Sub-Conscious: Subtalk

[28 March 2006]

By Michael Frauenhofer

I don’t really know a lot about Sub-Conscious, but I’ve listened to the album a few times. And judging by his previous sales figures, chances are pretty good you don’t know a lot about him either. Not that this is necessarily indicative of the quality of his music; it’s more reflective, in a positive sense, of his choice to eschew many of the emptier values of mainstream gangsta-gangsta, and, in a negative sense, of the difficulty of breaking into the grueling underground hip-hop scene.

There’s not a glut of information floating around the internet on Sub-Conscious just yet either, but there’s enough. I could read a few articles, pick out some choice facts, and drop them authoritatively here so I look pretty smart. You’d gain a quickly-appropriated “researched context”, and while this article might be a little bit less sincere, I’d gain a nice little opportunity to pat myself on the back for passably bullshitting. From what I’ve gathered in my reading so far, Sub-Conscious (whom all the cool kids like to call SubCon) has been floating around the New York underground for some time now, working in a group called Sight Beyond Light, going solo and releasing a mixtape-ish full-length, a string of singles, and a disc called The Holdoverz to build/slake the hype for the release of this, his first official “album” album, Subtalk. The cover is a soulful little sketch of a tree-hugging child in headphones, so you know he’s got to be a “conscious” rapper. If the photos I’ve seen are to be believed, the child on the cover is not in fact SubCon himself (at least not anytime recently), although SubCon may or may not enjoy wearing headphones and hugging trees in real life.

That’s about it for context here then (isn’t that what reviewing should be about? Cutting past the hype, or lack of it, and focusing on the musical document itself?) The copy I got to listen to myself had those recurring, annoying little “this copy is for promotional use only” voiceovers, so I missed some of the words, but what I did hear was very nicely executed. SubCon’s flow is punchy and rhythmically strong, the lyrics are fairly interesting throughout, and his delivery is brightly energetic and dexterous. Nothing ground-breaking, but he does his thing well. He’s not bad with metaphors, either; “You outta place like overweight soccer coaches” won’t make anyone laugh out loud, necessarily, but it draws an inner “mm-hmm, clever”. The line “Leave these cats nervous like Bart Simpson on Focusin” is better, maybe even pulling a smile from the serious underground cats.

The production is similarly consistent throughout, with a hard East Coast feel and some nice sampling. “Gaintaining” is a swirly-bouncy, sample-driven laid-back, glum anthem for the struggling MCs; “Gabriel’s Trumpet” is a stuttery, fluttering fast-paced ramble, mixing trumpet punches and abruptly brief snatches of vocal samples; album-closer “Don’t Go” is one of the highlights, a contemplative, soulful track that ends things nicely with the expected impeccable flow from Sub-Conscious and an interesting breakdown at its close. All things considered, while the production doesn’t necessarily jump out and steal the spotlight, it nevertheless provides strong support for SubCon’s lyrics.

That’s the only real problem here: the album is consistent, but there’s nothing that really distinguishes it from anything on a lot of other solid underground CDs. I reviewed the new Third Sight album relatively recently; the focus here is similarly placed on simple, no-bullshit dope beats and rhymes (skits and other extraneous ephemera kept to a minimum, track after hard track filling out the album’s running time), but the general feel here isn’t quite on the level of that album. It’s still nice, though, and pretty dope: genuinely tight, if not mind-blowingly amazing or particularly memorable. Having heard only a few Sub-Conscious tracks going into this, I must say he’s impressed me, and I’ll probably be following his career for a little bit and listening further in the future. Underground hip-hop fans should probably give this at least a listen, and choose to move on or not to a closer exploration from there.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/sub_conscious_subtalk/