Sami Baha burst onto the scene in 2016 with his excellent EP , Mavericks. In that work, the producer from Istanbul displayed an unbelievable grasp of American hip-hop, while still retaining experimental characteristics, exploring strange rhythmic structures, playing around with audio effects, and including certain near Eastern leanings. Despite its short duration, Mavericks saw Sami Baha investigate all these different ideas, and produce a record whose core was infused by the essence of hip-hop.
His debut album, Free For All, carries down the same path and builds upon the work of Mavericks. Despite the experimental tendencies of Baha the record is built upon the foundations of hip-hop music. And that is something that is prevalent throughout Free For All, no matter if vocals are present in the tracks or not. However, the tracks that feature the pristine guests are the ones that elevate the record as a whole. The performances here are stellar, with Dimzy providing a mesmerizing performance in the brilliant “Discreet”, while DJ Nate MCs over the alien ceremony formed through blinding synths and dropdown rhythms in “Thugs”. On the other hand, “When the Sun’s Gone” sees Yung Lean take a trance-induced approach giving the track a darker, calming energy.
This darker and at the same time, playful rendition of Baha moves the record towards the trap dimension of hip-hop. This approach makes the percussion take on a more active role, appearing alive as Baha performs the various twists and turns through the record. An example is in “Aliens” where the synths act as the pulse of the track, while the faint effects further decorate the narrative. But the biggest win through the trap perspective is the adoption of this mysterious and yet colorful aesthetic. In retaining an asphyxiating and claustrophobic quality, Baha opens the record to further interpretations. The inclusion of the near-Eastern influences is such a welcoming surprise, raising the title track to a different level. Similar is the case with the even more pronounced “Ahl El M8na” which features two excellent rappers in Dawsha & Abanob.
Within this world that Baha has constructed, one might think that there is not much room for playing around with the tempos and experimenting with other elements. That could not be further from the truth, and the producer essentially puts on a clinic regarding how one could balance between the traditional elements of hip-hop, but also step outside the boundaries. The hectic rendition of “Gambit” is such a moment of genre molding. It is an uplifting moment that is as hooky as it can be. The augmented hesitation with which some of the beats arrive adds to this narrative, and create an even more playful aesthetic, which is presented brilliantly also in “Path Riot”. Taking things to the other end, “NAH” features a dreamy sense taking in an ambient approach towards hip-hop. Heavy drums are still present, but there is a strange sense of calm that radiates from the synths. The album closer, “Cold Pursuit”, dives further into this realm reaching a hazy, cloud rap crescendo to finish off this album.
For someone who has not been around for that long, Sami Baha displays an uncanny ability of grasping the abstracts concepts that surround different musical genres. Free For All feels for the most part as a brilliant hip-hop record and can be experienced as one, but, there is also so much information running beneath the surface. From the experimental mindset towards progression and use of soundscapes to the personal influences of Baha, this is a record that remains exciting from start to finish.