At RapReviews HQ, writers will occasionally exchange emails sharing their current mood or status regarding current output. A frequent theme – aside from the usual lack of energy and time to continue dedicating evenings and/or weekends to writing – is the purpose of the long-form music review. Granted, the advent of MP3 and downloads certainly made access to music easier for listeners, but the emergence of streaming platforms effectively transformed music into the content you processed, rather than absorbed. Algorithms now direct you to what you would probably enjoy, based on data from your listening behavior. This removes risk from the experience, which used to be in the form of “where should I spend my hard-earned cash?” but is now “where do I spend my valuable time?”. The sheer volume of entertainment is overwhelming, in all forms of media, but hip-hop has always felt hard to keep up with. If it wasn’t singles and albums, it was relentless mixtapes. Then it became digital mixtapes via DatPiff and navigating the endless blogs. A lot of this activity has transitioned to social media, but there are always a few records each year that warrant digging through Bandcamp or Amazon’s digital store to see what takes my fancy. Last year it was Jazz Spastiks and the year before it was The Palmer Squares, previously it’s been Innate & EP, Intuition and Equilabrum or the massively overlooked Qwel & Maker. Records that are easy recommendations, but feel like the very definition of a hidden gem. For 2022, Defcee & Boathouse’s “For All Debts Public and Private” is that record.
Right from the off, “Ragnarok” pounds through the speaker. It’s like a large man silently entered the room and toilet plungered your face – proper impactful yet never explicitly aggressive. It sets the scene for much of what’s to follow – “Qtna” is another Boathouse success. This time you could envision this beat being pumped into padded cells to get all the aggression out of psychopaths. The hook here is one of few I can see myself memorizing – a rarity in today’s environment. In fact, that’s the key strength of “For All Debts Public and Private”, the rhymes sound dope but take a few listens to clock what’s being delivered. It’s a bit like classic Raekwon – not immediately apparent how well-crafted these raps are. Speaking of Wu, the role of 90s hip-hop continues to influence emcees, and Defcee cites Wu-Tang classics as “his homework” during his earlier years. “Bubble Coat” is as brash and direct as a Ghostface performance, itself laced with slang and references. “Body’s not a temple but my head’s like a monolith” touches upon similar Wu-Tang material, with the hook itself outright celebrating Wu:
“+Supreme Clientele+ was my homework,
Notepad had a +Cuban Linx+ worth of codewords
Wanted to rock bubble coats with the faux-fur
Won +Winter Warz+ but I had to beat the cold first”
Some of the verses can feel codified to the untrained ear, but the underlying subtext is largely personal emotions and tales of the Chicagoan’s journey to this point. His background in slam poetry and battle rap can be felt through the music, with words precisely selected and verses focusing on the portrayal of imagery rather than boastful showcases of grammar manipulation. Given he cites influences such as Aesop Rock, Vakill and Typical Cats this is a student of the most lyrical of rappers, yet manages to avoid some of the pitfalls of those earlier underground wordsmiths. This album doesn’t feel distinctly backpack or nerdy, nor necessarily is it backwardly boom-bap in nature – it’s natural and a lot of that is down to Boathouse’s ability to craft beats that pack a punch, but aren’t restricted by an outdated aesthetic. They are tough, yet clean enough to sound modern. You’ll be stomping your untouched Timbaland’s to this without feeling like you’re reenacting the 90s for the umpteenth time, and that’s where the album establishes itself as something defiantly modern.
But what are these tracks about? “Recollect” is a hypnotic production seeing Def essentially prove the years of writing and performing have proven their worth – he’s paid his dues and now it’s time to collect. On that front, this isn’t thematically spectacular or introducing mind-blowing concepts, but the way Defcee picks his words and delivers them isn’t so much Shakespearean but Tragedy Khadafian (which is better let’s be honest). Some of the hooks lack memorability, a skillet the Chicago emcee freely admits in interviews is an area for improvement but the ones that hit the spot hit hard. Critical darlings Armand Hammer (Elucid & Billy Woods) guest on “Rossi” adding some sophistication to proceedings but it’s the one track that outstays its welcome (breaching the five-minute mark). “Boxing Bullets” knocks nicely, although I’m less keen on SolarFire’s vocals – reminiscent of Dave East’s irritating hoarseness. The track also sees GreenSllime share the mic, and I did laugh at the “gets ugly like Vinnie Paz crying to Kid Cudi” line given Vinnie is ugly anyway. Shit must be ugly if Vinnie is even listening to Cudi, let alone crying to it. Humor is probably the one area that maybe this album needed a bit more of just to lighten the load, but that’s me nitpicking.
Compared to most, I’m less keen on the recent drabness that Alchemist and the Griselda fellas pump out, and while there’s a bit of that here (i.e. “Dunk Contest”) Defcee’s wordy style ensures interest doesn’t wane. Defcee and Boathouse combine realy well and when Defcee gets the hook right, they create brilliant hip-hop that rewards multiple listens. Boathouse’s style is imposing and possesses a satisfying crunchiness throughout, and I reckon it’s more accessible than your Daringers and DJ Muggs. Defcee manages to craft eloquent rhymes to give these tracks a thoughtfulness, and by the time you reach “Moving Targets”, another strong solo joint, you’ll wonder if the duo are on the verge of blowing up. Under the Closed Sessions label, you could see Defcee blossom further and be a name raised in more discussions.