Thursday, July 16, 2009

Whisper to a Scream

My love of rap has as much to do with my fascination with the human voice as it does my affection for language itself. As much as I enjoy a bluesy howler or a punked-up rocker, there's just something to be said for the power inherent in the equation of one man plus one beat. But more important than rapping as a mechanism is the rapper as an instrument.

The voice can paint a picture in any number of amazing hues, but each of us has a certain single element that exemplifies our vocal delivery. In rap, this is unceremoniously pushed to the forefront.

There are fast rappers and slow rappers. High-toned rappers and low rappers. Sassy rappers and somber rappers. There are rappers that speak with intelligence and rappers who dully drawl. But when I think of Epic-1, my thoughts immediately turn to his low-key, low-volume approach to vocalizing.

So when I sat down with his debut full-length 1 – lovingly provided by my friends at EMPulse Records – I expected nothing less than the man himself to weave for me a full score of stories in his own unique timbre. And I received no less.

  1. "Dead End"
    Epic kicks the album off with the counter-intuitively titled "Dead End." Yet despite its unfortunate moniker, it's a funky cut that ably demonstrates his tight flow and fine ear for lyrical pacing. It's really a fantastic introduction to an effort that's at times laid back but never boring.
  2. "Countdown (feat. TCP)"
    Epic's trademark delivery – which I described in my notes as like "a whisper-through-a-grin" – contrasts well against TCP's mid-range growl. The beat is solid and just this side of frantic, which plays well into this song's sense of lyrical urgency. Part traditional rap braggadocio, part gamer anthem and part late-night road trip jam, it also features the first of many great guests.
  3. "The Kid Who Never Smiled (feat. The Spork)"
    Taking on the issues of bullying and its precipitant, school violence, without ever taking prisoners, "The Kid Who Never Smiled" is nothing short of visceral. It refuses to blink in the face of a fact that everyone knows but most choose to ignore. Further, it paints a perfect picture of a victim's damnable ascent to victimizer status that doesn't so much glorify as elucidate. Its pacing occasionally flounders, but it always manages to keep the listener interested.
  4. "Black Friday"
    After honing his aggro with his RPG cohorts for a couple of tracks, Epic again resorts to smoother solo fair that (oxymoronically) still stays sharp. Of course, seeing a how this song is equally about slackers and revolutionaries, I suppose that's somehow fitting. Though he rarely stretches his vocabulary, Epic's wordplay is top-notch, and "Black Friday" is an early high point of 1.
  5. "Back in Nam: Nerdcore Interlude"
    A nice nod to the Nam vets line in the previous track, this skit certainly isn't forgettable, nor, I'm afraid, is it exactly necessary. Still, it's a nice demarcation that indicates you've reached the end of the album's first quarter. I'm a long-time skit hater, but this one is better than many.
  6. "F.P.S. Confessions (feat. Conyeezy and S.O.S.)"
    Pairing an understated backing with aggressive vocals, this one sheds Epic-1's trademark whisper for a bark. Conyeezy also comes through hard, but not as hard as S.O.S., who dominates. The prayer cadence of bridge is a nice change-up that gives the joint some additional depth.
  7. "Mary Jane (feat. Quinsis)"
    I've already stated publicly that this is my favorite track of the album, not to mention one of my favorite jams in recent memory. Equal parts "Mountain Kind," Rick James and Marvel fanboyism, it's a pleasure from start to finish, and I'd be remiss if I didn't say that Quinsis nails the chorus. Given the album's meager price tag, I declare this one well worth the price of admission even on its own.
  8. "Sungem"
    RPG love songs about healers and tanks aren't exactly unheard of, but this one's a fine effort that weaves a narrative that alternates between in-game and real life. The chippy chorus can prove distracting, but Epic's gift for storytelling powers it forward.
  9. "Give and Take (feat. Kelly Morgan)"
    Kelly adds a dash of soul-funk that makes this track stand out, but Epic-1 comes as expected. Rampant motormouthery coupled with his almost whispered delivery make it hard to sing-along, but the song is so strong that you'll likely try anyway. This one is notable for its particularly non-nerdcore content, centering more traditionally on life, love and the trials of each. Sure, it gets a tad repetitive, but it makes up for it by endeavoring to be something more than expected.
  10. "So Gangster Interlude"
    The album's half-way point is marked by an over-the-top gangster fantasy starring our own Epic-1. It's snarky, well written and terse. If you feel it you'll likely find yourself wishing for more, and if you don't then know it's over quickly.
  11. "The One (feat. Logic1, ZeaLouS1 & Quinsis)"
    A posse cut based around similarly named rappers might seem a bit of a thin concept, but once the players themselves are factored in one realizes that "The One" is sure to be an amazing ride. LogicOne starts it off strong, Quinsis's chorus is on-point but not overstated and ZeaLouS1 comes back to the nerdcore fold sounding better than ever, but Epic refuses to shrink in this company. In fact he dominates and reminds us that this is his house. Possibly his best performance on the album, and certainly a fantastic track.
  12. "My Child"
    Another real world story as told through Epic's indubitable lyrical filter. Ripped from the daydreams of every abandoned son, it's sweeping, emotional and unrepentantly tender without ever sounding cheesy or put-on. The production is light, almost airy, and the song really couldn't function over anything else. In the end, "My Child" proves itself another great tale from Epic-1's library.
  13. "Sociopath"
    The polar opposite of "My Child," "Sociopath" is a sharp and breathless piece of bombast from the heart of a killer. Yet similarly, it's another example of Epic's ability to weave a compelling story (even when you aren't exactly sympathetic to its protagonist). There's a tad too much dead space at times, but it still manages to be a compelling ride.
  14. "Proud"
    And after that dose of adolescent escapism, Epic again returns to gentler fare. A quiet meditation on family, Epic talks about his dad, his brother and his cousin in clear and affectionate terms. It's the kind of cut that's a little too sentimental for some, but I give Epic much respect for having the bravery to expose such raw emotion.
  15. "Drug of Choice (ft. Schaffer the Darklord, 1080IP & YTCracker)"
    And the back-and-forth continues with another crazy posse cut. Kicking off with STD's rapid-fire sass and continuing on through excellent contributions by both 1080IP and YT, this track never lets you lose sight of its star: Epic-1, who handles the punctuating choruses and an appropriately speedy final verse. Can there be enough dope rhymes about… dope? That's debatable, but "Drug of Choice" makes its mark even in amid a schema crowded with gangsta rhymes and drug rock.
  16. "Back in Nam: Epic Interlude"
    Another skit from the anonymous war vet marks our final decent. Though I'm still no fan of non-musical interludes, this one is short and does manage to inject a little humor.
  17. "Moment of Clarity (feat. The Spork & Kelly Morgan)"
    A vocoder? Well, that's a surprise! Epic begins the album's wind-down with another track that contrasts the banality of real life with the excitement of the eternal artist. Almost a musical mission statement from a man deep in the underground, it comes through as stilted at times (from all three contributors) but still manages to channel an undeniable brand of inspiration.
  18. "O.M.G."
    "O.M.G." sees Epic representing for the often overlooked atheists and agnostics in our midst. It's an understated anthem that again reminds the listener that Epic-1 is atypical, even in the veritable musical freak show that is nerdcore. My only complaint about this track it its position. With the burden of Epic's conviction still weighing heavy in my ears, I couldn't help but think that this should have been the album-ending track.
  19. "Touch the Sky"
    But that criticism is eased when I hear "Touch the Sky," 1's proper finale. Rather than repackaging the sense of existential abandonment of the previous track, it instead pairs a pumping beat with Epic's customary whisper. It's an optimistic recollection on drunken hookups, videogames and good, old fashioned geekery that's as relatable as any of its core elements: an odd blend of party lyricism and boastful posturing with a touch of free-association. Not the album's strongest song, but still an interested way to end and equally interesting listening experience.
Last year, I was tapped as a judge for Rhyme Torrent's inaugural two-on-two rap battle. I was brought in, or so I was told, because of both my familiarity with the nerdcore community and my unbiased leanings. Looking back, however, I realize I may have judged some participants harsher than others.

At every turn, I compared and contrasted Epic's performance in said contest with "what I expect(ed) of him." You see, mere months earlier I had observed Epic at Nerdapalooza 2008. Performing, freestyling, battling and simply bullshitting around the venue he managed to bring an undeniable, indefinable level of style to every line he spit. As such, the bar was set pretty goddamn high with regard to my perception of Epic-1 at his best.

As such, I now rescind that criticism.

Because 1, you see, genuinely represents just that: Epic-1 at his best. It has its flaws, it's showing seams and its occasional missteps, same as any great album, but it truly captures the skill of the man I saw spit fire one year ago. Similarly, his guest vocalists (ZeaLouS1, Conyeezy, Quinsis, et al.) and the featured beatsmiths (The HT, WholeMilk, Myf and the like) act in kind. All this combined makes it an album that demands to be heard.

Epic-1's 1 is available now from EMPulse starting at a single buck. Just buy it.

"These are the type of things that I do everyday, and these are the games I'm committed to play."


DV said...

$1?! That makes the "buy everything Z says to buy" rule super easy to follow!

Z. said...

EMPulse is practically giving it away! ;)

James said...

Hey Z,

Have you got an alternative contact for EMPulse? I ordered the Epic-1 album from them a few days ago - following your recommendation, natch - and haven't heard anything back other than a Paypal confirmation message.

Just tried emailing info at empulserecords dot com and it bounced back with a "relay access denied" error.

I take it if the email address is down they don't know that they're getting orders in...

Z. said...

Indeed I do, James. Shoot me an email and I'll give you the deets. :)