“Ill Culinary Behaviour” brought me here. Back when playful, conceptual hip-hop was still an option, DJ Format and Abdominal dropped this tasty tidbit about cooking up and serving musical and lyrical “explosions of flavour”. After the 2001 single, the British producer and the Canadian rapper collaborated sporadically on Format’s full-length projects. Abdominal himself, headlining a handful of albums since 2001, hasn’t quite been able to lay out the same career path as up-north peers like D-Sisive, Classified or Moka Only. Still the duo seems to share a special kind of chemistry and is out to prove that they’re “Still Hungry.”
Although both the “Appetizer” intro and the following title track might suggest that Abs and Format could be serving leftovers, the latter subverts such expectations by dealing with the hunger for life sans extended gastronomic metaphors. In the album’s first song, Abdominal opts for a bottled up delivery that only finds release in a brief bark during the hook. Stone-faced rappers may be in high demand these days, but this particular song literally begs to conclude in a musical climax, especially as the songwriting steers in that direction, the rapper searching for and finding strength over the course of the cut. Not to mention the pumping production’s steady offer to the MC to finally stand straight.
Across the entire album, however, Abs’ performance on the title track turns out to offer a break from the typically companionable tone of his conversation. Abdominal always raps with the best of intentions. That doesn’t exclude snubbing competition, but at his heart he is a jovial MC with the desire to entertain and educate. The delivery, meant to be natural and plausible, can sometimes topple towards the opposite, but nobody would dispute that Abdominal is a capable rapper in almost all sectors. And so “Still Hungry,” for better and for worse, largely lives up to expectations. DJ Format travels with an entire band in his pocket, digging into the ’60s and ’70s for his bouncy, colorful beats. “We’re Back” is an avalanche of rolling rhythms and relentless raps, the duo posing as “the big bad bullies in the back of the bus, just smacking you up” – all in good hip-hop humor, of course. Invariably the classic vocal cuts await in the chorus, accompagnied by a short set of funky flutes.
“Still Hungry” is hip-hop with a sense of tradition. A specific hip-hop heritage drips out of every bar and note, but the special sauce also makes the terrain that DJ Format and Abdominal move on slippery. Surely “Behind the Scenes” is an all around well written song (down to a lyrically dense and meaningful AND melodic hook) about what it really means to be an MC on Abdominal’s level. It’s humorous, it’s honest, but it’s also a very standard song for exactly the kind of MC that Abs is. In a similar vein, “No Time” details the many distractions that prevent him from writing rhymes. Format’s soul-strutting track only reinforces the impression of comic strip rap.
Yet the fact that their music involves a strong element of foreseeability doesn’t put it in the same category as half-baked raps it takes mere minutes to write. “Dirt” may be a predictable committment to “dirty unquantized drums” and other things that make our world a little less sterile, yet Abdominal argues in a slightly off-kilter but relatable way without rapping too obviously with that knowing wink:
“These days everything designed to hide the so-called blemishes
Filters, Photoshop, gym memberships
All of the obsessive quests for perfection
Or at least the perception of such in our social media presences
But the flipside to that of course is – if we’re all using those same tools
then it’s inevitable that we end up looking identical like fish in a school
But my school was that original hip-hop philosophy
which taught me: Always be an individual and never copy
Which kinda means embracing your supposed blemishes
cause they’re what distinguishes you from all of them fishes
swimming around out in the sea of humanity
Cause why be a school fish when you can be a manatee?”
Creating a sustainable train of thought remains a forte of Abdominal. He utilizes reflection and rhetoric to good effect. “Forged From Hardship” makes a solid case about turning hardship into dope hip-hop and really doesn’t leave much to be said, the lyrics walking the fine line between universal and personal (“Pain supressed down to the deepest recess of my psyche / compartmentalized tightly just so I can function in society”). What’s missing from the overall package is the spontaneous, anarchistic aspect of rap. For example, he begins “White Rapper” as follows:
“I’m a white rapper
Well, more specifically a jewish one
Perhaps a distinction that’s moot to some
But sorta not to me
But still, setting aside that technicality
for the purpose of this song
let’s just say I’m white-passing, which wouldn’t be wrong”
The song continues to tread the topic in the same careful manner, even expanding on the ‘guest’ analogy. In contrast, treat yourself to Ill Bill’s intense search for identity “White Nigger,” which also comes from an individual Jewish perspective, and you’ll hear the difference between edgy and dull. In rap, the subversive, provocative one is often more effective than the well-meaning MC.
With all the skill and experience he has going for him, it’s quite a feat for Abdominal to bore anyone but the most indifferent listener. The paradox doesn’t stop there. If modern day rap icons are far removed from people like Big Daddy Kane and Rakim (who both happen to get sampled by Format), for Abdominal the distance is much shorter. That can only be a backhanded compliment since his name is never going to be mentioned in the same breath with these legends. Not because he’d be white, Jewish, Canadian, anachronistic, self-supporting, whatever – but because he doesn’t go for broke. He plays it safe strictly within the confines of a niche that hopefully no one mistakes for officially certified classic hip-hop. Because classic hip-hop is not a genre, it’s an attitude and, with enough perseverance, an achievement.
Should we rub in the fact that Abdominal has difficulty delivering on a proposition from 2015 to avoid ancient concepts? No. To make confusing statements happens to the best MC’s, and once they’re back in their element, mostly everybody’s happy. With that in mind, “Still Hungry” does run like a well-oiled machine by playing strictly to the duo’s strengths. And does it live up to its name? Absolutely. For what it’s worth, closer “We Say” comes back to the cooking metaphors. It’s a superbly simple song about ‘getting older and getting better with time’ (as the Steady B sample states it), and in a review where he has to take a perhaps unfair share of fundamental criticism, Abdominal deserves to have the last word on the topic of his choice:
“I’m an old man in a young man’s game
Where once my lungs spat flames
there remains but an ember that smoulders
But I fan that shit as I get older
So rest assured the heat’s preserved
And like meat on therm, man, beats getting burned
But no longer by an inferno
but a sensible cooking fire that burns slow
Less impressive perhaps pyrotechnically
But it cooks more effectively”