[14 February 2012]
If you’d originally mistaken Gangrene as a one-off side project when they released their debut, Gutter Water, in 2010, you’d likely have been in the majority. Oh No was a critically celebrated Stones Throw beat-maker best known for being Madlib’s little brother and having an equally eclectic taste, crafting beat CDs entirely out of Ethiopian psychedelic rock, Mediterranean funk and whatever Egon could scrounge up in his Now-Again vaults. Alchemist, meanwhile, had spent the better part of the decade producing for groups such as Mobb Deep, The LOX and Dilated Peoples (as well as their many solo and affiliate projects) with a sort of workmanlike vigour that earned the Los Angeles native a reputation as a torch bearer for the native sounds of hardcore New York hip-hop. While both producers hailed from the Los Angeles area they seemed to be headed in perpendicular directions, choosing to collaborate by a mere chance crossing of paths.
Perhaps predictably, Gutter Water dropped as an efficient if unremarkable project, the two producers trading beats for verses in the tradition of Jaylib’s Champion Sound without providing much incentive for repeat listens. Neither artist had built a reputation for kicking notable rhymes and the back and forth nature of the production left both artists feeling stunted, with Oh No trying too hard to fit into a more traditional boom bap template and Alchemist struggling to match the vigorous approach he’d displayed a year earlier on his sophomore LP, Chemical Warfare.
All of that might make Vodka & Ayahuasca seem like a superfluous return to a dried well, but, to Oh No and Alchemist’s great credit, the pair seem to have learned from all of their previous mistakes and churned out an album that will surely rank among the most unique we’ll hear all year. By finding their inspirations in a highly inadvisable mixture of hard Russian liquor and a South American psychedelic tincture of religious import and handing the majority of the production reigns over to Oh No, Gangrene returns as a group with a more focused effort than merely “gutter rap.”
With Vodka & Ayahuasca the pair have embraced a densely abstract, cartoonish version of boom bap that opens with a hell of a face slap and keeps the flurry of verbal fists coming throughout its runtime. The production takes cues from Oh No’s more outsider productions for Stones Throw as well as Edan’s landmark Beauty & The Beast, while Alchemist draws from his time spent in studios with Dipset and Noreaga to transform himself from dull cornerboy impressionist to Sean Price-like comedian, stringing words together simply because he can and zeroing in on strange, creative turns of descriptive phrase. As an MC, Oh No feels more like a foil to Alchemist than sparring partner, but he plays the straight man well thanks to a voice that cuts through the production more efficiently. The two may still be by and large unengaging figures vocally, but it’s hard to fault their lyrical attempts this time around as they not only fit the production but provide a unique, creative experience in the process.
As a producer is where both artists shine. Oh No’s work in particular will no doubt bring a smile to the faces of those who were disappointed with his efforts on Gutter Water. “Flame Throwers” is one of the album’s most vibrant moments, with the two rappers waxing poetic about burning everything to the ground over a beat built on the sound of a woman’s teeth chattering, while the title track exudes danger with every distorted note. Relegating Alchemist to a supporting role behind the boards allows him to find ways where he can flex his strengths in a more cohesive manner, too, with “Drink It Up”‘s arena rock flavour and “Dump Truck”‘s understated menace not only fitting in but standing out among the consistently mind-melting work of Oh No. The beats are very conducive to an environment in which these MCs are smoking joints of anthrax, carrying flasks of what amounts to liquid mushrooms with them wherever they go and attempting to incite Odd Future-like chaos in their wake.
Still, despite their looser, more creative attitudes compared to Gutter Water, both artists have been rapping intermittently throughout their careers for long enough that their potential is a known quality, and, while it’s met, one would be pressing to assert the raps are the main draw. Guests Prodigy, Roc ‘C’, Roc Marciano and Kool G Rap add moments of elevation to the process but for the most part the raps mainly act as compliments to the inventive production, spiked with absurdist humour as often as possible. But the creative focus is such that the two veterans struggle to disappoint. Vodka & Ayahuasca is generally a more challenging listen than Gutter Water, but it’s definitely a more rewarding one as well and a can’t miss for fans of either artist or those curious to hear a more unique variety of sample material than the usual hip-hop fare.