Awol One needs beats like Lil’ Wayne needs beats. Although he’s worked with a diverse array of producers, from Daddy Kev to Mike Nardone, none of them have truly complemented Awol’s laconic, cigarette-in-the-mouth drawl. He can finally stop searching for his Mannie Fresh, his DJ Premier, his Just Blaze ‘cause he seems to have found his foil in Factor, a mysterious Canadian DJ who is nearly impossible to find any information about. The press release says that Factor has been called “the John Peel of underground hip-hop”, which is likely a reference to him sampling from more than just old soul or funk records. Instead, Factor loops eerie flute samples (“Meat Trunk”) or picked folk-guitars (“One More Time”) which complement Awol’s more pseudo-profound side — the side that will make a song about the realization that everyone used to be a baby sound like a life-changing epiphany.
On first listen, Only Death Can Kill You sounds revolutionary, with Awol One’s slow, metered rap style perfectly complemented by Factor’s moody samples and mid-tempo breakbeats. There’s hasn’t been as consistently a downer rap record like this since The Infamous or Sage Francis’ Personal Journals. The best songs — those that don’t feature Awol’s weird, annoying rapper friends — are stunning in their aesthetic. Take “Sunday Mourning”, which samples British blues-rock band Free’s “Mourning Sunday Morning”, slowing down the vocal sample so it sounds like a lost Fairport Connection track with a breakbeat under it. Awol is a weird rapper, at times jumping from disconnected couplet to disconnected couplet (“I could never have postpartum depression / Check it out like my new default picture”) but on “Sunday Mourning” he is all newly awoken loner, musing on old women holding onto their youth and his inability to distinguish a difference between the days.
“Sunrise Sandwich” is successful for the same reason, with Awol playing to Factor’s aural melancholy. Sounding like he’s about to collapse, Awol makes lines like “Waking up again / I’m one day older / Walking to school / Droppin’ my folder” sound more profound than they really are. But Awol knows his strengths, and it’s not in his lyrics. God, no. Awol is, by rap standards, a terrible lyricist. He rarely sticks to a theme, he rarely rhymes, and when he does it’s usually words like “breath” with “death” or “loyal” with “royal.” But he has this image as a lazy, trucker-hatted philosopher which allows his subpar mic skills to pass mostly unnoticed. His friends’ skills (or lack thereof) on the other hand, are pretty obviously terrible.
There seem to be two faces to Awol One, the aforementioned everyman poet, and the Cali-stoner soundalike, who, like most rappers with a little fame, try to drag their friends into the spotlight with them. Of the guest-filled tracks on Only Death Can Kill Me, “Digital Angel”, which is probably based on the Digital Angel Corporation which caught a lot of doomsday flack for flirting with the idea of human implant technology, is the least offensive because it actually sticks to the Antichrist-as-technology theme. “Woke Up” is abominable. A song about “waking up with your face falling off”, says Awol, before a trio of his Deep
Cave Crew spit a bunch of grilled-out college slam-poet logorrhea over Factor’s much more worthy beat.
Awol said in an interview that he almost named Only Death Can Kill You Harris Pilton, which is evidence of Awol’s inability to truly take his artistry serious. Maybe it’s the Bay Area in him, but he seems incapable of releasing a solid record, one where he doesn’t try to break his creative limitations. His discography is full of interesting collaborations, but he refuses to pin himself to any certain sound, no matter if it suits him. It’s self sabotage. How else can one take a line like “Bitch ass faggot MCs / Can’t touch the [a]Wolrus / So check out the Sunday chorus” thrown, like a wrench, into the otherwise perfect “Sunday Mourning”? Only Death Can Kill You is the best record of Awol’s career, but it could have been the record he kept trying to one-up throughout the rest of his career. Instead, there’s no doubt he’ll continue to release more sadly botched missed-masterpieces.