Do you realize when you’re in the middle of a cultural shift, or a significant moment, that it’s happening? Or only in retrospect? When you’re following events as they unfold, it can be hard to tell.
That’s what I ponder while I listen to six recentish albums that put an exclamation point on a rich American rap/soul music ecology that has been growing for the past 5 or so years.
Those albums would be MIKE’s “Beware of the Monkey” (10k, Dec ‘22), Liv.e’s “Girl in the Half Pearl” (In Real Life, Feb ‘23), Nappy Nina’s “Mourning Due” (Lucid Haus, Feb ‘23), Maxo’s “Even God Has a Sense of Humor” (Def Jam, Feb ‘23), B Cool-Aid’s “Leather Blvd.” (Lex, March ‘23), and Navy Blue’s “Ways of Knowing” (Def Jam, March ‘23).
Taken together, it’s a lot of music about engaging in complex relationships with self, others, God, location, society. Raps are often profound and unhurried. Beats are sampled, glimmering, incorporating jazz, dancehall, and techno. It’s adventurous, pro-Black music, perhaps with an ethos of a deeper sort of Blackness than we get in the mainstream. Four of the six albums dropped during Black History Month.
A smart record store would merchandise them prominently at the end of an aisle. They weren’t coordinated to be released in a sequence or listened to as a set, but to me, they all go together.
These albums are linked by real community: everyone knows each other and guests on each other’s shit, or has performed together, or is one degree removed. There is also some visual coherence happening. Many of the acts have music videos shot by New York directors Devlin Claro Resetar or Ryosuke Tanzawa, both of whose cinematography involves dusky hues and aspects of portraiture.
Is it too much to call it a movement? Reductive to call it all Soulquarianesque?
What do we make of it all? While I listen/feel/think, I have questions.
In the broadest strokes, I see the cult of Dilla being fused with the cult of Earl Sweatshirt, a Venn Diagram that I’m personally drawn to and which makes aesthetic sense. Perhaps it was an inevitable overlap.
I’m intrigued about the fact that Def Jam is twice involved (Maxo and Navy Blue). What kind of a business move is that by the label which puts out the most commercial rap on the market? The label of DJ Khaled? Is money not the point of a label like Def Jam? Are these not inherently small scale artists? Or perhaps their market value is more than I’m thinking.
Maybe we are entering a different musical era. Do these six albums announce that we are back in Digable Planets times, when jazz-inspired Afrocentric rap could win Grammys? Now that Questlove is calling some shots over there, are things different? Is this the re-rebirth of slick?
Maybe the current healthiness of this pool signifies we are living through a changing of the rap guard on some level, and a procultural, prosocial approach appeals to who's newly in charge. How significant is Tunji Balogun as CEO at Def Jam, an artist himself who used to rap in regional micro scenes?
Or alternatively, are we on some level witnessing a cool-kids’ earnest reaction against dorky blockbuster rap artists, an opposite, introverted movement against all their excessive marketing rollouts and rage and virality and phoniness, expressing instead a desire for realness and deep expression?
I don’t have the answers. I just have these six albums. And I know I need to sit with them awhile, still. We don’t do that enough in this era of takes, where everyone is pressured by the algorithm to weigh in during the promotional cycle and give a spicy summary before the episode’s over. This is music that deserves to decant. It will reveal itself over time, I think.
In any case, these albums are all inspiring me to think about music in the big picture, to think about rap and R&B and how they go together, to think about waves of music that promote passive or active listening, to think about grassroots movements commodified by mainstream interests. I receive them and think, Damn. Something’s going on here. Whatever it is, I’m grateful to be in the light of the season.