The problem with most beat CDs is inherent: they don’t have lyrics. The problem with not having lyrics is also inherent, though not in the medium but in the listener: humans are hard-wired for language, and so it’s a lot easier to convey feelings, thoughts, states of being, etc (what every artist essentially strives for) if you’re using words as opposed to, say, horn samples and drum breaks. That makes a successful instrumental album (i.e. one that conveys something coherent and powerful to the listener) even more impressive.
Recalling the work of J Dilla (who’s “Donuts” conveyed more than most lyricists will ever say, albeit with the help of some vocal samples) in its ease of evocation, Big Cats! work is nothing if not atmospheric (as anyone who heard “Black Out on White Night” off Sage’s latest can attest to). His latest “Sleep Tapes” succeeds despite a lack of vocals, solely on the strength of its power to evoke a specific state (or specifically, the multiple states of falling asleep, dreaming, and awakening again) in the stark, beautiful language of Hip Hop music.
The haze and uncertainty that arises from the grey area between consciousness and the initial embarking into dream states is captured from the jump, with the opener “Goodnight.” A solid four-bar momentum carries us gently into the introspective “Ballad Northwestern,” full of gently plucked strings, plaintive and indecipherable vocal snippets, shifting drums and mischievous guitars. Then like the best nights of the imagination, tracks here are blended but take on unarticulated yet distinct paths, feeling in turns ominous or warm or spooky or exuberant.
In the mix of it all, one feels on a casual journey through up and down, sunny and murky, while consistency comes through steadfast drum breaks and an ingenious use of instruments to completely blur the line between live and recorded instrumentation, or between organic and mechanical on a more theoretical plane. And isn’t that one of the chief fissures that’s always been at the heart of Hip Hop?
There’s plenty of low-key ephemera here as well, recalling the tacked-on beats Pete Rock used to seemingly throw away at the end of certain songs, floating in and out before you even had a chance to bob your head. Plenty of songs merely swoon, giving a vibe that pulses with cool energy; I’d criticize the lack of energy on many tracks if they weren’t in fact designed to be on the chill tip (this is “Sleep Tapes,” after all).
One might get lost in the soup were it not for a handful of stand-outs, whether it’s the less sleepy (no pun intended) beat and melodic turns of both “Of the World” and “Hi Speed Dub” or the groove-driven momentum of “19Synthy9,” as well as brief but welcome human soundbites that temporarily lift and then drop us out of and back into the fog of sound. Another key is the great dynamism on display, as Big Cats! masterfully uses the various layers of sound to practically converse with each other, deftly mashing up all sorts of dichotomies, whether emotional, technical or even genre-based (Hip Hop and trance, soul and techno, etc).
By the time the last track “Positive Imagery” rolls around, you’re likely to be in a mood similar to one you’d feel after a solid eight hours in a good bedâ€”refreshed but still a little groggy, with the once vivid images of a night’s worth of dreaming quickly fading like sand sifting between your greedy fingers. There’s something undeniably otherworldly about BC!’s soundscapes, as if devoid of any influences or precedents (perhaps the highest praise that can be given to a beat constructor with Shadow-like aspirations), and “Sleep Tapes” is just as likely to haunt you as it is to bore you (those products of the new media age may not have the stamina).
It is at once exhausting and exhilarating to be forced into creating one’s own thoughts, emotions and moods out of music devoid of lyrics, but thankfully Big Cats! makes it a journey worth taking. Everyone’s got to sleep sometime, so you might as well dream.