Monday, November 7, 2016

album review: 'more than ever' by sims

So, here's a story for you: I saw Doomtree in Toronto twice last year. Once was at Riot Fest - it was awesome, they put on a terrific show, and I was able to leave to see Frank Turner before Tyler The Creator showed up - and the second time was in a small venue downtown. I actually ran into an old university friend there completely by accident, and afterwards we hit up a bar and talked about the show. And I remember a big part of the conversation being which Doomtree MC was our favourite... because let's face it, there's five of them, they're all ridiculously good, but there's always a hierarchy to these things. Obviously Dessa topped both of our lists, but that should be no surprise to anyone - Dessa would make my top five of all time, and the fact that she's now featured on the Hamilton mixtape is all the more deserved.

But after that, the ranking was a little more mixed. For me, I tended to gravitate to Cecil Otter, more because of his production work and because I had heard a lot of his solo material and work with Strange Famous. My friend consistently brought up Sims as her second favourite, and while she was making her entirely justified case, I realized I had never listened to Sims' solo work. I had heard P.O.S.'s albums - I can't say I'm the biggest fan, but I appreciate his distinct lane - but Sims... I had a hard time evaluating his material outside of Doomtree, especially going back to his breakthrough record in 2011 Bad Time Zoo. On the one hand, his unconventional rhyming patterns could definitely get frustrating, but he was also probably the most eccentric and borderline odd rapper of the Doomtree collective. Unlike Dessa, whose material tended to be more conventionally tasteful - as well as intricate, gorgeously performed, ridiculously intelligent, I could go on - Sims was the guy who would take more risks, in his content, wordplay, and especially his instrumentation. He had a flair for theatrical bombast and some really great hooks, but there was an off-kilter edge to Bad Time Zoo that in retrospect really feels ahead of its time. It was experimental and weird courtesy of Lazerbeak's eclectic production, almost certainly underappreciated in 2011 - and I include myself in that category. Even as a fan of Doomtree, the collective that along with of Run The Jewels is everything I want to hear in modern hip-hop, I probably didn't give Sims enough credit.

So I wasn't going to be making that mistake again, and even if nobody else cares to cover this record - which is likely, as I'm not sure he's got the immediate name recognition as Dessa or P.O.S. or even Cecil Otter - I wanted to get to this first, before Common or Czarface or anything else this week. So what did I get?

Well folks, we got one of the best hip-hop albums - no, scratch that, one of the best albums of 2016. My God, this found my expectations and blew right past them, as More Than Ever is focused, well-written, personal and well-framed in the way that avoids the corniness that has coloured some of Sims' work in the past... oh, and this is one of the most wild, alien, experimental and hard-hitting records you'll hear since Danny Brown's Atrocity Exhibition, and I'd argue this is even better. If we're talking other Doomtree projects... All Hands and No Kings are still unbelievably strong, and Dessa's A Badly Broken Code is damn near a classic in my book, but this is up there, that's for damn sure.

So let's dig into this, and the place we need to start is with Sims himself. On the last Doomtree project All Hands, the best way you could describe his rhyming patterns and ambiance... well, you really couldn't, not simply. Off-kilter and seemingly detached at points, but heartfelt in a way that the weirdness felt genuine, pretty far removed from artifice. And yet if you thought that was the case for All Hands, More Than Ever cranks all of that to an extreme: he spits with significantly more intensity as his flow careens across patterns that vary from borderline spoken word to the melodic cadences that reference everyone from other Doomtree members to outside of the collective. And while there are still a few more points than I'd prefer that the rhyme scheme is dropped or flipped, Sims nimbly contorts across patterns and his knack for ridiculously catchy hooks means you're pretty much going to get dragged on this ride. I've already referenced Danny Brown - and of course Sims' vocal tones are not that wild, but instead there's a certain desperate emotive subtlety that accentuates the same sort of emotions that made that record such a wild trip. Sims simply swaps out the reckless hedonism for something more high concept, and stories told with the sort of distinctive detail that lends them vivid colour. And there's none of the same detachment that occasionally crept into points of All Hands - this is closer, and if it's euphoric in any way, it's the sort of euphoria that could make for some gutwrenching turns.

And nowhere is that more apparent than the production... and look, Sims has always been closer to the experimental side in his work with Paper Tiger and Lazerbeak, but roping in ICETEP sees him going further than ever. Danny Brown might have brought more outright variety with Atrocity Exhibition, but Sims sticks the landing with More Than Ever more consistently, with razor sharp percussion, warping walls of alien synths, and the sort of crescendos and grooves that twist into some monstrous songs that recalls Death Grips with a little more refinement, or maybe the industrial touches you'd see on a B.Dolan project warped even further and blown up to titanic size. It might start small with the huge cracking beat and distorted blocks of synth on 'A Bad Flying Bird', but 'Icarus' has these huge, horn-like blasts paired with trap percussion and all these eerie glossy layers, all paired with just enough vocal distortion that only comes in to balance Sims in the mix, not swallow him or accentuate something that isn't there in his voice. The hammering hook of that erupts out of the creepy skitters of 'Brutal Dance', the roiling distorted blasts of 'OneHundred', the warbling layers against waves of jittery darkness on 'Flash Paper', the echoing Clipping-esque pops that lead to the gargantuan distorted groove on the hook of 'Spinning Away' which might be one of the heaviest hooks I've heard all year in hip-hop... hell, they even fuse in elements of footwork into the fast-paced hammering beat of 'What They Don't Know', the most obvious political cut on this record! And yet even when the hooks aren't going nuts, there's a lot of subtle atmosphere building and growth going on in these mixes - the warble of the synth and subtle patter of the beat on 'Oakland Avenue Catalpus', the increased layering of 'Badlands', the watery, misty gloss of 'Shaking In My Sheets', which is a spin on a sex song that we'll definitely have to discuss further, to the dark, gleaming layers of synth that run through 'Voltaire'... and then the tunes align and become more funereal with the faded pianos on the stunningly bleak, bass-heavy hook. Now it's not all perfect - I don't quite love the tones on 'Bucket', and as a whole I do wish there was a little more organic instrumentation to highlight some of the more human moments of beauty, like say on 'Gosper Island'... but really, that's minimal - this record is an instrumental entity in and of itself, unlike so much you'll hear this year but with patterns that aren't too alien to be accepted by a willing audience.

And here's where we get to the content... and whoo boy, Sims isn't making this easy on anyone. What's fascinating is that his writing probably as blunt and jagged as it has ever been, but it's also his most high-concept and tough to decode, the sign of a rapper deconstructing his own identity and finding whatever flows within with the framing to show the cost of all of it. Where All Hands at its core was shredding the layers to raw brutal humanity, More Than Ever is cutting even deeper and dragging the audience for the ride. And this is a ride not without its prices - it is reckless and often lonely, there's no surprise that Sims takes on the role of Icarus on the track of that name and flies even closer to that blazing sun. As such the first few tracks in finding that core can feel a tad basic lyrically until you dig into the details. Sims acknowledges an audience might be compelled to play dumb and fit in with the middle ground - fifty shades of beige and pumpkin spice indeed - but still to wake up and listen, especially when the recklessness of his mind and art is moving faster than even he is. And 'OneHundred' doesn't just show sparks of being constrained or watched by mainstream critics trying to define him, but also the SJW crowd trying to hem in his method of messaging - which kind of blew my mind, given how socially conscious Sims has been in his work for years now, both on and off record - especially given for him, he's playing no games. And yet from there the album gets dark indeed, as he discovers that he can't disconnect the way he used to and shows him struggling to hit an audience on a deeper level that wants to order things and have them make sense... and yet he can't at this point. Especially on songs like 'Flash Paper' he sees how fragmented, fragile, and temporary it all seems, catching a moment on stage where the noise has him wishing for peace and isolation - to quote him: 'it doesn't make me feel hollow, but it doesn't put me on board'. And that spinning out of control gets all the more pronounced on - what else - 'Spinning Around', half screams and gunfire at the sky, half a child breaking through the clouds and finding none of the heavens he was looking for, just emptiness.

From that point, the direction of the album does seem to shift a bit, and a little more control is established - sure, we get the much-welcome evisceration of institutionalized ignorance and apathy in the face of real issues on 'What They Don't Know' - definitely what I needed in a day right before an election - but more focus is set on how Sims is trying to deal with this deconstruction of his artistic identity, with 'Oakland Avenue Catalpas' showing him just trying to ride the ups and down and yet acknowledge his own vulnerability while holding hard. 'Badlands' gets even more intriguing as it shows his own success running contrary to punk seeds planted long ago - he's trying to make the mundane euphoric and he even references the bellicose oi scene in hardcore punk, only to find himself on the red carpet. But then we get up to 'Shaking In My Sheets'... which at first glimpse seems to be Sims making a sex song - and one of the more emotionally honest and nuanced ones I've heard in a while, at that - until you realize it could very well be about his wife, who was critically ill for months and their loving connection had to find some way to persist, which lends it an organic gravity that's uncomfortably intimate but all the more powerful. And that's before we get 'Voltaire', which paints a starkly detailed story of going to dance at a club... only for someone he loves to get gunned down there by accident, and him raging as he sees the bloody mess unfold... no controlled recklessness could have prepared him for this. And to translate all of that... well, then we have the closer 'Gosper Island', which show Sims counting fractal patterns on the glass, finding the tangible patterns... but how to create something that anyone else can understand? And the closing bit of scientific language, I want to share the entire final stanza here: 'How to count the waves / how to offset the phase / how to synchronize the phrase / how to love what is left in its wake / when it rolls in to take it away / give it back to you'. Fantastic layered language describing how music and art is created from personal experience, refined, released, and then given to the audience in an echoing feedback loop... simple, but damn near perfect.

In short... yeah, this review went long, but this album is something unquestionably special. Too many people will ignore it as a side project of Doomtree, or as too alien and weird to really appreciate - folks, do not make that mistake. Not only is this album intelligent, heartfelt, and a nerve-wracking listen all the way through, it also has some of the most energetic, explosive, and hard-hitting bangers you'll hear all year, killing the lie yet again that intelligent and conscious hip-hop can't be as catchy or explosive as any other genre. Easily a 9/10, the highest of my recommendations, Sims just released a record that easily lives up to its title - get More Than Ever, people, it most certainly deserves it.

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