Thursday, March 30, 2017

album review: 'the upper hand' by AllttA

So... do any of you remember that rap rock debut album Boy Thursday I reviewed a few weeks ago from the group KNIVES, that I thought was decent but didn't really rise above its inspirations and ultimately just wasn't really for me? Well, I'm assuming the majority of you didn't, because that review got barely any traffic and was for an artist for which I only really covered thanks to Patreon. And in that review, I also mentioned that the rapper J. Medeiros also had a slightly more electronic-driven project called AllttA that was releasing its full-length debut this year?

Well, guess what we're talking about today, requested and voted on by the very same patron? Look, in all fairness I'm happy I got a chance to talk about this now - if you see what's coming in April we have what looks like a tsunami of new music, most of which looks to be pretty damn awesome, and this would probably get lost in the shuffle. And more than that, hip-hop has had a bit of a mixed year thus far - sure, we got Run The Jewels and Quelle Chris, but beyond that... there hasn't been a lot that's crossed my plate that I've loved. So okay, I was in the mood for some aggressive, smartly written bars, and even though I knew this would take a lot to unpack J. Medeiros is a solid MC, so what did I find in The Upper Hand?

Hmm... well, okay, I said when I reviewed KNIVES that a lot of the rap rock style wasn't really in my personal wheelhouse, not really a sound I liked or could appreciate as much. AllttA - which is an acronym for 'A Little Lower Than The Angels' - is a much more conventional hip-hop record, albeit fitting into a niche I don't often cover... but only partially. In fact, it presents a weird sort of dichotomy when digging through this record: J. Medeiros is a compelling, detailed MC, whose metaphors and ideas bring up texture and almost demand plenty of repeat listens to fully understand... and for most of this project, the production doesn't nearly flatter him as much as it should, knocking back what could have been a great project into - at least in my books - a pretty good one. 

So to explain this, we have to start with J. Medeiros himself... and you know, I've had a hard time putting my finger on who his vocal tone reminds me of, but here against the more synth-heavy production, it struck me: Logic. Yeah, Logic stans, if you've been looking for a rapper who could probably match your favourite bar for bar if not better with a similar tone - and who has been in the game a good decade longer, for the record - J. Medeiros delivers effectively. And I think straightforward hip-hop might be a better lane for him than rap rock - when he's not howling his lungs out in hyper-layered bars, his material becomes easier to follow and you can appreciate his tighter rhymes and an actual sense of humor a lot more. And on the topic of flows... if you're going to check out any track on this record, it should be 'Connery', because it's the sort of layered, ridiculously fast delivery that shows just how versatile and strong this guy is. And yet what caught me off-guard was the fact Medeiros was willing to get more introspective and straightforward, pull the audience in a little more, from the working class comeup of 'Bucket' to questions of his place in modern hip-hop on 'Alltta' and 'Kinsmen', even to songs about expecting and having a baby boy on 'Baby' and 'Touch Down Pt.2' - and the fact that he does get a little more expressive here is a step in the right direction.

Now that's not saying the more coded punchlines don't go away, because Medeiros is still the sort of MC where it's going to demand a lot of repeated listens - making peace with the idea of death on 'Calling Crows', less hatred but a mingled sense of bemusement and pity for the mainstream music industry on 'That Good Ship' and 'Million Dreams', especially as he's now faced with the idea that his own personal hustle might demand higher dividends to pay for the infant son in his life, and in literally carrying over some lines from the best song from Boy Thursday and giving a song the same title, 'Holy Toast' becomes not just a song about society's embrace of authoritarian religion but also a refocus on how a divine message can work on a smaller, more personal level, speaking from the ground up - which really feels much more in the spirit of what Jesus was actually trying to do, at least what I remember from the New Testament. Yeah, this would normally be where I'd come down pretty hard against the sort of Christian rap that gets on my nerves, but the truth is that Medeiros actually gets to the core of religious themes I like, half through a sense of real humility that feels consistent across the record, and also because there's a level of nuance and thought to it - alternative Christian, indeed. And this is not a record that gets preachy or would ever try to be, even to the point where on 'Drugs' the message is more that 'hey, I don't do drugs, it works for me, but if you want to smoke, you do you'. It feels rational and measured in a way that reflects a fair bit of maturity, and I can appreciate that. That said, the one track that doesn't really fit is 'Match', the sort of elongated one-night stand song that's I get is trying to be awkward, especially as it stretched into more than what he wanted, but it also shows Medeiros using this yelp-singing that I really did not find flattering, not good for his vocal tone at all, especially when he closes out the record with a more restrained and controlled tone on 'Paradise Lost' that even showcases a decent falsetto.

But okay, for as much as I praise this album, where do things go off the rails? Well, it's in the production, and it's not so much things are going off the rails as it is some of these production choices clashing in weird ways. I wasn't hugely familiar with 20syl's work as a producer before checking out this release, and I won't deny what we got here is varied and interesting, to say the least. Warping synths, beats that either skitter unevenly or fall in blocky chunks, the occasional bit of sizzle from a guitar or thicker bass, a few flute segments on 'Calling Crows' and 'Kinsmen', and a fair few vocal samples and pitch-shifted segments that are often used to flesh out the few hooks we get. And here's the thing: I questioned whether J. Medeiros' voice was great for the howling rap rock of KNIVES, but that might have been more of his delivery - now with him showing off more versatility, I'm left looking at the production that doesn't often feel in the same ballpark. And this goes beyond lacking a deeper sense of texture and grit - that actually does show up occasionally on the bluesy stomp of 'Bucket' or the sizzling undercurrent of 'Turn Around' or the weird blend of an Indian-inspired melody with a modern soul sample that clicked amazingly well on 'Baby' - but it often feels like this sort of misshapen, blocky, kind of off-kilter production would serve an MC who isn't as relentlessly aggressive or complex with his bars, not helped by a real lack of groove - and when we do get it it comes in the retro-disco variety on 'Million Dreams' and it's pleasant if a little corny. It's not really helped by Medeiros sometimes only dropping a single verse and then getting out of the way for the production to handle an extended outro, when really, once it assembles into its weird shape doesn't really evolve or change up beyond it. And look, I get that it's a rapper/producer team up where both have equal billing, but I often feel the beats could better channel the ideas and intensity behind Medeiros' rhymes, or at least get out of the way more or give him a more consistent groove to ride - hell, that's why 'Connery' worked so well for me, the production is minimalist enough to just let him spit!

But then again, this is a first time team-up, and that sort of producer/rapper chemistry can be hard to synthesize, especially when you have rappers and producers as varied, complex, or weird as these two seem to be. As it is, I think this is a good start, and the flows and bars are strong enough to earn this a light 7/10, but I definitely want to see more. Again, I might not be totally convinced this sort of heavily electronic or synth-driven material is the best fit for J. Medeiros - organic grooves and tones tend to be a better balance from what I'm hearing - but going forward, I'm curious to see what happens. In the mean time, if you're interested... eh, worth a listen, check it out.

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