse it could have been expanded, and even though I don't have a lot of patience for hollow flexing, it's honestly well structured enough on 'Aiiir' and 'Finessional' that I can coast on it. And this record still has its issues with women - I liked the idea behind 'Dear Sister' and highlighting his own hypocrisy in how he treats girls and yet expects his sister to stay safe, but perhaps you don't want to call it out by saying you wished she was heavier and darker-skinned, and that's not getting into 'But I Love Money More' or the painful meandering of 'Brain Freeze' which tries for a hookup and mentions not needing Febreeze for the pussy smell... dude, come on. But at the very least the intentions do ring a little better when you consider this record as a whole, the thematic conceit of the maze being navigating the complicated state of affairs when it comes to his modest hip-hop success, women, and drugs, including a half-sarcastic ode to cocaine on 'Booger Sugar', which might just be the worst song title I've heard all year. But again, the arc of this record does show A:J confronting the realities and insecurities of a relationship and by the time it hits the closer 'Eventide', he's confronted with the fact that he might not have all the answers and is forced to face more of himself. And that self-awareness is a big asset, especially as he admits how little money CDs have made him and describes himself as a thousandaire - the stakes are smaller, which helps make the record have that greater sense of intimacy that was a big asset to Sonic Dopamine as well.

But then we have A:J himself... and while most of his bars connect, I find him a tough performer to like. He occasionally has some decent melodic flows, but on songs like 'Left Thigh' they feel painfully basic, and that's before we get him contorting his voice into a nasal drone that like on the hook of 'Aiiir' or 'l8e2i5' that sounds ugly as hell. And that's before we get to the autotune and multitracking that smothers songs like 'Brain Freeze' and 'Right Thigh' and 'Eventide', which only detracts away from some interesting content. And I get it - in an era with Young Thug and Drake adding more crooning to their rapping I can see why he's putting in these weird vocal adlibs, but he also doesn't need them, and it only feels goofy where the atmosphere is playing much more melancholic and serious.

But then again, that feels like an awkward decision too - as much as Drake popularized the washed-out drone of mainstream hip-hop with Take Care, I could make the argument for some of these tracks that A:J's content can match it in terms of self-reflection, especially when he's keenly aware of the negative stereotypes he embodies or how badly he is treating girls who just want to do drugs and screw around, especially when there is one girl who wants something more real. But even with that Drake at least had a skill for melody and momentum that The Maze does not have - as much as I might appreciate the glitchy, atmospheric production, I also can't deny how listless, slow, and occasionally tedious this record can feel, minimalist to the point where both all the strengths and weaknesses of the content are highlighted more plainly. And for me... look, there's a time and place for this music, and it's at least got the self-awareness that Bryson Tiller's similar brand of moody darkness never had, so I'm giving it a strong 6/10 and a recommendation, especially if you're more of a fan of bleak, self-conscious hip-hop that's not precisely deep but is a little smarter than many will give credit. And for me... it was interesting getting lost in The Maze for a bit, but I just hope A:J can find his way out.

No comments:

Post a Comment