Sunday, May 28, 2017

album review: 'united states of horror' by ho99o9

There's a part of me that's surprised by this... but it's counterbalanced by the part of me that has known this was kind of inevitable - it just might have taken more time to get there. After all, when you have a group like Death Grips who quite literally pioneered a distinct sound and style in modern hip-hop, eventually it's going to inspire people to jump towards their lane.

But there haven't been many to try. Obviously the most prominent person to try noise rap was Kanye West on Yeezus four years ago, but even though I do mostly like that album, it really is the pale mainstream imitation of a sound and style that Death Grips landed better, and it wasn't long before they themselves went in a more punk and noise rock-inspired direction on a record like Jenny Death. Hell, even clipping, a noise rap group who I gravitated to the most, they went into high-concept space opera territory, they weren't exactly interested in following Death Grips towards punk. Hell, even if you take a look at the current crop of distorted Soundcloud rappers like XXXTENTACION they aren't really punk so much as they want to blow out your speakers.

Enter Ho99o9, a hip-hop duo from New Jersey who have attained some buzz for absolutely manic live performances, stabs at gruesome horrorcore, and a significant punk influence - in fact, some would argue they're closer to the punk scene than hip-hop, given how many hardcore and metalcore bands they've supported on tour. They've put out a few singles and EPs, but now they've got a full-length debut ready to go, so what did Ho99o9 bring to the table?

Well, this is a strange predicament, because normally when I put together my intro before delving into the record in-depth, it can be a bit of a bait-and-switch, setting up expectations that I might have that are eventually subverted in some way. Yeah, that's not quite happening here, because if you're were looking for a lightweight Death Grips imitation from the Soundcloud scene with a smattering of hardcore punk, Ho99o9 is that group - and I've gone on the record saying that I'm not really a huge fan of any of those three things. But even if I was, I'm not entirely sure I can endorse this as much as I'd like, because for a full-length independent debut, it's the sort of wildly uneven and occasionally frustrating record that can try your patience quite a bit - not bad, but I'd be hardpressed to exactly call this good.

And the frustrating thing is that this record, at least on some level, had the capacity to be pretty decent, which while being nothing I haven't heard before, did at least have the potential to kick things into some pummeling and potent hardcore grooves. Again, going into 'Street Power' with what I could swear sounds like a Linkin Park sample that opens the song, along with the bass grooves on 'City Rejects' and 'New Jersey Devil' - even though in the last case it goes more towards metalcore - they've got some belligerent punch to them... but the problem becomes twofold. For one, this is not purely a hardcore record, as we see tracks that skid towards industrial sounds like the hammering breakbeats on 'Face Tatt' or especially the roiling groove of 'Bleed War', or even go straight for more trap-inspired songs like 'Splash' or 'Hydrolics' that aren't bad... but it doesn't lead to much flow or any sense of real cohesion. And it's not helped by the fact that this sort of hyperaggressive music lives and dies by its tightness, and there's a lot of dead weight on this record. And I'm not talking about the two interludes or introduction on this record - hell, 'Feels Like...' is actually a halfway decent, slightly old-fashioned hip-hop tune - I'm talking about tracks where things just do not come together. Take the discordant lumbering piano against a stuttering beat and some utterly sung vocals on the hook of 'Moneymaker', or 'Dekay' that drowns itself in so much blocky, half-assembled noise that it doesn't feel so much abrasive as sloppy, and that's before we get the closing track 'Blaqq Hole' that seems to be trying to be creepy with its half-heard vocal fragments and clanking and dank atmosphere against a beat that sounds mostly improvised, but it's a terrible album closer and really adds nothing after the title track. This is a record where I could have cut a third of the runtime and it would have had a fair bit more impact...

Well, until you get to our two frontmen and... look, I get the fusion of bellowed vocals and attempts at fast flows and a willingness to sound as creepy and intimidating as possible, especially when you pile on the rough vocal filters and distortion. But there's a few problems, namely the first being that despite my issues with the guy, they're not MC Ride, and you need a certain kind of MC and vocal delivery to match production this heavy and aggressive. More to the point, even as his most wild and bestial, MC Ride could stay on the beat and his rhymes mostly connected, whereas there are entirely too many spots where they just fall of the beat or flow of the track, dropping the rhyme scheme entirely. I get that punk is allowed to be rougher and edgier - and yes, we'll be getting to the lyrics in a second - but if you want to compensate for a lack of lyrical construction with firepower... well, I'm not hearing it, and on this record, I wouldn't say it's a good excuse.

This takes us to the content, and you'll have to bear with me a bit, because of course the full lyrics aren't posted anywhere... but from what I could glean, I wasn't all that impressed. And again, this is coming from someone who has heard Death Grips and a lot of violent, anarchistic music, both in punk and hip-hop - but this is a record that's trying really hard to shock me, and frankly, it didn't - just in the past year both Danny Brown and Idles got way more under my skin than this did. Part of this is an issue of streamlining and interludes that kill the lyrical momentum, but you can also tell that Ho99o9 is trying to make very broad, semi-nihilistic political statements that don't exactly fit with a lot of the production or especially the horrorcore and trap undercurrents. And sure, I can hear and somewhat respect the DMX influence, but it's a little hard for me to take this seriously when you're cribbing from Drowning Pool's 'Bodies' on 'Knuckle Up'. But that inconsistency does hurt these tracks, especially in the album context: I don't mind 'Hydrolics' being a pretty dumb trap anthem complete with an autotuned hook - 'Splash' honestly is a fair bit better - but put it opposite frenetic outcast rage on 'New Jersey Devil' or the more earnestly political side to the title track, and it's jarring. And to be blunt, the writing doesn't stand out to me - I'd say it's trying so hard to be edgy, but when so much of the sloganeering feels by the numbers and haphazardly delivered to boot, I just can't get into it the same way. 

But let's put this in context: I'm coming from a background where I've heard this stuff before done better - would somebody who is younger or less experienced with this material like it? Honestly, I don't think I can say - the album is still all over the place and has plenty of moments that feel slapdash or sloppy beyond the punk excuse, especially in the writing and delivery. I like a fair amount of this production and there are a few hooks that do stick with you - 'Splash', 'Bleed War', and I can mostly get behind 'City Rejects' and 'Street Power' - but again, there's a lot of chaff on this record that should have been trimmed, and when I have hip-hop that frankly touches this sound and does it with sharper bars and content, I don't really see myself going back to this. As it is... meh, 5/10 and give it a listen if you're curious, but I've heard this done before and done better, and even if I hadn't, I'm not sure this record would have inspired me to find more - sorry.

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