The Midwest hip-hop collective Doomtree is enjoying a fine moment. Fresh off the fantastic Fugazi/Wu-Tang mash-up record, 13 Chambers, which got the group some fresh attention, the group now follows that success with their latest full-crew record, No Kings. The collective has been building inertia for years, with great records by Sims, Mike Mictlan and Lazerbeak, Cecil Otter, Dessa, and –perhaps mostly notably – P.O.S., whose records have received the highest profile, not to mention his work with groups like GAYNGS.
But despite their patient growth, No Kings can’t help but come at an opportune time for these artists. With the shine still bright on 13 Chamber, this is a real opportunity for Doomtree to grow their brand, and show people just how talented they are, how vibrant and innovative their brand of hip-hop can be – and they do just that on this great new record.
Part of the reason, though, might be because it feels like there’s no pressure to succeed, whatever that might mean to them now. Instead, No Kings is first and foremost a celebration of the decade this collective has spent together, the “ten years in our lane” as they call it on “Bangarang”. So while this may be a step out into the spotlight, it’s first and foremost a look back at how they got here. In this way, No Kings offers a strangely different kind of hip-hop confidence, one that both aligns with genre braggadocio and completely breaks from it. As the title implies, this isn’t about hierarchy or being on top – in fact, it may be more about knocking the top down and letting them live with the rest of us on terra firma – so while Doomtree exudes confidence here, and slays pretenders whenever it can, this isn’t about ego. It’s much more about unity, the power of a group with a shared vision.
It also helps that the performers here complement each other so well. Lazerbeak and Cecil Otter, with help from P.O.S. and occasionally Paper Tiger, put together a group of grimy, thumping beats that stand where the four corners of street rap, club rap, punk rock, and pop music meet. Early track “No Way” is built on palm-muted guitars and syncopated drums that make for an eerie yet powerful sound, so when Sims starts the song off with his verse, he bursts onto the scene, as if he rose out of the beat itself. “Bolt Cutter” moves between huge tumbling drums and spare piano lines, between paranoid chaos and quiet calm. “Punch-Out” is a straight-up street bumper, a squawking update on ’90s rap beats, while “The Grand Experiment” blips and pounds out electronic elements. The whole set of beats are thick, occasionally crowded, but also full of surprise flourishes, deep rhythm, and fantastic on-a-dime turns.
Over those beats, the rappers themselves prove just as versatile. P.O.S.’s edgy lyricism plays perfectly against the tumbling start-and-stop of Otter’s rhymes, which works well with Mike Mictlan’s west-coast influenced power raps, which juxtaposes Dessa’s tuneful, sultry raps and Sims’s slithering, quick-fire lines. There’s common ground in their styles, but no two sound alike. And while P.O.S. is unsurprisingly great here, knocking out a verse late in “Bolt Cutter” and coming to life with spit and fire on the churning “Beacon”, Sims and Mike Mictlan steal the show here. Dessa turns in her share of moments – check out her verse on “String Theory” – as does Cecil Otter, but Sims and Mictlan are on fire. Sims steals “Bangarang” when his verse builds speed and inertia and the words just flow, squeezing all he can out of one vowel sound the whole time. It’s technically perfect rapping, but it feels more dynamic and charged than that. Mictlan, for his part, storms onto the scene at every moment here. “Punch-Out”, which the two share, is probably the best moment, with Mictlan burning through the first-half of the track with the sneering conviction of a young Ice Cube, before Sims feeds off that energy in the second half.
“Man, I should just move to the sticks,” Sims spits, “and let these alpha males roll in their own shit.” But then he denies that (“I’m a citizen too”), and therein lies what’s great about No Kings. Doomtree has a conviction for the way it does things, and spends this record both celebrating their accomplishments and calling out the ills they see around them. The rhymes sound unified here, the front strong, while the beats hit with a confrontational charge. However, none of this is to keep the rest of us out, instead it’s meant to jar us awake, to hopefully see what they see, the good and the bad, the struggle as well as the success. This isn’t Doomtree against the world; it’s Doomtree trying to invite the world in. And No Kings is, front to back, a hell of an invitation.