Allow me to take this opportunity to lament the passing of www.hiphopinfinity.com. Don’t bother looking for the hyperlink, there is none, because apart from a few vagrant files in Google’s cache, there are no traces left of the considerable amount of knowledge it once stored in binary codes. To give only the briefest of descriptions, HipHopInfinity was the place to go if you wanted to know about the most adventurous, avantgarde (and yes, often arty) stuff out there. Comprised of a store, a review section and a forum, HipHopInfinity was an online meeting point for people who were able to appreciate what the likes of Company Flow, Aesop Rock, Sage Francis, Atmosphere and Anticon brought to the table. Being that they mostly dwelled on the outer limits of hip-hop, the HipHopInfinity folks didn’t always seem in touch with the inner circle of rap music, bewildering many with their annual Top 50 MC’s lists, but together with the artists whose music they promoted, they spiritedly charted territories many people still don’t know exist.
Let’s take “A New White” by Subtle, a record a traditionalist such as myself has little more to say about than if you were part of the HipHopInfinity community, this might be down your line. Not that Jel and Doseone, whose membership in Subtle is the reason this promo was sent to us, haven’t been featured on RapReviews.com. But last time around, when I had to cover their joint effort “The No Music”, I ditched the promo and purchased the retail version hoping the liner notes would help me decipher Doseone’s vocals. Well, not this time. You kids go check it out and come back and tell me what he said. I’ve had it with this guy. We’ve all been there – stumped by that one line we just can’t make out. We listen over and over again, we ask around, and if we have access to the internet, we check if the Original Hip-Hop Lyrics Archive knows any better. But rap vocals that might as well be in a foreign language seem to go against the very grain of rap music, whose main motive is to get people to listen and to make them understand. Rap is never strictly self-expression, it tries to establish a relationship with the audience by all kinds of means, be it shouting at the top of your lungs or riding a beat with style, be it profanity or refined rhetoric. At its very base, listening to someone rap is no different from listening to someone talk, as you first have to intellectually grasp the meaning of what is said, before you can react on an emotional level. In comparison, sung words will always have a more instant access to a listener’s feelings, because we answer directly to the emotion a melody carries.
That said, as a reviewer I need to know what a rapper says to pass full judgement on his performance. Doseone himself probably wouldn’t object to that, since he just released “The Pelt”, a book and accompanying audio CD which combine his talents to give his thoughts shape and form both musically and visually. Suffice to say, Doseone isn’t some amateur who doesn’t know how to make himself understood. He just chooses to express himself in a somewhat maniacal manner, as if possessed by multiple personalities, putting his voice through various internal mental processors, switching between whispering and lilting, grumbling and humming, deliberately changing flow, volume and intonation. To give you an idea, mellow out the high-pitched squeaks of a The White Stripes’ Jack White with the melodical melancholy of Latyrx’ Lyrics Born, rub the stoic cadence of Killah Priest against the erratic delivery of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, stack it all up in different vocal layers, and you get Doseone. Without any liner notes and lyrics at hand, it’s like sitting across a nutcase in the subway and trying to figure out if there’s a method to the madness.
It all loses much of its alienating appeal once you stop worrying about understanding the lyrics. Doseone’s vocals are buttressed by kit drums, electric cello, keyboards, guitar and wind instruments handled by Dax Pierson, Marty Dowers, Jordan Dalrymple and Alexander Kort, who joined Jel and Doseone when they toured as Themselves in 2002. Add samplers and drum machines, and you have an impressive array of influences and ingredients that make up “A New White”. Still, musically speaking, the Oakland-based sextet is probably best described as an indie rock outfit with a touch of pop-tinged electronica.
As such, it works pretty well, because as a collective Subtle keep gravitating towards the edge, the songs usually starting out archetypically, but quickly morphing into multi-layered sound sessions. On “Song Meat”, the subdued trip-hop upbeat gives way to high-pitched guitar and vocal eruptions and other rock clichÃ© moments. “I Love LA” relies on acoustic guitars and strings, but also includes a short drum machine solo. “The Long Vein of the Law” runs the gamut from guitar feedback to electronic bleeps and bips, “Red, White & Blonde” is a bass-heavy, experimental but succeeding hip-hop track, while “Eyewash” floats on keyboard clouds that suddenly explode in a precipitation of loud drums. Even at its most advantgarde (“Silence…”), “A New White” is never that wierd that you feel like tuning out. Because around the corner from each odd lapse await another solid rhythm and another soothing melody. So rather than trying your patience, Subtle pique your interest in where they’re going to take you next.
It is often said that hip-hop is more than the sum of its elements. It is, among other things, also the idea that the most varied elements can make up hip-hop. Here, hip-hop (in the form of rhythmic vocals and drum work) itself turns into an element contributing to yet another amalgam. But while hip-hop is part of the potpourri that is “A New White”, it is clearly overshadowed by Subtle’s playing with indie rock and IDM staples. Either way, from the not-so-subtle (“The Long Vein of the Law”) to the really subtle (the closing “She” and “Stiff Fruit”), this album is an exciting listening experience that will have a hip-hop head wondering what all the lengthy definitions and empty declarations hip-hop has to endure are worth when six people can come along and incorporate it so seamlessly into the greater realm of music.