Friday, August 11, 2017

album review: 'written at night' by uncommon nasa

So I haven't exactly been quiet in saying that I haven't heard a lot of hip-hop in 2017 that I'm absolutely crazy about - hell, if you saw my midyear review, you'd know that the highest rap record on that list was technically dropped late in 2016 but because the physical release came out in 2017 I'm counting it there anyway so it'll at least be eligible for year-end lists in my books.

But maybe I'm missing part of the picture - because of the way my Patreon schedule is set up, I can only get to so much, and maybe truly great records aren't being requested just yet, or I just haven't had a chance to hear them. And from what Uncommon Nasa has mentioned on Twitter to me, that might be very much the case - and the funny thing is that he's modest enough not to include his own record in that accounting! But make no mistake, I was excited for this one - a veteran New York MC and producer who has been behind more critically acclaimed records than you might remember, he landed an entry on my top 25 albums of 2015 with Halfway and for damn good reason too. His production might be challenging, his rapping style might be thorny and dense, but once you were able to decode his more abstract concepts you were left with a highly rewarding and cerebral rap record. And while I didn't quite love his collaboration with Short Fuze Autonomy Music in the same way, I was definitely excited about Written At Night. Entirely self-produced with guest verses from Oh No, Open Mike Eagle, Billy Woods, Quelle Chris and more, this was one of my most anticipated hip-hop records of 2017, easily - so what did I untangle here?

So surprising absolutely nobody, this is not an easy record to talk about - but for slightly different reasons than records like Autonomy Music or Halfway or New York Telephone, which could be tricky to deconstruct thanks to weird twists in production or unstable flows or dense themes. And while some of that is still here on Written At Night, in execution it feels different - easily some of the most strident and direct in delivery with some of Nasa's most potent hooks to date, but in trying to decode the record it can feel slippery and elusive - fully formed, complex, and varied ideas that definitely reward a lot of repeated listens, but are abstracted enough to feel like describing them will miss some of the intended nuance.

And the funny thing with this project is that I get the feeling Nasa knows this and plays into it, as this is probably one of his best showcases as an expressive rapper and MC - a tad ironic, considering he then chose to bring on his largest array of guest stars yet. His flow is always an acquired taste, but this is easily the most comfortable and assertive he's ever sounded on the mic, charismatic enough that you can get pulled in before reflecting that you might not have completely grasped his message. And yet while you'd expect such a potent authorial voice would dominate a project like this, on nine of the eleven songs he cedes significant time to his guest stars to further flesh out self-contained themes and ideas he establishes, which further intensifies the defined but slippery feel of many of these tracks. And while I'll get into the production more in a second, considering how layered and complex Nasa's beats can be it's impressive how well so many of the MCs adapt to them. Granted, when you have rappers like Quelle Chris, Oh No and Open Mike Eagle you expect them to do well given much of their own work - and man, they really do - and Curly Castro has worked well with Nasa before, but Duke01 and King Kashmere might actually handle the glitchy cascades of synth and scratching on 'Small Change' better than Nasa does, and Brzowski handles the echoing guitar and bouncy organ line of 'Gingerbread Hag' with remarkable groove, it's probably my favourite tune and hook here! On the flip side, I can't say I was a huge fan of Guilty Simpson and Short Fuze's more abstract yet blunt delivery on 'Compass' and 'God's Aim' respectively or of Mike Ladd's slower verse on 'Black Hole' - granted, that slow dirty clank of percussion against the buzzing, dubstep-esque warbles and drippy fragments couldn't be easy to structure bars again and I think as the song evolves it connects a little better, but as a whole it felt pretty clunky. 

But again, this is not easy production to rap against - albeit for different reasons than on previous projects. In comparison with a project like Autonomy Music this is more spacious and melodic by design - which yes, can make for a catchier project but it's certainly no less peculiar, especially if you pay attention to the vocal production and multi-tracking. Nasa's always tended to toy with binaural vocal arrangements, and in an added step to keep the audience guessing he tends to place the vocals slightly askew in your ears, emphasizing that direct bit of disorientation that had me checking my headphones damn near constantly until I realized it was part of the point. And yet when you pair it with a relatively straightforward opening track with the smoother guitar melody playing against faint twinkles, or even the slightly jagged stuttering pops that dice up 'Speak Your Truth' until washes of grimy synth cut through, it's pretty effective in drawing the attention but throwing you slightly off-guard. But I have to wonder if that distracts from how damn solid some of these melodies are: the scratchy futuristic glitch and winding whirs behind 'Extra Lives' anchored by a great restrained hook from Barrie McLain, the eerie twinkling layers of 'God's Aim' that will drop into murky emptiness to snap back suddenly, the oily warps against the cymbals, bassy thrum, and tooting fragments of 'The Patient', or the elongated flattened electronics against the rougher percussion on the title track... the mixes may not feel as dense, but they're no less detailed or melodically intricate, especially if you start to peel apart the layers. Now that's not saying I was a fan of all of the production: 'Black Hole' even apart from the bars still felt lumbering and slow; the gritty atonal touches around 'Looking Back' may have fit the dark thrums of bass, but the keening synths around the hook felt a tad shrill; and as much as I liked the samples that opened 'Compass', the warbling melodic pieces chopped up by the deeper drum and cymbals felt like they could have used a bit more to flesh out the melody beyond some odd tinkles.

Now I will say this, considering the breadth of melodies it's a testament to good percussion blending and engineering how cohesive it all feels, but it's also hard not to see each track as its own isolated fragment of an idea, strung together by Nasa checking the time every so often along the track list... which takes us directly to lyrics and themes. And again, with as many guest stars it's actually a little amazing how cohesive these songs feel within themselves, but the larger question of what this record is trying to say is tougher to parse, mostly because the record is placing its own flawed, meandering humanity in sharper relief than ever. And while there's been a consistent fatalistic side to Nasa's writing, here it feels more fragmented, self-aware and by necessity confrontational. And of course he knows it - the second song 'Speak Your Truth' is acutely aware of how its directness could be shown as abrasive, and there's just the hope that once he blows past the frozen little arts of popularity to cut to something real, we'll actually stick around. And that idea of constant yet measured and grounded change is consistent across this record, from the homeward glances on the road story of 'Compass' to the carefully planned evolution of 'Extra Lives' - which when placed in contrast of all the things in Open Mike Eagle's life that aren't evolving places his fear in context. Of course, Nasa's also a realist that knows changing little habits don't actively do enough to destabilize a bad status quo, especially when there isn't that thought behind them, and Duke01 goes even harder with the line: 'should we feel emboldened by small change successes or patronized that we're being pacified as a way to suppress us', and King Kashmere's cynical verse only highlights how little we've learned along the way without those larger changes.

But Nasa understands this - and he also gets that a necessary factor of embracing that sort of evolution is when things slip out of control or skid towards imperfection - which is only human, after all - and again, that acute awareness of mortality comes back in spades - which I'm sure only feels more frustrating when following 'God's Aim' we have 'The Patient', where in stepping outside of established boundaries you must see the systematic societal rot around you, where nobody wants the blame, people ossify towards intolerance, and the rest are exploited by a relentless military industrial complex - what, did you think this wasn't going to get political? The interesting thing is that Nasa himself doesn't reference modern politics as much beyond some pointed criticism of sensationalist and apocalyptic media on 'Black Hole', preferring to leave that to Curly Castro's ruthless string of knotted references or Mike Ladd's conspiratorial musing - he's aiming more high concept, from contemplating past versions of his life stored in objects even as what he does builds the true mirror, to hammering for a message to the audience who stuck around to reveal how desperate things actually are - especially when plenty who have never tried to build a living off of art will never see themselves consumed in the same way. And yet it's the final track that really holds the key to the record - the title track that aims to capture that fleeting moment at the cusp of dawn where nobody is awake to capture that beauty, that musing moment where for the briefest second clarity comes through. All those scattered musings focusing on change and evolution crystallize, with peace of mind coming in knowing that he possesses the agency to make all those choices and carry the consequences - and where Billy Woods sees the crash into humanity's inability to see all ends, Quelle Chris transcends that conversation and sees the larger picture of the record. The thoughts at night surrounding change, translated into art representing that evolution, the artist almost dazed in the aftermath, tied to moments a director like Richard Linklater would brand as 'holy' in their memorial, time worth embalming... but in concept caught between days, not frozen in time but outside of it - timeless.

Okay, if that all sounded high concept and a little daunting... well, it's an Uncommon Nasa project, what do you expect? And yet the funny thing is that I'd probably consider this one of his more accessible albums, especially on a melodic level with this production and especially with his delivery. Granted, any effort to explore the lyrics will require legwork, but you should expect that with this sort of hip-hop, and the fact that he managed to pull together so many guest verses that feel cohesive and poignant in their own right speaks volumes of his talent and methodical ability to evolve as an artist. So yeah, this is excellent, it's getting a very strong 8/10 from me, and a huge recommendation. Again, I say every time I review Uncommon Nasa that this is not easy material to digest... but man, for this evolution you want to be on-board, so most definitely check this out!

1 comment:

  1. I'm fairly certain I understand this record much better now, so thanks, I'd been struggling with the themes before. Great review, as always!