Album of the Week: Denmark Vessey’s Martin Lucid Dream (2015)

As we enter the 2020s, one of the most interesting and productive rap scenes to keep an eye on is the Earl Sweatshirt school of artists like MIKE, Medhane, Maxo, Liv.e, Pink Siifu, Akai Solo, Adé Hakim, and others who form a loose collective of bright new ideas in music, and have released a plethora of outstanding projects and collaborations (each word links to a Spotify stream of a great release).

Now, when I say “Earl Sweatshirt school”, I must clarify that Earl isn’t really a ringleader for these young artists. But, in addition to frequently collaborating and touring with them, his footprint on their music is indelible. The weed-drenched, emotionally direct and proudly black music that Earl has been making since his teenage years is reflected in this newer scene.

So where does Denmark Vessey fit in? The Detroit rapper and producer is older than all of these artists and isn’t strongly aligned with any of them, except maybe Earl, with whom he has collaborated several times. But I think his music forms something of a missing link in considering what has influenced this new scene.

Enter Martin Lucid Dream. This album is like a blast of fresh air – equal parts hard-hitting and tounge-in-cheek. Guilty Simpson comes repping Detroit out the gate with a brash “Warning”, then on the title track we hear Denmark rap for the first time. Over a kaleidoscopic beat, Denmark strings along stream-of-consciousness bars before Little Brother affiliate Von Pea steps in with “I wrote an article for Lifehacker / It simply said ‘Don’t Be a Rapper'”.

Vessey clearly isn’t afraid to switch things up. “Nerd N***as” closes with a long speech from the 1972 blaxploitation film The Final Comedown, and “Chemtrails” features no rapping at all, only singing. The variety in sound and concise runtime seems like a potential blueprint for a project such as Medhane’s FULL CIRCLE.

The greatest song on Martin Lucid Dream comes last with “Everyday”. Over a fantastic flip of Leon Ware’s “Rockin’ You Eternally”, Denmark and fellow Detroit rappers shine effortlessly. And before you know it, Martin Lucid Dream is over. Reissued in 2017 with the bonus tracks “Katt Williams” and “Snowing in L.A.” (prod. by Earl), the album (or EP) still barely scratches a half-hour. Brimming with fresh ideas nearly 5 years later, this is one of the tightest and most underrated underground rap projects of the 2010s.

Stream Martin Lucid Dream on Spotify.

Album of the Week: E-40’s Poverty and Prosperity (2015)

In 2015, E-40 had spent the past 5 years releasing double- and triple-albums (The Block Brochure had a whopping six installments). But then, the 47 year old rapper decided to switch things up by releasing an anomaly in his discography: a 7-track EP with themes of family, introspection, and god-fearing christianity.

So here’s an easy litmus test for this one: If a 7-minute version of “Across 110th Street” as interpreted by E-40 sounds good to you then you’re in luck, because that’s exactly how Poverty and Prosperity starts. No, he doesn’t sing the chorus (that’s Park Ave.), but his repurposing of Bobby Womack’s classic anthem into a tribute and commentary on his hometown of Vallejo, California is a surprising and welcome start to this release.

More surprises abound: The soulful Mike Marshall (who sang the iconic chorus of “I Got 5 On It”) helps turn “The Way I Was Raised” into a gospel dirge; “Appreciation” is practically pop country! Although its Uncle Kracker sheen may be overly saccharine to some, the sincerity of “Appreciation” pours through 40’s preaching. “I’ve been speakin’ these real deep messages for many moons, man,” he begins, before addressing the importance of loving family, difficult relationship issues, and how to help a friend addicted to drugs. Almost surreal in its honesty, it stands as one the more unique rap songs I’ve heard from a seasoned veteran and is a successful experiment in genre-blending.

Poverty and Prosperity is not without a classic Yay Area slapper. “Gamed Up” truly endows the listener with indispensable “game” (meaning knowledge or wisdom): “You can hate / Or you can learn”. But my favorite track is the closer, “The End”. Beginning ominously with a sample of Revelation 1:7, 40 then enters this dramatic track by reminiscing on a lost friend. In the second verse he rebukes Satan while owning up to his own habits (“Show me where in the Good Book say I can’t smoke a Taylor!”).

E-40 has always been in his own lane, but his messages of love and devotion are universal. As the man himself would say, “I ain’t above you, I ain’t below you, but I’m right beside you.”

Stream the EP on Spotify.

Archive: June 27: 20 Years of DJ Screw’s “Da Streets Ain’t Right” Freestyle Session

Originally published on Monday, June 27, 2016 on ethancreis.blogspot.com

Houston’s late DJ Screw will forever be a legend. He pioneered the “Chopped & Screwed” style of hip-hop, in which the tempo of a song is slowed down significantly (screwed) with short sections repeated and/or cut (chopped). Houston Press has described “June 27”, a 37-minute freestyle session from that date in 1996, as “Houston rap’s Sistine Chapel ceiling”. This is an apt description of the monstrous track, on which eight rappers freestyle over a dazzling beat (Kriss Kross’s “Da Streets Ain’t Right”, properly screwed) to celebrate rapper DeMo’s (alternately known as D-Mo) birthday. A screwed sample of Biggie’s “Warning” plays over the track before Big Moe enters to host the freestyle session/birthday party. In between every rapper, Moe performs a quick verse in his signature half-rapped, half-sung style. Moe’s baritone croon is huge, almost elegiac, but the positive energy he exudes introducing his friends negates that description.

Big Pokey steals the show with a dazzling freestyle verse, providing what would become the sample for Paul Wall’s hit “Sittin Sidewayz” early on in a particularly ferocious run that lasts about 6 minutes. When the beat’s fried synth melody enters it seems to energize Pokey like some aural electric charge. He shouts out his friends, teams up with Tom Sawyer and rhymes “rabbit” with “dagnabbit”. The way he puts emphasis on his rhymes is stellar, especially for a freestyle: “Let them boys know, flip phone I be foldin em Fillin’ up my foreign ride with petroleum”. One more standout section: “Ain’t no preppin in my corner / Cause you’s a goner / I’m smoking marijuana / Broke em off when I snatched my diploma / I walked across the stage / I turned the page / no more minimum wage / And my corner got paid“.

Yungstar is another essential player here, flexing a quick wit and southern slang on two verses. He shouts out “baked potato with chives” in both. Before closing it out he references his “Playstation in the car / Sippin on barre / TV VCR / With the star”. Not all of the other rappers have incredible verses, but somehow, for 37 minutes, the sound of a bunch of guys hanging out and rapping becomes completely transcendent despite a lack of lyrical direction or a changing instrumental. The sound is not professionally mastered and there are obvious flaws in the recording quality (which somehow works to the track’s advantage). Yet this is more a perfect snapshot of the lives of these friends than anything that could have been commissioned by a record executive. I was 15 months old when June 27 was recorded, but it still resonates today.

The rest of the June 27 tape consists mostly of remixed tracks, all of which are excellent. Bone Thugs’ “Crossroads” is transformed into a swirling elegy. I never thought a Too $hort song would make me emotional, but the syrupy “Gettin’ It” screw, with its “I’d Rather Be With You” flip and chorus from P-Funk members is just inspiring. Excellent chops in the second verse, too. “High Til I Die” is a superb 2Pac track that I wouldn’t know about if not for this tape, and Screw even takes on reggae (yay!) with great results on “Rollerskates“. June 27 is a classic Screwtape, and I have no doubt that its towering freestyle session will be bumping throughout the world today. Rest in peace to DJ Screw and Big Moe.

Listen to the June 27th freestyle here.