Monday, November 4, 2019

album review: 'city as school' by uncommon nasa & kount fif

So I've advertised this a bit on Twitter, but here we go: a full week ahead where my primary focus is underground hip-hop, and I'm excited for it - I've got a lot in my backlog, both in recent releases and acts who have waited too long, let's get into it!

And let's start with one of the projects for whom I actually haven't seen a ton of buzz: a new album from New York veteran Uncommon Nasa who built his career as an engineer within Def Jux in the 2000s, but who you might be more familiar with cutting a swathe through the underground this decade as both producer and rapper with a set of tangled, dense, but highly rewarding albums. He came onto many folks' radar with New York Telephone in 2014, but won me over convincingly with Halfway in 2015 and Written At Night in 2017, two of the best albums of their respective years, along with a pretty solid project in 2016 with Short Fuze called Autonomy Music that I'd argue holds up pretty damn well to this day. But you'd be forgiven for thinking that he's seemed a little quiet the past few years... and there's where I'd argue you might be misinformed, because not only did he release a collection of short stories and poetry in 2018, he also produced a pretty hard left-field project with Last Sons this year called Chekhov's Gun, which I also reviewed and it also kicked a lot of ass! But I knew it would only be a matter of time before Nasa got behind the mic again for another project, so on Halloween last week he released a project produced by Kount Fif and featured many of his regular collaborators, including Short Fuze, Guilty Simpson, Last Sons, and more. Seemed to be a pretty agreeable release for the underground, even if it seemed like the buzz was rather muted... but screw it, I wanted to cover it, so what did we get from City As School?

So this is the sort of Uncommon Nasa project I did not really expect: his most direct or otherwise straightforward project to date that almost seems to operate as resetting the table and reestablishing his name and position within the New York indie hip-hop scene, weighted in his history and arc, but also his cleanest and most melodic project to this day, featuring some his fastest and tightest rapping. Now as someone who normally goes to Uncommon Nasa for density and obfuscation and hip-hop that's more heady and conceptual, I'll admit this doesn't quite rise to my favourites from him - Halfway and Written At Night still hold their own, at least to me - but for a brief, hard-hitting, occasionally evocative listen, this worked pretty well.

And for a change of pace I want to start with composition and songwriting, because in comparison with the less-traditional material Nasa has released, there is more of a focus on melodic hooks and somewhat conventional structure, with more of a reliance on Nasa's sharp, clear voice to command urgency within the mix across these ten tracks and two interludes, and while we don't quite get a demented banger with the strength of Last Sons' 'Actually Happening' or 'Gingerbread Hag' from Written At Night, the hooks here have a little more natural punch, be they from Nasa himself or an artist like Sabat X on 'Artificial Times'. It's a much more lean album too, with slightly quicker tempos and often only a few verses - I wouldn't dare say that he was optimizing this album for streaming, but does go down significantly easier. And a big part of this is the content: in comparison with previous high-concept experiments, Nasa is taking it back to the streets of New York City to sketch out the arc of his come-up, in many places for better but not shying away with the admission of where things have gone wrong or haven't exactly stuck the landing. He's very much aware that he can seem like a bit of an outcast in between spaces - intrinsic to New York but he highlights the difference between his home borough of Staten Island and his adopted home of Manhattan, and that is to some extent how he sees his relationship to conventional hip-hop. And this self-awareness makes for some revealing observations - he knows this material is less thorny this time around, he can hear the alienation from those who treat hip-hop as a path to a quick buck or just a hobby, and he knows how quickly he can fall out of conversation when the scene changes or shifts, a sad inevitability in the ever-changing New York City he cherishes, especially if it comes as a price to one of his own mistakes. 

Indeed, there's a running sense of humility that's moved into the text across this project, from the gratitude to teenage dreams on the title track to charting where he is today - laid out with even more blunt focus on 'Origin Stories' - to his great respect for the older MCs who still value what he's laid on 'Old Cats'. And while I appreciated the great deal of detail to the vinyl sales hustle he ran as a teenager on 'Best Laid Plans' - echoing his current life as an artist to move inventory - what I found the most effecting were the observations for the future, from noticing so many outcasts like him fall through the cracks on 'Clusters' to seeing the kids struggle in the same way he did against the same brutal inequality on 'Artificial Times'. And yet in the deepest points of introspection we get the most resonant and vulnerable moments, the most immediate coming on the closing track 'Sunrise', where he compares the disruptive frenzy of Written At Night to the more sober reflection now, making references to bridges burned, conflicts that feel increasingly immaterial where it became a mistake to lash out, and how inner peace can be felt with stability he seems to have more ideas how to maintain. That said, the song I liked the most was 'I Am, To Learn', where he asks those hard questions of legacy and what he has left behind, a refocus on essential truths of resonance, where despite hard tribulations the repetition breeds wisdom and - in a surprising turn - optimism. It makes sense that Nasa sounds more on-point and focused than ever, and that's a nice sign. That being said, for as much as these moments of heartfelt introspection work, I'm left feeling that even despite the leanness of this project it feels a bit thin, especially by Uncommon Nasa standards. Part of this are his guest stars, which in comparison with the thematic cohesion wrangled with Written At Night feels a little more diffuse, and when the narrative is more personal that can be distracting. Take Karniege's verse on 'Van Gogh's Ear' - colourful and detailed, but it doesn't really align well opposite Nasa's, which I'd also say is true for both Pep Love on 'Clusters' and Guilty Simpson on 'Sunrise' - not that they're bad, but they don't quite match the same mood or focus. 

Of course, the other big factor to why Nasa's albums have clicked so effectively is the production, where like with Halfway he enlisted another producer to help, Kount Fif, whose has a few placements working with Man Bites Dog Records and a compilation called The Swashbuckler Vol.1: The Viking Wars from 2012 that featured a lot of Wu affiliates to mixed results. And unfortunately, if I were to highlight a point where I think this album just doesn't hit with the same impact as projects that Nasa has produced himself or with Black Tokyo, it's here. And it's tough to contextualize exactly why, as it's not that far removed from what Nasa has had before: melodic samples, rich textures, dusty percussion, significant grit to amplify the heaviest moments that recall some of the Bomb Squad influence that Nasa has always liked - and yet it doesn't hit the same. Now some of this you'd expect for a project that's trying to go simpler: you're not going to get the same binaural, challenging vocal layering or production that wants to be more alien, which is inevitably why tones and grooves sound cleaner - but with the dustier tones swapped out for more liquid and high fidelity synth patches, many of the songs don't quite have the same warmth or spark, an issue when you're looking for the hooks to hit with impact. Take 'N.Y.S.T.' - great bassline, it's got some sweeping presence, I like the flute accents, but if you're looking for punch, the drums and mix can feel oddly muffled and that sputtering gurgle doesn't help the song's wonky stop-and-start, a similar issue for the strings sample on 'Origin Story' only slightly redeemed by the scratching. Or take the snarled squeal of guitar on 'Van Gogh's Ear' - why it's placed more behind the cleaner sample and vocal lead and not blended to add that edge gets a bit distracting, even if I did like the eerie integration of Barrie McLean's backing vocals. Now again, that's not me coming out against the more futuristic style: the synth warps on 'Old Cats' against the sharper beat is balanced well, the more layered percussion hits with greater impact off the rattling guitars and synth spurts on 'I Am, To Learn', or the obvious prog influence between the sandy percussion, fizzy synths, flute and guitars on 'Best Laid Plans'... but I'd be lying if I didn't say I preferred the rougher lo-fi blend on 'Artificial Times', even with the hollow vocal filters, or the touches of horns on the interlude 'Going To The City', or that I think the guitar tone behind 'Sunrise' is way too weedy. It's strange, the production is analogous to Uncommon Nasa's in some influences and tones, but the pickups, texture, and blending just doesn't fit together nearly as well or feel as cohesive, and that might be why even the best moments don't quite knock with as much force.

But at the end of the day... this is an odd album to discuss because I can see listeners intimidated by how snarled and dark and challenging Uncommon Nasa has been maybe liking this more, but I'm not convinced the alchemy is sparking in the same way. It's certainly thoughtful and well-written and I can understand the stylistic pivot towards emotive directness, but it feels like the added polish and focus buffed away some of the richness in production and punchy cleverness that's always been my biggest draw to Nasa's work - the same flavour is there, but it feels a little waterlogged. So when I give this an extremely solid 7/10 and a recommendation, I'd say to keep that in mind - still really damn good, maybe a solid entry point for Uncommon Nasa, which for a 'back to roots' album is exactly what it needs to be... but I do think it's a little shy of greatness, at least to me. Still will be slept on by entirely too many folks, though, so if you get a chance, check it out.

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