Wednesday, November 8, 2017

album review: 'dangerous jumps' by SHREDDERS

Oh, you thought I was going to miss this, or that because this is very much a between-albums-side-project that it would be a lower priority?

Well, to be completely truthful, up until very recently SHREDDERS wasn't really on my radar. I knew that P.O.S and Sims were working with Lazerbeak and Paper Tiger on something, but I assumed it would be an EP or something, or maybe a few scattered singles until Dessa put out her next full-length project or they started work on another Doomtree record. And if anything it felt a little too soon - while I hadn't loved P.O.S's chill, dummy it wasn't even a year old yet, and given how Sims' More Than Ever remains one of the best hip-hop records of 2016, I would have thought it would have a little more solo shelf life.

But then again, I'm not complaining about a new project from this crew, because hip-hop has had a weird 2017. There's been too many great records to call it a bad year, but it seems like the gulf in quality between said records and much of the rest that got hype and popularity is vast. That feeling of strangeness, coupled with only two hip-hop records I'd say are outright incredible in 2017 - those being Brick Body Kids Still Daydream by Open Mike Eagle and Run The Jewels 3, and the latter barely even qualifies - means that I was eager for something out of the Doomtree collective, if only to bring in a sound with consistent, hard-hitting quality and real lyrical punch. And while Dessa wasn't on it and P.O.S can frustrate me as an MC, Sims is currently surging on a creative roll and I really wanted to see where he'd take his bars. So, what did I find on Dangerous Jumps?

Here's the thing: I'm naturally inclined to treat this record as both more and less than what it is. On the one hand, it's just over a half hour of relentlessly aggressive hard-hitting bangers, with tight rapping and the sort of loose, braggadocious content you'd expect from a side project... but on the other hand, it's a Doomtree side project and given these MCs I'm naturally inclined to start digging into the abstract lyrics for meaning that might not be there. In other words, it's a lot of fun for what it is, but it's not an essential listen and if you're expecting the depth you found on chill, dummy or More Than Ever or any Doomtree release, you might be left wanting.

So let's start with our two MCs here, where you have an interesting balance of personalities that do have real chemistry. P.O.S is a more expressive rapper and carries a bit more natural charisma, but you can also tell that Sims is working overtime in terms of tight lyrical construction and his own off-kilter brand of expressiveness - and thus it should be surprising that Sims at least to me feels like the greater draw on Dangerous Jumps. Granted, some of this might be residual problems I have with P.O.S - his bad habit of just leaving rhymes dangling can make several of his open-ended references sound even more disconnected - or that this production might favor Sims a little more given what he was working with on More Than Ever - more on this in a bit - but it'd be doing Sims a disservice to not highlight how meticulous and yet unstable his delivery is, intense but never angry to the point of losing control. Both of these guys are rapping with the aggressive confidence that have always been their hallmark, but if P.O.S is in his comfort zone, Sims is walking a tightrope across a cliff, and that naturally draws my ear more. And Mike Mictian shows up for two songs and two short verses... it's good stuff, but nothing that really blew me away here.

Granted, it might just be that this production fits Sims' style more effectively, and if you're familiar with the massive walls of alien synth balanced against dense cymbal fills and jagged subtle samples of melody careening against pulsating basslines that filled More Than Ever... well, Dangerous Jumps is in similar territory, only further stripped down. Hell, for the first four or so songs on the record the melodic samples are sliced even thinner against the percussion - and yes, as such they do not have some of the same gargantuan presence that made the bangers on More Than Ever hit with such impact, or the same sense of atmosphere than gave the last Doomtree record such swell, but again, for a side project that is intending to be simpler and leaner in its focus, it makes a certain amount of sense... if that was the consistent approach. Because from there, the record gradually picks up more atmosphere courtesy of distant synth horns and flutters of chiptune and a fattened bass beat and not only do the grooves feel more muscular, the songs pick up a fair amount of the heft they had been missing early on. Now whether all of this feels stable or adds up to a stronger hook, that's tougher to say - a fair few of these songs run for less than three minutes, and tracks like 'Flipping Cars' don't even have a hook, which for any Doomtree-affiliated project seems to miss the point entirely - but there are definitely progressions and tonal choices I like. The brighter keys drop behind Sims' verse on 'Xanthrax', the groaning rumbles that build real depth on 'Nia Long', the synth horns and guitar fragments echoing against the burly bassline and low tone driving 'Style Boys', the sputtering rubbery tones that flesh out the spacious 'Lion's Mouth', the massive horn-driven bounce of 'Heater Season', and of course the crushing, unstable warp behind 'Entertainment' that can challenge anything Arca's delivered in the past three years and beat it easily; all of this sounds great. It's just that many of these pieces can't help but feel a little underdeveloped and abortive, lacking a stronger tune at their core to really make them feel as anthemic as they could.

And a big part of that is the content, where I gave this record a full ten to twelve listens working to decipher what P.O.S and Sims are weaving in their tangled, layered lyrics. At first you'd be inclined to dismiss some of this as just so much more aggressive posturing, similar to what El-P and Killer Mike delivered on the first Run The Jewels release, albeit less outwardly direct that what that record typically delivered. And believe me, that's fine - both of these guys have enough endlessly quotable turns of phrase that it could easily fill that mold... but probe a little deeper and you realize that Sims and P.O.S are coming from a very different place of security, and a loose theme starts to crystallize: risk. Sure, some moments are just intended as pump-up bragging, refining the power of their words, but any flexing is rooted in those words being mostly all they have, a narrowly focused weapon that wielding it at all requires careful skill or it all could go careening off the tracks. Hell, take the moment where P.O.S has to explain and defend a Prodigy lyric on 'Flipping Cars' inspiring his choice of words, and you can tell it's killing him slowly to do it - at this point as he says on 'Nia Long', he's not competing against anyone but himself at this point... but a song later you can tell that he still does care, with a pretty inspired Zelda line on 'Style Boys' as he falls hard and fast for those who are just as 'real' and driven as he might be, even if deep down he knows it might be a losing battle. Now Sims... well, he's more measured and abstract, in his own headspace questioning what keeps him on some stable track on songs like 'Fly As A Dare', because for as much anger as P.O.S brings it's him that seems more on the verge of teetering out of the control and floating away, especially in an increasingly hostile world, even if the political subtext just remains subtext. And on songs like 'Lion's Mouth', he knows it's part abstract curiosity, part conscious altruism, part death wish that has him pushing his pride further and further. Just like on More Than Ever there's a sense of quiet desperation that ramps up the tension, but for both men this record runs leaner - making what words and time they have as dope as possible, an addictive itch they have to scratch, to glean something even if that emotive high pushes them over the edge.

But as a whole... look, I like this record, and for as many listens as I gave it there's a lot worth dissecting and some phenomenal punchlines against production that once again pushes the envelope. But at the same time, there's a part of me that feels chunks of this record are undercooked or not hitting me as hard as I wanted - short runtimes, content that can feel like both more and less that what it might seem, and production that while experimental and pretty hard hitting doesn't quite deliver hooks or tunes that are at the level of the best from this collective. Oh, make no mistake, a fair amount definitely get there, but as a whole... again, it feels like a side project, effective in a short burst but not quite as sharp or potent as their best. So for me, it's a very strong 7/10 and definitely a recommendation, but if you're familiar with Doomtree at their best, this might underwhelm you a bit. Of course, if you're a fan like me, you'll probably dig the hell out of it, so if you're curious... yeah sure, definitely check this out!

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