Genuinely atmospheric, haunting records are few and far between. The mid-90s are well documented as the peak for influential, dread-ridden journeys into the dangerous underbelly of society. New York’s Onyx, Mobb Deep and the Gravediggaz all dragged us through their ‘hoods, brooding with violence and cold-blooded precision – and that was just the production! There are countless examples of hardcore rap that is menacing, but the soundscapes rarely grab you by the throat and threaten you. “Van Ghost” is that, and it’s absolutely vicious.
Pronounced ‘Uncle John’, the easiest way to describe DC’s ANKHLEJOHN is a mix of Big Twins, Agallah and Sticky Fingaz. Creating a buzz in the past few years, 2018’s “Van Ghost” saw John strike gold with Big Ghost. Formerly a rap reviewer himself, Ghost would analyze current hip hop as a fully in-character Ghostface Killah. It was often hilarious and while some miss his humor, his production has come on leaps and bounds. Only recently we saw the release of “Chicaghost”, a collaborative record with D. Brash out of Chicago.
Each track is named after a Van Gogh painting and each track does show some theme, if only from the production. The dark oils of “The Potato Eaters” depicts ugly peasants scrambling a meal together, is an apt visual for the filthy (and standout) song of the same name. Potatoes are also used as makeshift gun silencers, so implies ANKHLEJOHN doesn’t have time for you peasants. As much as I’d like to clarify the artistic depth of John, the track is as blunt as you like and I can’t get enough of it.
John states that he “paints pictures like Van Gogh” but he’s more likely to slice your ear off. With the catchphrase “I Swear to Gaawd!” and “SICK SICK SICK”, it’s clear John’s intentions aren’t like most uncles – ain’t no cornball jokes here. Speaking of cornballs, he even throws a jab at Logic:
“The game filled with corny n****s like Logic
Sitting like ‘who this dude?’
Twisting up his Rubik’s cube, feel he conscious
His head down like he looking at a compass
I robbed him, I heard you the new Sinatra
What you got up in them pockets?
A few Pokemon cards, this s*** is garbage!”
There’s industrial, Robocop-like morbidity to “The Yellow House” as if bodies are being disposed of in chemical containers. Some real Streets of Rage level 6 type instrumental with memorable lines like “F*** a 9 to 5, that s*** boring, Marvin Gaye s*** LET’S GET IT ON”. On paper, it’s barely logical, but when delivered in that scrunched up, pitbull-with-a-wasp-in-its-mouth tone that John has mastered, it’s surprisingly effective. Critically, Ghost comes through, again and again, whether it’s the wall-pounding “Two Crabs” with the psychotic jabs at the piano or the Giorgio Morodor influence on show on “The Red Vineyard” – he doesn’t put a foot wrong.h
“The Church at Auvers” is named after the famous Van Gogh oil painting and it loosely follows the concept of art imitating life. The thick brushstrokes Van Gogh adopts are striking and purposeful but that’s largely where the similarities stop. Honestly, it’s refreshing not to hear Basquait’s name rattling out of a hip hop album for once. This is that grim, intense hip hop delivered in a way that doesn’t sound like its trying to mimic past acts, despite the clear influences. Is it art? Debatable, but a fist-shaped hole in an easel would probably sell, and that’s the visual representation of “Van Ghost”.