After a lengthy hiatus, New York’s most progressive hip-hop troupe return to show us that the battle between man and machine is still raging.
The genesis of Anti-Pop Consortium’s latest album comes after, some will assume, major personal shifts in the group. After the release of 2002’s Arryhthmia, the New York avant-hop brigade disbanded amid reports of internal dysfunction, reports that turned out to be a little exaggerated. As it turns out, Fluorescent Black is nothing more than a culmination of natural progressions, expanding ideas and some well-deserved downtime, and that in itself is reason enough to herald its arrival with due celebration.
What’s most striking, immediately, is how unfussy it sounds. Compositions tend to hover between two and four minutes, and use economy to their absolute advantage. Not one single word is wasted, as you’d expect, even when they’re creating something of a sing-along on "Apparently". Amid talk of BlackBerrys and encroaching technological claustrophobia, some of Earl Blaize’s most direct and sparse beats crackle underneath the typically virtuosic vocal deliveries – a collision of not only mind and matter, but hips and shakes as well.
Indeed, the meeting point between man and machine is one tirelessly explored by this intrepid quartet, and provides much focus for Fluorescent Black. More so than on previous work, the balancing act between mechanised precision and effortless human luminance takes centre stage. The result of this is an absolute inability to settle, maximising the entertainment for the listener but surely deepening the intellectual well from which the Consortium can now draw. "Capricorn One" is just about unfathomable if you take the buzzing sledgehammer synths at face value, an impenetrable bastion of conniving beats and tones. Only by the reasoned, balanced, and occasionally exhilarating wordplay do we gain the human insight, and it is the tension therein that creates the most pleasure.
There is a danger that such well-reasoned compositions will end up being less than the sum of their parts when considered in the context of a whole record, so the Consortium have deemed it appropriate to stretch themselves in a popular, accessible sense. Far from Anti-Pop, they’ve luxuriated into some almost-commercial territory. The cool menace of "C Thru U", the simple (yet progressive) "Timpani", the playground menace of "Shine"… these are the moments that stick in the memory, aside from all the wizardry inherent within them.
Most surprising, though, is Sayyid’s turn on "Born Electric". Beginning with an almost parable-esque sung intro carried solely by him and some subtle accompaniment, it marks a moment of unparalleled humanity on the album. It looks as if the balance has finally tipped in favour of the humans. Blues chords and vibrato-laden emoting topple the brains and experimentation. Or, rather, they do momentarily until some feather-fingered synth chords oscillate between your left and right ears, joined by the jittering crunch of, unsurprisingly, technology of a most unadulterated concentration. It seems that, though there was hope, the battle is won by the machines.
That Anti-Pop Consortium have made this balance (or battle) a primary feature of this multi-layered master-class means that it is a constantly moving record. We are not allowed to sit still for more than one piece, lest we get trampled by the stampeding invention, wit and tight control that these champions display.