Wednesday, July 25, 2018

album review: 'marlowe' by l'orange and solemn brigham

So I'll freely admit I don't cover or listen to a lot of instrumental hip-hop. I'm not against it by any stretch - especially when the producers bring in a more grainy, textured collage of samples that can have its own distinctive personality and tone, that's so up my alley - but it's the sort of thing for which I need to be in the mood, and where I want to do my due diligence ensuring I understand the producer's foundations, which can involve some lengthy listens.

Such was the case for L'Orange, producer affiliated with Mello Music Group and who has been steadily putting out both instrumental projects and collaborations with MCs across the 2010s... and I'll admit that I might be more of a fan of his production than the rappers he brings onboard! There's a warmth and aged grime to L'Orange's collage of samples pulled from old movies and an uncanny knack for blending them into low-key but remarkably catchy grooves - some have cited comparisons to Madlib but across more projects I'd argue L'Orange's work can feel a bit more cohesive and understated, pulling from a different, older set of reference points for his recontextualization... so much so that I'd argue some MCs just aren't quite in sync with his thematic ambition. Now he's definitely had his high points - my favourite might be The Mad Writer although last year's The Ordinary Man had a special kind of magic to it - so I was optimistic when I saw he was teaming up with Solemn Brigham, who had done reasonably well in his features on that last album and were set for a full-length self-titled collaboration under the name Marlowe. Seventeen tracks, but clocking below forty minutes to keep things surprisingly brief, I was definitely curious where this could go, so what did we get from Marlowe?

So here's the thing: this record is paradoxically both easy and difficult to review, as I discovered to my exasperation when I saw some critics pull the whole, 'well, it shares some creative DNA with Madvillainy and says the word 'mad' a few times on the second track so it's clearly derivative of it, ergo I don't have to put in the time to analyze content or the layering of samples and just say there are bars'. And yet with every listen I gave Marlowe, the more that just didn't feel like the case, especially when you dig into the details, partially because Solemn Brigham is a very different MC than MF Doom and because there's a very different twisted tone and progression to Marlowe. If Madvillainy was the progression of the creepy, unstable weirdness of Doom, Marlowe might share some of the instability, but there's a much greater sense of panicked, desperate urgency that honestly reminded me more of Danny Brown than anything else.

Now to be fair, I do understand where some of the Madvillainy comparisons are rooted, at least on the surface and especially when you consider the structure. The samples are a kaleidoscopic blend flitting across abbreviated cuts that commonly side somewhere around the two minute mark, the crackling fidelity of the voices nearly always shifting especially against Solemn Brigham's slightly sing-song delivery, intended at least on the surface to cultivate a warping, claustrophobic tone designed to throw the listener off-balance. But even in that Marlowe's brand of unease is less alien than Madvillainy's, in a big part thanks to the collage of samples L'Orange brings that are less gleefully anarchic kitsch curated from the underbelly of forgotten weirdness, once again pulling on the tableau of old movies and a smoky noir vibe, less the mad writer burrowing into his lonely corner or the consummate illusionist of The Ordinary Man and more the madcap vaudeville showman, with its ambition amplified by sheer desperation in a world stacked up for our protagonist to fail. And while some of the samples might recall b-movie kitsch, it's adjacent to the manic intensity that the more uptempo samples bring to the table - the unsettling creepiness of Madvillainy was more deliberate and controlled, pulling the listener into a twisting rabbit hole with that patience and restraint. To put it bluntly, Marlowe's rabbit hole doesn't run that deep, and while one could argue that does become a bit of an issue - we'll get to it when we come to the lyrics - it does make this project feel more human and accessible. And a huge part of this is Solemn Brigham himself - and I'll say it, this guy is a find: terrific technical construction in his bars but married to a more melodic flow and delivery that might not feel as off-kilter as the Ol Dirty Bastard he references, but is definitely catchy as hell. It's also why I'll absolutely disagree when some say this record doesn't have hooks - beyond the heavily textured and melodic focus in the production, Solemn Brigham's natural charisma and ease in connecting his rhymes does wonders for making his choruses really damn sticky.

Now granted, if I am going to cite an issue with this record it'd come in his content - and while I definitely appreciate that this is Solemn Brigham's first big shot on a project like this and he certainly shows up more strongly than so many debuts I've heard, it's hard not to feel like he's a bit overshadowed by the flair and colour of L'Orange's production. Now to be fair this has happened with nearly every rapper that's worked with L'Orange, and I'd argue he holds his own better than most, but a little more lyrical detail in his storytelling would do wonders in making his sharper punchlines and technical strength really jump out at you. I do like how his more braggadocious style tilts into an exasperated desperation that does a lot to humanize him, as he seems plainly aware that not only is the world set against him, but also against his brand and style of hip-hop, which is twisted, wild, more than a little unstable, and he knows it. And that leads to a manic-depressive vibe where his struggle is almost as much roping the audience and holding them long enough to see past the moments where he'll skid off the rails like he describes on 'Palm Readers' or sink into a morose, brooding basement of ideas on, well, 'Basement'. And once you clue into that headspace, it can be a real trip just riding off the flows and charisma and well-connected wordplay... until you start wondering where it's all going or where the deeper tension might come, and in the second half of the album this is where things get intriguing. The funny thing is that Solemn Brigham knows the audience that'll be hooked through noir stylism alone is capricious, and he's too pragmatic of a rapper to sell something that's not altogether real, so the final third of the record seems to have him racing through his mental Rolodex to see how long he can hold that attention before someone calls him out - and by the time we get to 'Mayday' and 'Gone Believer', he usurps that position to call himself out, for better or worse. He'll freely admit he tries a bit too hard, sells it a little too heavy, and openly exasperated at a lack of greater progress - and I'll freely admit that connects with me a bit more than I'm comfortable - but the dogged determination to keep going in his lane has a lot of charm... or maybe just burrow back into his own sealed-off space, that works for him too.

So sure, it's a more subtle story being told between the lines, but then you pair it with L'Orange's production, which does intensify the understated human element but also amps up the performative artifice, as was common from the less naturalistic sample palette... which makes you think Solemn Brigham could have brought a bit more lyrical flair or detail to match it. Because for as good as his flows and delivery are, I'm still here most for the production, and L'Orange is bringing some great stuff here, pulling from a grab-bag of jazz, psychedelic soul, and grimy hip-hop tones that still allow a remarkable amount of distinctive melody and tone. Hell, it might be short but 'Cold Open' is a prime example if only to show the clash between that burnished guitar line and the rich horns, and its transition into the rattling guitar spikes against the crackling beat and cushion of bass of 'Lost Arts' is damn near superb! And it's hard not to just list the highlights, from the jazzy squonk, crashing cymbals, and phenomenal drum pickup of 'Honest Living' that builds some weedy density on 'Demonstrations' especially with the scuzzy guitar and bass touches, to the lurking deeper guitars of 'The Basement' that almost picks up some surf rock touches on 'Palm Readers'! And while the horns come back in earnest by 'Medicated' against the chopped up hook - and then again with the panicked boom-bap gallop of 'Fred Sanford' and 'Mayday' - what really pulled me in was the seedy whistles and organ flooding through 'Things We Summon', and the closing stuttered gallop on 'The Places We Stay' was pretty killer against those darker samples... although I will say if I were to criticize L'Orange's production, it could be that when he simply loops a vocal sample and doesn't add much else, the cleaner fidelity of Solemn Brigham's tone doesn't always quite feel as comfortable as it could, and that's not counting the point he'll chop up the song to place his samples more in the forefront, which highlights the contrasting style and it doesn't quite feel as cohesive as it could.

But as a whole, this is a great collaboration with a lot of easy replay value for me - terrific flows, the sort of textured and melodic production that's sticky as hell with plenty of wit nestled between the bars and samples, and with a blend of wry self-awareness and dogged drive that I found really charming. It's not for everyone - I think old-school hip-hop heads will have more fun with this - and I'm not quite sure if I would put this quite among L'Orange's best, but it's still a lot of fun and a really promising introduction of Solemn Brigham to the scene. So for me, this is an 8/10 and absolutely a recommendation - this'll fly under the radar or get dismissed by a lot of folks, but believe me, if anything I described here sounds up your alley, you'll want to get onboard - trust me on that.

No comments:

Post a Comment