Camae Ayewa, better known as Moor Mother, has an uncanny ability to inhabit a variety of genres but always seems like she’s born to create whatever project she takes on. Whether it’s free jazz poetry (Circuit City), noise (Fetish Bones), or a good old-fashioned collaborative album (BRASS, with Billy Woods), her discography is a pure delight for any music fan who can’t sit still with one particular style.
Black Encyclopedia of the Air is Ayewa’s relatively accessible take on hip-hop. Granted, this is a complex, dizzying, and challenging piece of work, but the arrangements are so expertly crafted and so tied into a retro-soul feel that the edges are somewhat easy to take. Ayewa is not so much relaxing with this album as she is letting the vibe take her away – and us along with it. So much of Black Encyclopedia of the Air is draped in smooth grooves, rubbery beats, and processed electric pianos; it almost feels like contemporary hip-hop that’s escaped into a time machine circa 1976.
Much of the album is made with support from various artists, which gives the LP a widely varied and collaborative feel. Still, Ayewa opens things up solo: the first track, “Temporal Control of Light Echoes”, is a dazzling display of her arresting spoken word, accompanied by a spacey, sci-fi backdrop and a sort of call-and-response with disembodied, vocoder-drenched partners in crime. That’s followed by “Mangrove”, with Elucid’s rapid-fire rhymes contrasting nicely with the languid, soulful musical backing, with Ayewa herself contributing verses.
As usual, Ayewa has exquisite taste in collaborators. British rapper Brother May contributes to the mesmerizing “Race Function Limited”, which features stinging commentary on war, race, and class struggle. “They’re covering the truth to cover up their tracks / Deceiving the troops / They send them to Iraq / Twenty-one-gun salutes/That’s what their mother gets back.” On “Shekere”, Ayewa slips comfortably into a soulful groove, thanks to the welcome presence of violinist Saydah Ruz (low in the mix, but perfectly placed) and Iojii, who shares the mic with Ayewa and sings the liberating chorus. “Shake it off / All my pain / Open up my arms underneath the rain.”
But despite the relative air of accessibility and glimmers of hope, tracks like “Obsidian” remind us that Ayewa is aware of the dangers of modern technology mixed with paranoia. “Tag on the face / Nobody can hide,” Pink Siifu raps. “I can’t trust ’em if we ain’t eye to eye.” The slower pacing of the arrangement only adds to the feeling of dread.
While an artist less ambitious that Ayewa might end an album like Black Encyclopedia of the Air on a pat, overly optimistic note, “Clock Fight” serves as a somewhat resigned epilogue. Featuring contributions from Senegalese percussionist Dudu Kouate and experimental vocalist Elaine Mitchener, this closing track sees Ayewa confronting her enemies with steely determination. “Done fought the kitchen clock / And the master’s clock / And the work clock / And the god clock / And the tax clock / And the witch clock / And I ain’t gonna fight no more.”
It could be her hope that this will be her last fight, but it’s more likely that there’s still a lot more to do. Moor Mother is up to the task, and Black Encyclopedia of the Air – while filled to the rafters with soulful grooves – is a testament to determination in the face of oppression.