The Beat Box

Noteworthy Hip Hop – April 2020

This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #126. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.

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Fresh hip hop beats

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I haven’t left my apartment in four weeks. Well, not strictly. I’ve been grocery shopping, but I’m staying inside for the most part. I’m not hating it, but I’m starting to feel paranoid when I go outside. The air feels germy and the quiet, traffic-less city is kind of disarming. On the plus side, I feel like an 1890s train robber when I go to the grocery store, so I’ve got that going for me.

Anyway, I’m working on getting some of that paranoia out of my system, and hip hop is helping me feel better. Well, maybe not less paranoid, but definitely a little more normal. Hopefully, these albums can help you keep your head up too.

Statik Selektah & Termanology – 1982: The Quarantine

1982, the collaboration between Statik Selektah and Termanology, got together three days after the coronavirus was declared a pandemic, but just before New York went on lockdown, to record The Quarantine. They live-streamed the production and released the album the next day. The result is a classic 1982 production: tight rhymes over boom bap beats with a distinctly conscious nod towards the present circumstance. The two brought in some of the top local emcees to feature on their marathon production session, giving us a final taste of in-person socialization before the quarantine kicked in. The results are a solid album for waiting out the end times in your apartment.

Darko the Super – The Devil Defeated

Darko the Super is the always weird and prolific mind behind the “U Don’t Deserve This Beautiful Art” record label out of Philadelphia. Darko has over 50 albums under his belt, but The Devil Defeated feels like a step up from some of his other work. Some of this lies at the feet of Steel Tipped Dove, the indie producer behind some of the most influential sounds in the early 2010’s underground. Dove’s beats provide the backdrop for the entire album, supplying plenty of jumping-off points for Darko to explore the weirder and more complicated sides of himself. Like the late, great Daniel Johnston, for whom the album is titled, Darko explores his more primitive forms and releases some of his most interesting songs to date.

Zebra Katz – Less is Moor

Less Is Moor is an album full of seemingly mismatched contradictions. This is a shit-talking club album for the fashion and socially conscious. This is an industrial album for queer, black America. This is the soundtrack to a scene in a Clive Barker movie, featuring black leather masks conducting occult rituals lit by strobe lights. Underneath it all lies Ojay Morgan, the mind behind the Zebra Katz persona. Morgan has been working the Zebra Katz project out over the last decade, in various forms, culminating with Less Is Moor. The album is energetic, unapologetic, unbridled and unbounded by generic or stylistic norms.

Chika – Industry Games

In some ways, Industry Games feels like a throwback to Graduation-era Kanye with chipmunk soul and an ebullience that sometimes feels better suited for 2008 than 2020. Regardless, Chika is an exciting break from the tediousness of in-home living, dropping intricate rhymes, switching flows and catchy hooks. The production from Norwegian producer/songwriter, Lido raises the album to another level as well. While there are certain segments that feel like a previous decade, Lido also draws on the synthy techniques that have been popularized over the last five or so years, giving the album a modern sound. The whole album makes me want to go drive around with my windows down, blasting this in the spring breeze. It’s too bad I don’t have anywhere to go.

Jay Electronica – A Written Testimony 

When Jay Electronica signed to Roc Nation in 2010, the hip hop world eagerly awaited a new studio album from a rapper who had proven himself one of the standard-bearers for conscious hip hop in the 21st-century. And we waited, and we waited, and we waited, and we kind of forgot. Jay Elec became a meme, a shorthand for a skilled artist who never follows through.

Then, out of nowhere, Electronica announced on Twitter that his debut album, A Written Testimony, would actually be released last month. Like, for real for real. However, unlike the earth-shaking announcement this would have been back in the early 2010s, the statement fell a little flat in 2020. Maybe it would have drawn a little more excitement if it wasn’t a surprise album After 10 years of false starts, no one was sure if this announcement was real. Maybe, the announcement would have been a little better received if he had spent more than 40 of the last 3,650 days recording it.

Fortunately, the album itself stands up tall. Elecronica’s lyrical skill is on full display, providing clear imagery and dextrous rhymes. His production also stands out, unique in its vintage sounds. However, both of these aspects feel a little outdone by a different Jay, who is featured on over half the tracks. Jay-Z decided to pull out some of his best rhymes in years for an album that he’s not even officially credited on. It’s weird to finally hear something that was supposedly in the making for a decade and then hear the main artist up-staged almost immediately by a supporting guest. Regardless, even a decade later, you can hear what the hype was about back in 2007 when Jay Electronica burst on the scene. I just feel like he might make more of an impact if he doesn’t wait another decade for his next album. These days it feels like we might not be around to hear it.

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Noah Springer is a writer and editor based in Boston. You can follow him on Twitter @noahjspringer.

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