Baroque pop artist Sufjan Stevens, Chicago rapper Serengeti and New York City electronic musician Son Lux formed this unlikely supergroup at the beginning of the decade.
Originally conceived as a small scale follow-up to their 2012 EP Beak & Claw, the full length, self-titled debut album from hip-hop, alt-electronica collective Sisyphus arrived in March of this year with little to no fanfare. Considering the talent, it's all rather puzzling. Previously named s/s/s, baroque pop artist Stevens, Chicago rapper Serengeti and New York City electronic musician Son Lux formed this unlikely supergroup at the beginning of the decade, as a sort of mutual admiration society. When the LP was announced, the question remained whether the trio’s artistic appreciation for one another was enough to keep the project afloat. It appears not.
The result is an engaging, yet wildly uneven, 11-track album that occasionally congeals despite itself. Songs are often linked with one another through resurfacing melodic themes, yet coherence is often sacrificed for experimentation. Instead of occupying the same creative space, their disjointed collaboration somewhat dilutes what made each of them so interesting to begin with. Son Lux has been relegated to the roll of background-beat liaison between the other two talents, yet his personality rarely surfaces and he seldom succeeds in assisting either artist find a creative middle-ground. After listening to the album, one has to ask where the Ryan Lott of Lanterns and We Are Rising disappeared to? The same could be said of Anticon staple Serengeti. It’s hard to believe this is the same MC who delivered those innovative, sharp as a blades rhymes on last year’s Kenny Dennis LP. That’s not to say it’s entirely a failed alliance. There are moments of clever inspiration scattered across the record, but they are a rarity.
The 2012 EP was but a tease, albeit an admirable one, with My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden guesting, as well as a contribution from Anticon label-founder Doseone. Things have moderately changed since then. Gone is the egregious auto-tune that marred the initial release and the potentially offensive name, one that recalled both the Nazi Schutzstaffel, or SS, and the Japanese SSS, or Skinhead Samurai Spirit. The project reconvened last year with a commission by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra's Liquid Music series, to accompany visual artist Jim Hodges' latest exhibition Jim Hodges: Give More Than You Take.
Stevens said of the collaboration, "We have so little in common but we have deep love for each other and we are pushing that stone together," alluding to Hodges’s gold and steel-clad boulders, the creative process of crafting the LP, and the Greek mythological tale the band references with their new name. With a connection to the art world and such an abundance of talent, it appeared everything was aligned for success. The new LP hints at what could have been, while delivering the goods sparingly. In the end, the album poses more questions than it answers.
Should the songs of Sisyphus be taken seriously, or is this all but some mere, tongue-in-cheek joke, as titles like "Booty Call", "Alcohol", and "Dishes in the Sink" seem to intimate? It’s definitely less Weird Al and Tenacious D and more Flight of the Conchords, but if this is a comedic album, it doesn’t really succeed. It’s all a bit of a polite chuckle and less of a full-on guffaw. They might have had a great time collaborating, but was there enough substance here to warrant a full length effort instead of another EP? While Beak & Claw showed signs of potential, it hasn’t been fully realized on Sisyphus. Like a jazz trio, each artist is given a moment in the spotlight to flex their individual talents with a solo interlude, but then the musical conversation seemingly comes to a halt. When they are on point though, the record is entertaining as all hell.
"Lion’s Share" places Serengeti’s deft conversational style of rapping front and center, with Son Lux dropping a ripe, head-bouncing beat in the background. The song references the 2012 prison break of convicts Joseph "Jose" Banks and Kenneth Conley from Chicago’s Metropolitan Correctional Center, although the facts have been altered a bit to suit the rhymes. The skittering beats underpinning the haunting "Take Me" accentuate the erotic beauty of Sufjan’s simple melody. With Serengeti nowhere to be found, the song breathes, unencumbered by the awkwardness an unnecessary rap interlude that would disrupt the mood. "Rhythm of Devotion" is the perfect synthesis of all three artists’ strengths. Immensely catchy and confident, the six-minute track is one of the album’s centerpieces. The driving, sexy delivery of mechanical album closer "Alcohol", displays the virtuosity of Serengeti’s rhyming skills, as he spews off a rapid-fire list of subjects encompassing everything from addiction to hollow sexual encounters. If only the rest of the album were as strong.
The scent of Steven’s chamber pop personality can be witnessed in the string section that pops up in "Flying Ace" and the woodwind and piano textures of "My Oh My", but they are all but fleeting moments. In the latter track, what does any of the lyrical nonsense mean, when Serengeti says, "Me and the wife and the kids up in the Acura / Happy as a bug in a rug, a clam in a dog / A pig in a log, a frog in a shark." Really now, that’s all he could conjure up? The infantile rhymes of "Booty Call" reference video game platforms and sex in way that seems odd coming from an adult, let alone a rapper of Serengeti’s talent, with lines like "Beauty, computy let me see that booty / Let me be your Call of Duty" and "Singing opera, candelabra/ ima get a condom, put it on my Mazda." These lines don’t exactly shout lyrical genius. Son Lux delivers some excellent low-end beats, but when paired with Serengeti’s rhymes they often prove too angular and awkward, in a way that his solo works never seem to highlight. Opener "Calm It Down" appears to wander on forever, lyrically boiled down to the three words of its title without expanding much upon that. It was a poor choice to kick off the collection of songs.
Opposites attract but rarely stay together, or so the saying goes. In the case of Sisyphus, the trio’s longevity will all depend on how commercially successful this full length release turns out to be for them and whether they feel they've exhausted their artistic chemistry or not. The publicity wheel seemingly came to a grinding halt before it even started spinning a few months ago, so that doesn't bode well for the trio. As it stands, there’s some admirable genre-defying work to be heard across the album, even if the collaboration often borders on what feels like a supergroup parody.
There are occasional moments of inventiveness, but unfortunately, they are often marred by songs that often feel like they’re going to rend at the seams under the weight of too many ideas. In turn, those ideas are presented as fragments instead of fully developed musical thoughts. Great singles don't necessarily equate a great album. The surprisingly passé lyrical content is all rather much ado about nothing, and many of the tracks seem awkwardly patched together. Creatively muzzled, the three men seem to have admired each other’s talents, but never figured out how to collectively accentuate their artistic strengths. Ultimately, it feels as if the figurative boulder they pushed up the hill came rolling back down over their good intentions.