Thursday, February 16, 2017

album review: 'stories from my notebook' by terrancedamien

Sometimes you know what you're getting into... and sometimes it's a complete crapshoot. You might have good feelings, but who knows what's coming when you get a record from an unknown artist who says he's been following you since you started your channel a couple years back, waiting for the opportunity to slide in.

Yes folks, this is another act who managed to get his album up the schedule on Patreon: TerranceDamien, an MC for whom I can't find a lot of information but recently seems to have picked up traction thanks to a few freestyles that he compiled into a mixtape last year, and now with this record of ten songs. And honestly, it's rare when I go into a project and have no idea what to expect in terms of production or sound or rapping ability or anything. I saw that there was a label associated with this guy, but I couldn't find any official website or anything else dropped under it, so it looks a homebrew. But that's not a bad thing: purely independent hip-hop projects can be something special if the production and bars are on point: look at Chance The Rapper or Macklemore, so I went into this with clear eyes: what did I find?

Okay, this is an interesting case, and one I want to give more consideration than you'd typically expect for this sort of start-up indie rapper, mostly because I see real potential here. Let me stress that I don't really think TerranceDamien's project is great or even entirely good, but it was certainly more interesting than I expected, and instead of my usual critical vivisection, I'm going to take this time describing where I think he can really improve, with this project as more of a case study, because I get the feeling he'll probably end up watching this. Again, there's potential here and it managed to hold my interest - perhaps for not all of the best reasons, but we'll get to that in detail.

So let's start with TerranceDamien as a rapper - and I'll say it, there's something to like about this guy. His flows are pretty diverse, he's got a decent sense of comic timing, and while there are your fair share of dropped or flubbed rhymes - he's got an annoying habit of rhyming words that come from the same root and the play on words - overall he's got a solid foundation when it comes to bars. Many of his bars play to a very laid-back, conversational style, almost to the point where you can trace his direct influences - and when I say that, I mean there are flows and cadences and even outright lyrical interpolations that would concern a fair few lawyers if they heard them, like that little Usher bit on 'My Little Secret'. That's where my first major comment is: I appreciate doing your own interpretation of Tupac's 'Me And My Girlfriend', but not only did Jay-Z and Beyonce already do this, but that's the sort of thing that doesn't exactly help you stand out, especially if all you're doing is taking it in a bloodier direction... and this leads to the very pronounced Eminem influence. Moreso than even Hopsin you can tell TerranceDamien has pulled a lot of his flows and even overarching subject matter from early Eminem... which would be fine if TerranceDamien was as expressive or hard-hitting of an MC as Em was. The sad thing is that he's really not - his delivery often plays to low-key witty slacker bro, and it doesn't consistently bring a lot of intensity or energy, which doesn't help his rapping and can really hurt the moments where he half-tries to sing.

This leads to my second point: I have a hard time gauging how you want to define yourself: moody introspective storyteller like on 'Boy Interrupted' or 'Story 261', half-joking psycho like on 'Bjork Stalker Song', 'Me And My Girlfriend' or between the lines on 'The WeakDay Remix', or playing to the young everyman on songs like the school reminiscence of 'Remember That' or the hookup on 'I Like You' or the cheating on both sides of 'My Little Secret'. As it is, without a firm delineation of style it can lead to some moments of tonal dissonance or at the very least some questionable framing, especially on songs like 'The WeakDay Remix' where the violent references feel completely out of place! This is where I do want to give TerranceDamien some credit because he's not a bad storyteller in terms of filling his songs with texture and detail - the hookup remembrances on 'I Like You', the school stories of 'Remember That', and especially the extended rape-revenge tale of 'Story 261', the sort of grisly story that includes bathroom abortion and yet through its presentation manages to be both empathetic and horrifying in how frequent said stories can be. On the flipside, when you place that story opposite the cheap 'denial of sex' sitcom humor of 'Sex Game' - which might be relatable but really isn't all that funny - or the laundry list of obvious tropes on 'Millennial Girl', it can make for a jarring contrast, especially when you consider how much darker the back half of this album is compared to the first. What it doesn't show is a lot of coherence and focus in the writing - I don't mind the humor or detail, which is probably his fastest path to internet notoriety in comparison with the more serious subject matter - but it'll be drawing it together to make more of a point that'll help those songs stick out.

Now to production and instrumentation, where I'll whole-heartedly admit this record caught me by surprise in a mostly good way. If you're going in expecting anything close to modern trap snares or percussion, you're going to leave disappointed - if anything, more of the synth tones we get here sound like they were imported from the beginning of the buzzy club era circa 2008-2010, with overall brighter tones and more basic, blocky percussion. And this can be both good and bad - on the one hand, songs like 'I Like You' and 'Millennial Girl' make heavy use of a pretty thick bass melody to play off the brighter keys to bring in some solid groove, the sparse melancholic guitar tones on 'Boy Interrupted', 'Bjork Stalker Song', and 'Story 261' are pretty damn solid in setting the mood, and the hooks here are pretty damn melodic. These will be songs that stick in your brain, whether you want them or not, which is impressive considering how stripped back this production is. But that leads to two issues, the first being the percussion: the beats we do get nearly always feel closer to the front of the mix than the actual melodic tone, and not particularly well-blended - I feel like I could break these instrumentals apart piece by piece; good chunks, but they could be fused together slightly better. And this leads into the second point: given the lack of greater organic depth, many of these instrumentals have a very home-built feel in their tone and lack a certain amount of texture or grit - which yes, can work for the more chipper tracks and even complement the melodies, but it also leads to some of the Eminem comparisons feeling all the more stark and it can lead to some of the atmosphere not being quite as convincing as it could be given the content and melodies.

But in short... there's potential here, I will say that. TerranceDamien represents a lane that's been underserved in mainstream rap, and that is the guy willing to tell more detailed stories instead of just rattling off streams of bragging with disconnected punchlines in a triplet flow. Now granted, where I think this project could be improved is defining more of that personality behind the stories for a little more consistency in the framing, maybe blend both the instrumentals and bars together with a little more unique texture so that the influences aren't as obvious, but this is a promising start. So while I am giving this a 5/10, it's a very strong 5/10 and a recommendation to check this out. It's always a bit of a crapshoot when you're talking about indie rappers getting big, but there's something here, and TerranceDamien... I wouldn't count him out, there's promise.

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