Underground favorite Apollo Brown has built a reputation on neck-snapping hip-hop that pounds the listener into the ground like a game of Whac-A-Mole. Reliable, if predictable, but always enjoyable. His beats rarely, if ever miss, and emcees still shine amongst the musical onslaught. For naysayers criticizing Apollo’s style as repetitive, the fact that you know an Apollo beat when you hear one, is a testament to his success at finding an identity. Few beatmakers manage to, and while some beat-makers like PA Dre and Hit-Boy pride themselves on their wide range, there’s something to be said for an artist having a style. A few years back, Apollo Brown released “Anchovies” with Planet Asia, which stripped back the chopped-up samples and slamming drums to go down the loop-rap avenue the likes of Roc Marciano were championing. It’s a divisive type of hip-hop, and one I have mixed opinions on. “Anchovies” was full of strong moments but it doesn’t stay in rotation like “Trophies”, “Ugly Heroes” or “Dice Game”. Hence the name – not everybody is going to be a fan.
But if there was one emcee designed to capitalize on the drumless style, it’s Planet Asia. The man could read me my last rites and I’d have a smile on my face. Blessed with an immediately identifiable West Coast twang, he lends “Sardines”, the follow-up to “Anchovies”, much of its appeal. If you’re not a Planet Asia fan, I’m not sure the Apollo beats merit the attention they demand on his other albums, but then, who isn’t a Planet Asia fan?
It’s worth confirming that this isn’t a drumless album – they are just not emphasized. “Panama Sun” is a good example of this, and if it had the hard snare it would feel like some mean-ass Wu-Tang s***. My reservations regarding drums aside, there are some instrumentals here that possess the familiar Apollo swing. “Fly Anomalies” is beautifully haunting, and even has drops that will have you screwfacing. The same can be said of “Wizardry”, which includes a coldly precise verse from Tristate tailor-made for what can only be described as funeral music. “Wide Awake” and “Acid Rain” just have the drums turned down, but feels like they would benefit from them being more present. In fact, most of these tracks have drums, it’s just the emphasis has been placed on the loops and Planet Asia’s way with words.
The theme of food is something “Anchovies” didn’t really touch upon, but here we get the brilliantly hypnotic “Peas & Onions”, probably the best cut:
My favorite verse from PA is the second one on “Broad Dayin'”, as he jolts into action with real venom:
Place your bets,
Next up, introducing
Little whoever and a bunch of f***in’ space cadets
Blink of an eye I can take a left
But instead I’d rather make a million off these vinyl and tape cassettes
Cali to Pakistan,
It’s action with this Afrikaan
Dapper Dan slash Jackie Chan
African space program
Word to Ras G, your presence forever with us
Understanding that this album was largely written and recorded in three days further emphasizes the theme of tinned fish. It’s not production-line hip-hop, and the metaphor I’m desperately clinging to does the art a disservice because this is still rich in nutrients. It’s soulful if not quite soul food, soaked in a braggadocious, bardic brine. But I can’t shake the feeling that it’s a dish you try out of curiosity. Some will like it more than others, and it’s great to see two respected favorites being experimental. The inclusion of “I don’t want no sardines” vocal clips throughout shows the duo are self-aware, which, along with the lost art of beat interludes emerging at the end of songs, makes this a difficult album for me to shun. Make no bones about it, if you can put your decades of preconceptions aside to adjust to two artists making music, rather than making hip-hop, “Sardines” easily justifies its existence, occasionally excelling at its objective. I simply prefer the other options on the menu.