Tuesday, February 19, 2019

album review: 'anima mysterium' by yugen blakrok

So I never reviewed the Black Panther soundtrack proper last year - hell, I reviewed the movie, most of the soundtrack wound up on Billboard BREAKDOWN anyway, and most of what I heard hadn't exactly blown me away. And sure, I think some of that might have been rooted in inflated expectations - it was curated by Kendrick Lamar, for god's sake - but my general impressions were more that it was solid but lacking immediate distinctive standouts, at least when it came to complete songs. And I make that distinction because if you dig into individual verses, you can find some real gems, and I do credit Kendrick for digging outside of the box for MCs who could fit the vibe of the project rather than just big names.

And if you want one of the most stark examples, we need to talk about Yugen Blakrok, a South African MC featured on the song 'Opps' opposite Vince Staples and Kendrick himself... and let's not mince words, she stole the show, with the sort of ruthless, tangled verse full of sci-fi references that seemed to owe more to Wu-Tang than anything else. And that was definitely an impression that continued when I dug up her 2013 debut Return Of The Astro-Goth, the sort of thorny but layered and atmospheric underground hip-hop that fell at the intersection of Company Flow, Deltron 3030 and maybe a splash of CZARFACE. But where CZARFACE has always felt like a bit of an exaggerated goof-off, Yugen Blakrok was playing all of this deadly straight, and the sample-rich, dusty beats and her relentless flows proved she could absolutely sell it - yeah, there weren't many hooks, but when the rhymes and flows were as hard-hitting as they were, who could care? In any case, I had the feeling that with the boost from the Black Panther soundtrack she might parlay her sound into something tighter and maybe even more accessible - to a point, I didn't see the sci-fi stuff going anywhere on an album called Anima Mysterium - so what did we get?

So here's the thing: my plan was to get a review of this album out sometime last week - I was behind as it was, and this is a pretty great album if you're into this sort of thing at the right time. And that's important to note, because projects as dense and meditative as Anima Mysterium are not an easy sell, especially if you're looking for projects with more mainstream accessibility, and I'll freely admit this is only music I'll only return to at certain times. Now when I'm in that mood this is absolutely a go-to project, a measurable improvement over Return Of The Astro-Goth with stronger melodies, more propulsive production, and even a few hooks that come through, and on that note for me I'm inclined to give it a lot of praise - but I put it in a similar category as albums from recent years like Paraffin by Armand Hammer or especially Honor Killed The Samurai by Ka from 2016 - slow, drenched in palpable atmosphere, full of spiky but meditative energy that'll satisfy any fan of old-school hip-hop.

So let's start with Yugen Blakrok herself, because if you just know her from where she turned up on 'Opps' you might be a little thrown by what she delivers here: the tempos are slower, her delivery is more deliberate and not quite as guttural or vicious, her vocabulary is as bountiful but her delivery is more curt and reserved. And if you're looking for the first hurdle to getting into this project, it'd come with this style: I've made the Company Flow comparison earlier in how Yugen Blakrok isn't exactly interested in slowing down to help you catch up, but you could tell El-P and Bigg Jus were having a lot of fun in the pileup of wordplay. Whereas here... she's not precisely colder, but definitely feels more distant, nestled a little deeper than I'd advise into the production to where the slightly more expressive delivery from Historian Himself, Kool Keith, and Jak Tripper does make their verses stand out a bit more. Now again, it's hard for me to criticize this: this is an album where you want to sink into the complicated vibes and parse her content line by line, where the mystery is part of the magic of how it works at all, but it doesn't exactly give this project an easy entry point, especially when the content can feel so abstract.

So let's get into some of that, shall we... and let me start that Yugen Blakrok's brand of writing is so thoroughly immersed in a cloud of layered, fantastical references that it's tricky to pinpoint a direct parallel. Part wizard-heavy D&D campaign, part-Frank Herbert, part Kool Keith and Del The Funky Homosapien, and yet her allusions to mythology and vintage sci-fi are not so deep that they can't be decoded - unlike with Shabazz Palaces, you can figure out what's going on with this project, and the poetry is often so vivid that the strange iconography is very easy to envision. And part of that is likely driven by the fact there isn't a larger narrative or overwritten symbology behind this project - indeed, the roots of the writing come in defining Yugen Blakrok's sheer skills and meditative but slippery presence behind the mic, along with a long-running fascination with gothic iconography or at the very least that brand of theatricality. But that choice of tone means this album is playing everything completely straight without a hint of levity, and given this was something that hurt Deltron 3030's underwhelming comeback album Event 2, I was a little stunned that it works here, mostly because the writing is so wrapped in its mystique to not break the illusion and because she draws enough allusions to the modern world to ground things. Look at a track like 'Picture Box', a song that highlights how activists within the culture find their words twisted or bastardized by mass media... but also shows how she must live on those frequencies to be heard on what could be their greatest weapon. Then you have the hermetic paranoia in the face of possible apocalypse on 'Monatomic Mushroom' and the hardened stare into the abyss on 'Carbon Form', which crystallizes most starkly on the very black, anti-fascist closing track 'Land Of Grey', a dark moment and a rather abrupt way to end the album that highlights how her homeland will never again be so exploited... which hits hard especially as she doesn't shy away from the hard allegory on 'Mars Attacks' surrounding child soldiers. But even then you can dig deeper, because she's at least somewhat self-aware at the tangle of wordplay can be tough to parse, and she's very much aware that the path she charts could be a lonely one, especially in the face of gods she seeks on 'Hydra' that sleep in the face of human frailty and failures. Honestly, outside of a wish for a few more personal moments to show more of a personal touch that seems very carefully guarded, I can't really find any issues with the wordplay - a very different style and it'll take a half dozen listens before you even pick up half of it, but on some level, that's part of the point.

And yet I wouldn't be so willing to go back to this project if it wasn't for the production, and I'll say this outright: as much as the writing held my attention, the blur of textured but atmospheric and entirely melodic compositions against crackling boom-bap percussion, echoing samples, and scratching is what really gripped me. Swapping out many of the woodwind tones of her debut for more tones rooted in jazz and even smoldering rock guitars, it gives this project a steady groove and foundation that I really found impressive, and certainly lends the hooks a bit more staying power and presence. Like her debut nearly all the beats were composed by Kanif the Jhatmaster and he lends this album a misty density that allows it to feel as alien and ethereal but also rugged and ominous, and while I could nitpick again and say this project could have done with a little more momentum or at least a few uptempo songs in order to vary the mood, I can't help but feel that'd be missing the point. But that's not saying there isn't momentum to songs like 'Gorgon Madonna', 'Hydra', and 'Picture Box' with the smoky melody playing off the guitar smolder and lonely horns calling across the mix, or a sense of creeping dread that sinuously builds off the touches of horns and stalking low-end on 'Obsidian Night' and 'Monatomic Mushroom' or the faint cascades of keys playing off horn bombast on 'Carbon Form' or the grimy lo-fi guitar and jazz flutters on 'Hibiscus'. Hell, the only melody line I struggled to outright like was the lumbering electronic thing that sounds like it was constantly on the verge of dying on 'Ochre' - a shame, because I really dug the horn and bass touches around it, one of the few cleaner tracks that I could see being more accessible outside of the dusty feel of the rest of the album.

But as a whole... again, you need to be in the right mood for this sort of meditative, spacey hip-hop, and I'll definitely argue its appeal is niche, even for me. But if I'm in that mood, there's little quite like it in taking these sorts of layered, Afrofuturist tones and fusing it with an MC who has poetic flair for miles. It's a slow burn that simmers against a phenomenal collage of samples and twisty, wiry flows and grooves, and if you can sink into the mist, it paints one hell of a tableau. For me, it's a very light 8/10 - it only gets better with every listen as I dig into the finer details - and absolutely worth your time, because while 'Opps' might have introduced her to the wider world, Anima Mysterium proves her a singularly unique force to be reckoned with.

No comments:

Post a Comment