Have you ever heard someone describe their taste in hip-hop by asserting that they don’t listen to “commercial hip-hop”? As reductionist as that blanket statement sounds, I’m willing to bet that most of us can sympathize with the sentiment, at least to a degree. Given the uninspired, trend-spotting production and lowest-common-denominator rhymes that often dominate the airwaves, it can be hard to curb the impulse to blame commercial interests for all of hip-hop’s woes. This raises an interesting question, however: what does non-commercial, or even anti-commercial hip-hop, sound like? Stumped? I’d recommend that you pick up Belly, the latest long-player from Baltimore/Washington D.C. crew Food for Animals, as reference material.
Opening up with two mostly instrumental tracks, Belly makes itself clear from the get-go: this isn’t going to be easy. Forget what you think you know about hip-hop production; the sounds on Belly have more in common with Autechre and Aphex Twin than Timbaland or the Neptunes. A series of glitchy samples, plenty of static, and unexpected assaults of rapid-fire drums prime the listener for the main event. At first, there’s little indication that this is going to be a hip-hop record at all. More than halfway through the second track, “Tween My Lips”, the drums finally settle long enough to produce a discernable beat. Primary MC Vulture V emerges from the washes of static at last, dropping the album’s first verse: “I’m not your typical breakfast / For real, I love the slang / Give a fuck about your necklace / These ill Belly kids love laughing at your checklist”.
Clearly, producer Ricky Rabbit could care less about tradition. Each track on Belly challenges the very foundation of hip-hop, with Rabbit removing rhythmic pillars one-by-one until each song stands on the verge of collapse. You’ll find few bass lines on Belly, no choruses, just one brief cameo (save for Hy, who guests on four tracks and became a full-time member of FFA after the recording of the LP) and only one skit (which, by the way, is about the challenges of beard-wearing in a post-9/11 world).
“Bulk Gummies”, the record’s first full-length track, provides a clear example of FFA’s approach. A scattershot pounding of electronic drums quickly gives way to a mess of cut-up samples, buzzes and screeches. Eventually these noises fall in line behind the drums, creating a beat that’s as harsh as it is rhythmically complex. “Shove it in your face / Shut up and chew your Happy Meal / I want the ideal / So what’s the big deal?”, Vulture V asks, sounding a bit like Del tha Funkee Homosapien, if the usually jovial MC had woken up on the wrong side of the bed. Soon afterward, the beat deteriorates into a skittering coda of clicks and bumps, only to reconstitute itself seconds later.
One of the record’s highlights, “Shhy”, opens up deceptively, with a few cut-up vocal samples and a RZA-esque haunted piano line. You almost think that, finally, you’re going to hear something approximating a “normal” hip-hop track, until Vulture V shouts, “Yeah!”, and the real track descends, sounding like a cloud of glass locusts flying in formation over a beat big enough to be on Dr. Dre’s alarm clock. While the song features some of the record’s best lines (“Yeah my generation got crowned / But still / My surroundings can’t even make a sound”), it also features some of its worst lyrical gaffes (“My throat swells from the raps”), highlighting FFA’s primary weakness: Vulture V. While his deliberate, assertive cadence is not without its charm, his lyrical abilities and flow aren’t quite enough to carry the weight of the record through 15 tracks. And gone are the agitated political rants of previous FFA releases, replaced with mundane posturing and empty witticisms. Perhaps that explains why the vocals are often a little lower in the mix than they need to be. It’s almost as if they wanted the rhymes to be overpowered by the production.
As unmarketable as Food for Animals might be, they still can’t resist taking a stab at the feel-good summer jam. The title of “Swampy (Summer Jam)” isn’t the only thing that’s straightforward here. The ode to mid-Atlantic mugginess finds Ricky Rabbit turning in Belly‘s loosest, most accessible track. Fuzzy, treble-heavy pops trade off with echoing snare hits until a cheesy keyboard sample drops, signaling an abandonment of seriousness. “You know it’s gonna be a hot one”, Vulture raps, “Hot / Sweat on my pillows / Not fun / But I’m not one / To willow in no hot sun”. No, it’s not quite “Gin and Juice”, but it’s about as close as you’re going to find here.
Ultimately, Belly proves to be a compelling record, despite its limitations. Even though the band eschews hooks and basslines for less digestible sounds, the better songs do manage to get stuck in your head after repeated listens. And while, on the surface, it might seem like little more than a stylistic exercise, there’s quite a bit of substance waiting to be found in Belly‘s textures and complex rhythms. Sure, as songs like “Swampy (Summer Jam)” prove, Food for Animals probably could write an album that would have widespread appeal, at least in indie hip-hop circles. But that’s missing the point. Remember: This was never supposed to be easy.
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