Friday, March 16, 2018

album review: 'season 1' by epic beard men

It's hard for me to get excited about a lot of mainstream hip-hop these days. Of course that's not saying that it's all bad or that we don't have artists who stand out, but when even Kendrick phones in his verses and the #1 song on the Hot 100 is a Drake song that I still don't think I could remember if I tried, it's not exactly a good situation. And then I see artists like XXXTENTACION and 6ix9ine who feel so damn one-dimensional and I'm left thinking about the artists who paved the lane for emo rap but who could still turn in with aggressive production and bruising wordplay...

And enter Sage Francis and B. Dolan, two Rhode Island MCs known for spoken word poetry, thorny, hard-hitting bars, and the sort of raw, vulnerable subject matter that most MCs would never dare put on wax. Both of these men have made my year-end lists - Sage Francis with Copper Gone and B. Dolan with Kill The Wolf - and considering their long-running friendship and mighty beards, I knew it'd only be a matter of time before we got a team-up of some variety. And yeah, it's just a free eight song EP, but considering it's not much shorter than that upcoming XXXTENTACION album with eighteen songs, I'd prefer to hear from the genuine article in this scene first, even if again I'm a little late to the punch covering it. So all right, what did we get on Season 1?

Well, remember when I covered the collaboration team-up between P.O.S and Sims last year with SHREDDERS? Season 1 plays in a similar mold, but I'd argue it connects better, the same sort of layered bars and bruising punchlines against production that would be considered alien to most but playing it with a lighter sense of humor to temper some of the real political subtext burning within it. Think CZARFACE with more driving impetus, closer to Run The Jewels if they fused their sillier bombast with their politics a little deeper - for Killer Mike and El-P it can feel like two sides of the same coin, whereas for Sage Francis and B. Dolan it's all one side blurred together and thus will likely play to a slightly more niche audience - although really, if you like any of the acts I just mentioned, you're going to have a lot of fun with this EP just like I did.

Now the first thing to clarify is that there are four other bonus songs packaged with this project that were previously released as collaborations between Sage Francis and B. Dolan throughout the past decade on mixtapes, and I'm not really going to be addressing them for the purpose of this review. Don't get me wrong, they're all good and worth the listens, but given that I don't cover bonus tracks I'm more interested in the main product - and plus you can tell that they were still refining their chemistry on those songs as a duo. And that chemistry is quintessential to this project working - my biggest concern going in wasn't that Sage Francis and B. Dolan wouldn't have it or would overpower each other, but rather that they both ran in a pretty similar lane and wouldn't really differentiate themselves. And if I'm being brutally honest I wouldn't quite say they get away from this - a listener going in cold might think they're playing similar brands of the same socially charged, sardonically self-aware firespitter in comparison to duos with more stylistic differentiation - but there are subtleties I can appreciate. Sage Francis is the more expressive, organic MC that'll play to a more immediate emotional appeal, where B. Dolan can be more of a technician, letting his bars cut more than bruise - he's closer to the El-P to Sage's Killer Mike, although they're both more interested in direct storytelling than interlacing their references.

And that's important when we consider the actual content on display, because while it might be tempting just to overload this record with flexing and punchlines, Epic Beard Men have paradoxically more and less ambition than that, mostly because they're aiming to get more creative with setting the scene. Hell, the standout track here 'Shotgun Golf' takes the ludicrous premise of taking over a posh golf & country club with shotguns and then flips it into the same socially-charged criticism of the game that George Carlin made in 1992, with the class implications all the more pronounced. And since both artists are known for self-aware self-effacement, you get the opening track 'Five Hearts' showing them rebuilding their strength and place in hip-hop and modern culture through a layered video game metaphor, or the semi-romantic silliness of 'Two Different Worlds' as they go through the messy struggle of finding those who can bridge the gap between normalcy and our dynamic duo's unique personal situations. But then we get the bulk of the songs that are structured more around their place as indie rap veterans, and while I have all the respect in the world for their DIY isolationist streak, especially given how much work it took to get to that point and what they've observed in the mainstream, there are songs like 'Dumb Ass Kids' and 'Not Ur Uber' where the world-weariness with the industry and up-and-comers looking for a handout can ring a little more bitter than maybe intended. Now it's hard to deny the lived-in detail of the situation - you can bet the conversations with newcomers to the scene or major signees way over their heads on 'Not Ur Uber' actually happened in some form, or how major brands will try and co-opt or steal 'street style' from creators who made it like on 'Fresh To Death', or the very real indie struggle of 'DIYMFS' and 'Dumb Ass Kids' that those new to the game don't yet understand, and I appreciate how B. Dolan in particular knows that he can't really stop them... but it's hard not to see at least a trace of reality leak through to color the wit on display. All of this takes us to the toughest track to truly decode on this project, 'Space Ghettos', which seems to be tracing the uncertain path for those who do want to follow in their lane, to the weird roots of this genre which is definitely not the safest, but for those who cannot follow in the cool indifference of the mainstream or artless online trolling by faux provocateurs, maybe provide just the space they need and a chance to swipe something along the way.

Now granted, all of this is coming with the level of detailed, vivid but complex flows that have made both MCs truly an acquired taste throughout their careers, taking tricky rhyme and cadence patterns that show their roots in spoken word and poetry but also are remarkably accessible - and also so much up my alley it's not even funny. But this is where you run into a very different animal alongside the duo: the production. And it can be a little tough to directly quantify, even compared to other hip-hop sounds: the beats and production pull from the textured samples, scratchy foundation of guitars and synths, and dense, rough basslines and percussion that might seem to fit modern underground tones, but then you get the blatant 8-bit chiptune choices in synth, samples, and vocal filters on 'Five Hearts', or the slightly goofy contortion of that elegant arranged sample on 'Two Different Worlds' that might seem a tad heavy-handed in its message but really does fit the tragi-comic feel of the track, especially when the minor tones leak in. But that's telling on this project: the instrumental tones match the intensity of the bars instead of taking a backseat or subtly complimenting them, from the old-school samples, scratching and horns of 'DIYMFS', and 'Not Ur Uber' to the minimalist tinkling skitter behind the bells on 'Fresh To Death' and bassy echoing snares playing off the faded wails of harmonica before contorting into slicker, warping synths on 'Space Ghettos', somehow hitting a fusion of oily futurism and sampled griminess on 'Dumb Ass Kids' that I can tell that some listeners will find overwhelming. Now it's not like this production style is unfamiliar to me - a similar composite of tones was on Copper Gone and I loved that project - but I do feel that even despite being an EP this project could have afforded a little more space of modulate its flow and mood, especially on the back half. Or put it like this: it makes a lot of sense that Cecil Otter of Doomtree produced the futuristic filthiness of 'Shotgun Golf', but when Doomtree put out All Hands they were canny enough to modulate in between the bangers.

So to wrap this up... okay, for as much as I was critical of this EP, most of it comes around me liking it as much as I do: it's rare that any rapper or rap duo takes a maximalist approach to bars and production like B. Dolan and Sage Francis do here, and if you're in the mood for a selection of impressively witty, pretty damn funny but hard-hitting bangers, Season 1 will definitely scratch that itch more than any other duo outside of Run The Jewels. At the same time, though, given its density and sardonic side it's tougher to recommend right out of the gate, and there's a part of me that wishes the duo's anthemic and populist side came through more in direct text than smuggled through the verses. But since I'm very much in the audience for this project... hell yeah I'm praising this, getting an 8/10 and absolutely a recommendation... and man, I really do expect this to grow on me more like their projects always do. It's not the most serious set of hip-hop from either MC, but hey, it's a free EP, the atmosphere of this project is absolutely infectious, and if you're up for the challenge definitely worth your time, so check this out!

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