Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Last of the Independents

Mixtapes – everybody's got one. Okay, not everybody, but I think we can all agree that this particular art form is undergoing a definite resurgence. Some would argue that this is a proper renaissance, with what was once a distinctly underground phenomenon finding its way to new ears thanks to the magic of digital distribution. Consequently others would argue that it's a death knell for yet another classic hip-hop touchstone, ironically for the very same reason.

Me? I'm a bit of a pragmatist, so I am content to sit back and watch this paradigm shift in action without getting my panties in too much of a bunch. Assuming, of course, that I find the end result enjoyable.

The Browncoats Mixtape, the newest release from Adam WarRock and Mikal kHill of The ThoughtCriminals, is an ideal example of this next gen concept. Not only does it channel the classic DIY ethic of the mixtapes of yore, but it manages to use the nerdcore parlance of sci-fi fandom to push the project into exciting new territory.

Browncoats starts off with the perfect setup, a slice of Kaylee/Shepherd Book dialog ("Come With Us Intro"), that segues into proper opener "Firefly," a song that captures the strength of beauty of both the titular series and its infectious theme music. It's a statement of purpose that is easily among the release's strongest efforts, and both WarRock and kHill – two guys that I have long admired for their output as well as their work ethic – hold the track down beautifully. It certainly has some additional significance even outside the confines of this mixtape, but I shall expound upon that later.

"MAL" is the first direct tribute to a member of the Serenity crew, a motif that's carried throughout the breadth of the project. Again mixing dialog clips and kHill's expertly cribbed soundtrack-based beats with Adam's stellar storytelling, it ups the energy as we move into the delicate "River Interlude." This homage to the younger Tam is a mish-mash of fiddle hooks, jangly keys and ethereal chiptunes. Adam gets ahead of himself lyrically a time or two, but he manages to maintain that requisite deep space swagger.

The shift from "River" to "Preacher Book" is expertly handled, and what would have otherwise been a jarring transition feels natural and enticing. A dash of lyrical existentialism makes for a fitting study of the most fascinating member of the Firefly family, and, though the chorus is a little simple for my taste, it is suitably touching. "Still Flyin' (Kaylee's Theme)" is as delicate as "Preacher Book" is direct, and it also signals the duo's strongest break with traditional hip-hop conventions yet. Sure, rap-singing isn't exactly unheard of – even Weezy does it – and neither is the inclusion of a delicate acoustic, country-tinged backing, but there's something about the way these elements mix with the sparse beat and crystal clear production that make this one sound particularly innovative when contrasted with more traditional mixtape fare.

The "Wash Interlude" – which reps my personal favorite space pilot – and its follow-up "Leaf on the Wind" continue this departure. With Adam exploring his breathy high-end and Mikal adding in delicate chorus vocals, it's certainly an odd duck on a rap release, but – after recovering from the initial shock upon hearing the track leaked a few weeks back – it has quickly found a special place in my heart and in my regular playlist. Though probably not the mixtape's strongest selection, it is a personal favorite for reasons too numerous to mention.

The change-up to "Independents" is a little rough, but the low-key lead-in belies an energetic delivery from both Adam WarRock and Tribe One. The spacey funk of the instrumental backing also contrasts beautifully against the song's punk rock ethos. It's another song that, while easily at home on the release, has undeniable significance outside its conceptual framework. It is also likely the very highest of The Browncoats Mixtape's high-water marks.

The "Out of Gas Interlude" takes us to "Out of Gas" featuring Canadian hip-hop superhero Jesse Dangerously. The minimalist drum tracks hits a little too brassy for my taste, and it's not exactly my favorite Jesse D guest spot, but the song still manages to satisfy with its blend of bleakness tempered with hope. Finally the "Jayne Interlude" marks our decent back to Earth, and "Vera" alby reps Mr. Cobb's preferred firearm – "a Callahan full-bore auto-lock with a customized trigger, double cartridge and thorough gauge" – with the help of The ThoughtCriminals. It's much more of a straight-ahead rap joint than many of the songs before it, but it still retains the mixtape's eclectic sheen.

Ultimate closer "Objects In Space" returns to the haunting, ethereal sounds of the deepest, darkest parts of the 'verse, but it's driving percussion paired with snippets of Whedon's own words set the stage for one of Adam's most blistering deliveries yet. Lyrically it is challenging, thought-provoking. It is, in short, a stunning, weighty ending to a thrilling ride.

There's a lot to be said about The Browncoats Mixtape. It is at once a love letter to the Firefly/Serenity property (and, by extension, its fans) and a musical meditation on the nature of independent art. It's about struggles and missed opportunities. It's about failures and untimely departures. But it's also about triumphs. Maybe not those major victories that win wars and garner fortunes, but about the real successes of the day-to-day. Making your own way, building a family, maintaining a sense of self even in the face of derision, that one perfect moment of proper realization that reassures you that you're comfortable in your own skin – these are the victories it celebrates.

Yet even beyond this The Browncoats Mixtape succeeds. Not only is it conceptually sound, but it's equally well crafted by its creators and guest artists. It sets a gold standard for the nerdcore mixtape, but, regardless of the trappings of that particular style, it is also a triumph of the broader hip-hop artistry. By abandoning soul hooks in favor of country and western flare and record scratches for the bleeps of minimalist electronica, it reminds us that there is always more to hip-hop than we may initially think.

Moreover, in its earliest moments The Browncoats Mixtape manages to make the most delightfully subversive statement I've likely ever heard in a rap track. Sure "fuck tha police" and "911's a joke in yo' town" were revolutionary statements in their time, and they continue to hold weight even after years spent floating around in the public consciousness, but the lyrical salvo of Adam WarRock's "Firefly" manages to trump all:
Maybe you weren't a fan of westerns or the FOX channel / Maybe you hated rap music; that's understandable / Maybe it opened your mind for all to see / And now the sky is a place where you long to be free.
Much in the way that geeky fan culture exists to reinforce the passions of a property's enthusiast, hip-hop culture exists to celebrate its legacy and propagate its message. There is a unique brand of pride and stewardship that I have long admired amid the heaviest of heads, but even this comes at a price. We have managed to convince ourselves across countless generations of philosophical, religious and political thought that, if an idea is to be truly strong and legitimately important, it must be sacred. And this is our folly.

I've seen many a studious rapper recoil in disgust when told by a fan that they "don't like rap, except for you." Because to be a hip-hopper is also to be an evangelist, and to be an evangelist is to be a true believer. kHill and WarRock, however, turn this idea on its ear within the mixtape's first track, and they continue to deconstruct this most fundamental ideal throughout The Browncoats Mixtape.

They admit the unthinkable: that it's okay not to like rap. But therein lies a glimmer of hope. Just as it was okay for future fans of Firefly to come into the show with no prior understanding of or particular fondness for westerns or the space opera, it is also perfectly acceptable for non-hip-hop heads to experience The Browncoats Mixtape. Perhaps for some it will prove a gateway to a myriad of additional rap-related artists and projects, and I can't help but think that this is part of its grander design. But if you're just content with this singular exemplary musical experience, that's shiny as well.

"Staying DIY 'til we d-i-e!"


thecowinheat said...

Great review of what is probably going to be my favorite album of the year. I never enjoyed hip hop but was a big enough fan of firefly that i had to give this a listen. As a matter of fact i never even knew there was a whole genre for this type of material. The artist does such a respectful job to the source material while building upon it that its hard not to love.

Z. said...

Really glad you enjoyed the album! It represents some of Adam and kHill's best work to date, which is saying a lot as they are incredibly talented guys. I think projects like this do a service both to the fan community and to listeners at large. Hopefully it'll help you find other hip-hop that you dig as well, which is always a plus. :)