Okay, I have a problem with Warp Records' press release that came with this record. I realize that we're not supposed to review the press releases, but I just have to vent about it a little bit. Warp, which as you might or might not know is a big 'cutting-edge' electronic dance music label out of jolly old England, has just signed Antipop Consortium, a three-man hip-hop act from New York City, and is now going around touting them as "hip-hop's first avant-garde hip-hop troupe". Without getting into any of the particulars of this album, I call bullshit on that.
Hip-hop itself is inherently avant-garde. Why don't people understand this? It's not only a form based on the deconstruction of other music -- Jamaican dub and toasting were both extremely radical avant-garde developments in popular music -- but it's also based in the West African griot tradition of transmitting news and history and folklore through story-songs. Hip-hop has proven itself to be a cultural movement of great vitality and depth, and that is just about the greatest test: what is more wild and out of bounds than a musical form that grows out of the intersection of three cultures . . . and actually creates one?
And it smacks of racism, to me, to even suggest that it took this extremely white record label to issue an avant-garde hip-hop album. What the hell would you call It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, with its dense layered samples, its off-the-hook sonic experimentation, and its take-no-prisoners lyrical attack? How about Three Feet High and Rising or De La Soul Is Dead, both of which were not just classic genre-changing albums but deceptively insightful cultural statements? Are we supposed to forget all of rap history just because Warp Records managed to sign a group?
The list of hip-hop classics that must also be taken seriously as "avant-garde" music is a long one: Divine Styler's Spiral Walls Containing Autumns of Light; the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique; the Pharcyde's Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde; Eric B. and Rakim's Paid in Full -- hell, Rakim's performance on "Follow the Leader" alone should be considered performance art of the highest order -- I could take all day, but I won't. Last year produced two great records that were more experimental than any Diamandas Galas performance: Missy Elliott's Miss E So Addictive, and Cannibal Ox's head-busting techno-rap stunner The Cold Vein. These albums make such liberal use of electronic "avant-garde" dance music (with the help of, respectively, Timbaland and El-P) that I'm surprised Warp even thought they could get away with such a bogus blanket statement.
Sorry. Rant over.
That having been said, Antipop Consortium has made a really good album here with Arrythmia. You can hear from the very beginning of the disc exactly why Warp wanted them. "Contraption" is a minute-long robot freak-out that sounds like it's right out of someone's laptop. This gives way to "Bubblz", a synth-driven sing-song funk number sporting some surprisingly great similes: "Accommodating like a remote control / Busy or empty like saving your breath to cool your soup" is trumped by "Like tits make milk / I was built on tilt / To talk with the stilts / Wild like a dragon suit / Blood-red silk / Up at the hilt / With a bottle of seltz / So it's a (w)rap, yo / Like six chicks in a quilt." They've got lyrical skills and they're not afraid to use 'em, and the beats are pretty great too.
This is especially true on the next track, "Ping Pong". This is not the first time I've heard the hypnotic cadence of table-tennis used on a record, but it's the most effective. The back-and-forth sound turns into the rhythm track, which is then graced by more what-the-hell-did-he-just-say similes like "Wreck your rep like Eddie on the L.A. Strip with RuPaul" (and if you don't know what that means then I'm not going to tell you) and verbal niceties like "My symphonic monopoly philosophy sloppily edges notes awkwardly". And everywhere you listen there are symphonic notes being edged sloppily and awkwardly, jammed by DJ Earl Blaize into every single corner to bolster the three-man flow of Ball Beans, High Priest, and M.Sayyid.
One of the tightest tracks here is the graduate-school project "Mega", which starts with a car noise, turns into a needly electro-jam in which Beans spits my favorite line of the year so far: "My brains burst / Spraying pure freon / On Celine Dion" (we should be so lucky), after which Priest mutters "Ew" really low in the left channel. But then things change at about the 1:03 mark, and it turns into a symphonic monopoly: we're right in the middle of a Carmina Burana-like interlude with everyone singing "Mega! Mega!" This then pauses, and we hear a beautiful operatic voice warbling "Me-e-e-e-e-e-ga!' An audience bursts into applause, we head back to the first style for a verse or two, and then it's all over as the audience applauds again and an announcer says, "Well, that was faaaan-tastic! Let's have a big round of applause!' This is all before the 2:30 mark, people.
Arrythmia is a surprisingly diverse album. There are goth workouts like "We Kill Soap Scum" (which I think is about a guy who really wants to kill soap scum) and the Lipps,-Inc.-meets-Miami-bass-produced-by-the-Orb dance track "Ghostlawns". "Conspiracy of Myth" is an atmospheric crystallist grindout. The kick-ass "Human Shield" only pretends to be straightforward before turning into a sound-effects extravaganza with elements of glitchcore. We even get a little short story, the narrative of "Z St.", in which the narrator steers clear of undie-clad hotties when they ask him about how to score some coke, only to be glad when it turns out that they're undercover cops.
I can only think of two criticisms of this album. One is that it's kind of all over the place. I usually appreciate this, but only when there's something holding it together, a unifying tone or philosophy or something. The Cold Vein was all over the place, too, but with a sadness and a desperation behind the sonics that made it into a confessional hymn. There's nothing here like that. When Anti-Pop flips the script, it stays flipped, and they sound like a whole new group every new track. This leaves the album without a heart . . . but do we really need heart when the head is so together? It's next-level stuff, people, and seriously avant-garde in all its particulars. Arrythmia may not be the first album to bear that description, it's one of the best hip-hop albums you'll hear all year.
The other thing I don't like about this album is its "short" running time: 43 minutes. Maybe this was a good idea, "too much of a good thing" and all that. But anything under 50 minutes should really be considered an EP in these compact disc days, don't you think? Come on, dudes -- take a year off, spend a lot of Warp money, and come up with a really meaty 75-minute masterpiece. In the meantime, this will do quite nicely indeed.