The plucky Providence poet dodges the sophomore album slump with a poignant conscious hip-hop record, backed by huge beats from Alias.
Those of us who lean to the left side of Rush Limbaugh have been living in a post-Obama haze for far too long. The battle for change was not won with his election. That was when the battle began. Yet, even before he took office, many of those who proudly wore "Hope" t-shirts [myself included] kicked up their feet and awaited the realization of our clothing slogans, while Republican pundits and lobbyists picked apart the foundation of positive action with calculated attacks of confusion and misinformation. As such, the timing for this B. Dolan album could not be more crucial.
Dolan's flawless 2008 debut The Failure was, more or less, a concept album that followed the ravings of a survivalist as he descended into madness in a post-apocalyptic bunker, with only his intelligent computer as company. The most striking tracks, Evel Knievel ode "The Skycycle Blues" and "Joan Of Arcadia", aurally fleshed out the legends of complex historical characters. It was a highly personal record, one Dolan had been developing since the early '00s, but it could have been released at any time. Fallen House, Sunken City is a more time-specific record.
The opening track "Leaving New York" samples bits of press and handycam footage of 9/11. Since the late '90s, Dolan had lived in New York, working fairly close to the twin towers. After the attacks, amidst his own growing paranoia, he moved to Providence. Combined with "The Reptilian Agenda", which samples Dick Cheney, these tracks set the tone of the album. Fallen House, Sunken City sounds like the kind of pissed-off independent hip-hop albums that flourished in America from 2002 until the fall of King Bush II, the kind that played their part in the election of Barack Obama and fostered a culture so desperate for change that, for a fleeting second, change seemed inevitable.
However, as 2010 gets underway, change seems to be more improbable by the day. The insurance companies succeeded in misdirecting the silent majority toward their own selfish aims, gutting any chance of comprehensive healthcare by exploiting entirely unfounded socialist fears. Even many of Obama's most puffed up t-shirt wearers and members of the Democratic Party have started to let their "fuck him, he hasn't fixed everything yet" attitude become apparent. Fallen House, Sunken City is precisely the kind of kick in the ass the hip-hop genre and, indeed, America, so desperately need.
That said, the album is not all about unflinching political statements, drawing parallels between our current state and the sunken city of Atlantis. Dolan rips on the lack of accountability of corporate interests in "Fifty Ways to Bleed Your Customer", and the sad state of self-serving, stagnant hip-hop in "Mister Buddy Buddy" and "The Fall Of T.R.O.Y", the latter featuring additional rhymes from P.O.S. and Cadence Weapon. All of those tracks make Fallen House, Sunken City an organizing album, one that adds to our culture rather than merely profiting from it. Dolan stands accountable, daring artists to go farther and fulfill their potential as artists and citizens.
There is only one track that recalls The Failure's finest moments. Like "The Skycycle Blues" and "Joan Of Arcadia", in "Marvin" Dolan tackles the subject of Marvin Gaye, leading up to the soul singer's murder by the hands of his own father. Regrettably, "Marvin" is the only time he truly explores his storytelling ability on the record. Dolan has an incredible knack for entering the life of his subjects, and describing the gritty details of the successes and downfalls from the inside out as if he witnessed them all himself. Those moments are when he is at his most compelling, although, if there was any time to make an honest, socially conscious hip-hop record, now is it.
Considering the thoroughly gloomy subject matter, Dolan's decision to make a full-length with Alias producing all of the beats was inspired. As of late, Brendan "Alias" Whitney had been moving in a more downtempo and electro-pop direction, in light of collaborations with his brother Ehren and mild vocalist Tarsier. However, for this record, Whitney reinvested himself in his early '90s hip-hop roots.
The instrumentals are dark and bass-heavy, with all the retro synth and boom-bap action you can bust a move to, and the odd low-bitrate sampling that brings to mind early Buck 65. "Earthmovers" almost breaks out into old-school drum and bass. Whitney sounds comfortable in his first attempt at producing an entire album for an emcee, seemingly happy to have an excuse to push the ambiance that much farther, rather than being solely responsible for it.
Whatever magic Eric B. and Rakim had is nothing compared to B. Dolan and Alias. In a world growing more cynical by the day, Fallen House, Sunken City is a beacon of hope, as empowering and cerebral as it is worthy of bumping and grinding. It is a powerful statement, every bit as important as Brother Ali's Us. In a perfect world, this is where all hip-hop would be, and with the release of this album, the world is that much closer to realizing the change within its grasp.