At the risk of sounding like a cranky old man, they just don’t make hip-hop like they used to. It’s a common complaint, I know, and I’m hardly the first person to point out that the majority of new rap records to hit the block just aren’t very deep. Remember when folks like Public Enemy and Ice Cube and the Wu Tang Clan could drop albums that were positively epic? These were whole worlds that you could just disappear into for hours at a time, methodically decoding the lyrics, grooving on the dense, hypnotic rhythms and learning how the two could interact to create something greater than the sum of its parts. Even the best rappers seem unable to conjure that kind of depth these days. There are a few MCs I’ll always set aside time for—Ghostface, MF Doom—but for the most part, I’m just not feeling it.
Now, before you dismiss me as either hopelessly old-school or simply out-of-touch (both of which are possible), I should point out that I don’t spend too much time listening for the next “big thing” in hip-hop. It’s quite possible I’ve missed a lot by not looking too closely. But then again, if I spent a lot of time tracking down the latest mixtape maestros, I might just have missed Displacement.
Mush has been one of the most consistent underground labels for the last couple years, releasing disc after disc of some of the most cutting-edge hip-hop and sample-based electronic music. They may not be on most people’s radars, but there’s really no excuse for sleeping on these guys. iD and Sleeper (MC and producer, respectively), hailing from the hip-hop hotspot of Lawrence, Kansas, have produced a memorably debut that effortlessly outpaces most everything else currently on the racks.
There is no more satisfying sound than the crackle of an analog sample—it endows a composition with depth and gravity, a sense of history and of space. The very first thing you hear on Displacement is a spooky, distorted bassline that appears to be filtered through the world’s tinniest speaker cone—a self-consciously retro effect that sets the tone for the whole album. The aged, slightly off-kilter samples Sleeper utilizes throughout the record bring to mind the obvious touchstone of early RZA compositions such as Return to the 36 Chambers, but the rhythmically adventurous beat programming on tracks such as “Too Vague” and “Right There” also brings to mind alternative hip-hop pioneer DJ Shadow and Japanese maestro DJ Krush.
If the album falters at all, it does so not on Sleeper’s masterful production, but on iD’s rapping. He seems to suffer from the same disease that inflicts so many other indie MCs—i.e., an almost terminal lack of charisma. I suppose it’s a side-effect of devoting one’s career to fighting the bling-crazy gangstas of mainstream hip-hop, but too many talented indie MCs mistake a monotone, deathly-serious portentousness for narrative weight. Just because you’re not rocking a party, just because you’re trying to impart some actual wisdom, it doesn’t mean you can’t charm the listener—just listen to Common. I’m not asking Atmosphere to turn into Ludacris, but man, these guys could probably learn something if they paid attention. It’s all about communication.
Qualms aside, this is still a damn fine disc. Listening to it a few times in preparation for this review, I heard something new and interesting each time. Whereas most modern hip-hop is woefully shallow and thin, Displacement is pleasantly dense, the kind of record you can listen to repeatedly and not come near scratching the surface. If enough people hear it, this could easily become a touchstone for a new generation of indie hip hop auteurs. As iD puts it on “Blank”:
“Everything passes by, but some will go unnoticed,
Imagine mine, as an album of classic status,
Made just for you, hand crafted,
The only proof, is in the eyes of those handed that gem,
Who understand it, and for their own meaning,
To be one of the few that need no reason.”