Beats that hearken back to rap’s golden age mix with some of the most judgmental, laughable rhymes of the decade.
“The type of beats I like”, Sabdullah of Shadow Huntaz says on “Alien Prophecies”, from the group’s new album, Dark Matter, “They give me hype / sound like somebody trapped underground in the darkness, running for their life.” It has to be true. The beats, courtesy of Holland’s Funckarma, are the highlight of Dark Matter. They sound like knives banging against dripping sewer pipes, with morose synthesizers weaving through the percussion and voices. It’s the sound of something unknown looming in the black night. Unfortunately, Dark Matter is not a collection of instrumentals. Filled with mixed metaphors, weak imagery, and downright confusing lyrical quips, Dark Matter is a beast of an album, elevated by its menacing sound collages, destroyed by its failed literary ambition.
On the opener, “Then Again”, Shadow Huntaz immediately display their anxiety of influence: mid-‘80s hardcore rap progenitors Boogie Down Productions and the tribal minimalism of Eric B. A simple thumping beat pushes the song forward while swirling synthesizers create a dark ambience. The sound is immediately captivating, and there is some rare clever lyricism that at once softens the darkness and makes it more intense. “You steppin’ like your boxers’ on crooked / I took your raw shit and I cooked it”, Non, the group’s most talented member, says in a mixture of comedy and provocation, giving the nightmare fuel by conflicting with the song’s gloominess.
From here, however, Dark Matter trades in smart wordplay for the guilt-ridden awkwardness of a preacher’s homily. Shadow Huntaz throw agency out the window in exchange for the intangible non-comfort of a deity, distracting from the often-majestic minimalism of each song. “Worship Devilz” is Christian hardcore rap, and it’s as conflicted as the description suggests. The chorus, “You worship devils, therefore get rebuked”, claims that righteousness is the answer to the problem that the verses communicate (“Life’s a prison…eternally cursed”), yet the song reaches its climax with the lyric, “If the world is normal / then God’s a perversion”. It’s the first moment in the song when God isn’t merely taken for granted as an eternally correct figure, but the image doesn’t fit. Shadow Huntaz spend three minutes warning us of the perils of questioning God, and yet ultimately take part in the very act they pass judgment on. It’s as if the group members forgot to read each other’s lyrics before going into the studio to record.
This disparate sermonizing on God only expands as the record moves forward. In “The Flames”, Sabdullah tells us, “Forget your demons, start with righteousness”, while a deconstructed funk horn section accents each word. It sounds like Sly & The Family Stone, through a glass darkly, but the lyrical mise-en-scene feels more like a backwoods church. That instrumentation is enough to forgive some of the words, but ultimately, the righteous—or really, self-righteous—message becomes unforgivable. In the next song, the same voice tells us, “I’ll wash my hands in your blood before the operation”, and then launches into one of the most needlessly graphic descriptions of torture in recent memory, delivered awkwardly with entirely laughable logic (“Oh shit, I can’t believe I forgot to give you an anesthesia”, Sabdullah says, stumbling through each word). Shadow Huntaz have damned themselves. Sabdullah goes on to proclaim, with all the pride that a born-again Christian would use to speak of his God, “I’m an alcoholic DJ”. As if listening to the preacher condemn us for a lack of righteousness isn’t tedious enough, our preacher is also a drunk masochist, and a clumsy one at that.
What’s worse than this eternally conflicted projection of fire and brimstone is how out of touch the group sounds with their lyrical subjects. They tackle issues like poverty, sin of course, and the perpetuation of the tough guy image in hip-hop, but the lyrics are poor, filled with sin, and disseminate the very image that the group seems to be up against. Often within a single line, we are given a string of signifiers with no signification because of this irreconcilable inconsistency: “Gotta live your life / if not, that’s when God will take it / Genetic tamper / that’s why you pussies get pampered / Get all pissy / plus you’re full of shit like a hamper”. They demand we put faith in God or become doomed—fuck you very much, Shadow Huntaz—but then, the group gets mad because we’ve become “pissy” for not heeding their advice. How else could an audience approach this music? It’s infuriating music, made even more so by the consistently compelling beats and the occasional lyrical gem, often courtesy of Non, such as, “The space between your ears is what I’m lost in / life got me ready for the coffin” (from “Lock, Stock & Barrel”).
A closer listening reveals the music’s subtext: the musings on moral superiority are really an attempted ownership of hip-hop authority. The image, “I’m on a Godless planet of illusion”, from “Brains”, mutates from another arduous claim of virtuousness into a position of self-proclaimed musical agency. Rap, Shadow Huntaz would have us believe, is the Godless planet. “Throw your brains in the air”, the chorus goes, suggesting that Shadow Huntaz are too good, too smart, for hands. The group wants us to praise them as the moral, spiritual, and musical highground of rap music, and, as a result, Shadow Huntaz not only alienate their listeners, but their genre as well. Yes, there is a lot of bad hip-hop out there, but most of it is more interesting than Dark Matter. For all their judgment, Shadow Huntaz are merely part of the problem.