From Hockey Night to Rush, Canada has a lot to offer with regards to quality culture, but one of my favorite imports is their many unique flavors of hip-hop. That is why my first official review post of the New Year centers on three fine rap albums of Canadian persuasion. Each made its way into my possession in the waning months of 2010, and each is well worth your time.
Various Artists – Bassments of Badmen Volume 2
Hand Solo's Bassments of Badmen Volume 2 was originally released in 2003, but it made its way back to the masses last year with updated cover art and across a more diverse cross-section of contemporary formats. The tracks themselves, however, are classic Hand Solo.
Right out of the gate the comp comes in with a thematic intro (Fatt Matt & The Verbals' "Enter the Bassment (The Halifax Takeover)") that transitions quickly to the clever bombast of Fritz the Cat, Mindbender and Vangel with "Bury The Bodies." It sort of loses me for a few tracks there, but Toolshed ably picks up the slack with the phenomenal "Flash Forward," and from that point on the collection continues to run scattershot, touching on a myriad of styles and themes. From spacey head-bobbers ("The Prosecution Rests" by The IF?) to oddly surrealist electronica (Restiform Bodies' "Uh-Oh") to straight-up studious lyricism (Noah 23's expertly measured "Amnesia"), Bassments of Badmen Volume 2 hits all the high points.
The stand-out tracks for me were not entirely unexpected – specifically "Sugar Cubes" featuring Choke, Thesis, Uncle Fes and Jesse Dangerously and SJ the Wordburglar's iconic introductory joint – but the beauty of the compilation is that everyone's bound to find something that appeals to their own unique ear.
Though the game has doubtlessly changed a lot in the ensuing seven years, Bassments of Badmen Volume 2 holds up well. Thankfully, things like true talent and artistic integrity are still en vogue (at least in the underground), and the Hand Solo crew and its extended musical family recast some of their best tracks of yesteryear as the earworms of today.
Hidden Fortress – All That Is
Hidden Fortress's All That Is. The follow-up to the duo's freebie EP Third Eye Cyclops, All That Is is another thickly produced, lyrically enigmatic slice of alternative hip-hop. A mere nine-tracks deep, it still manages to make the most of the odd union that is DJ UsdNeedls and rapper nofutureface.
The opening title track comes through like a Kool Keith joint slowed to a crawl and crowned with some brilliant turntablism, and follow-up track "Good Hurt" takes that odd blend of energies and runs with it. "The Cure" brings in some glitchy, almost chiptune-style influence and powers the album to its first single "Apotheosis" featuring Toronto's Modulok. While not the strongest track on the album, it's a definite attention-grabber.
"Iconoclast," an obvious showcase song, marks the halfway-point, while "Rich Folks (feat. Planit)" succeeds a bit more on the production end than in its lyrical delivery. The waning moments of the album, however, are when UsdNeedls and nofutureface truly pull out all the stops.
"Slangshot (feat. Kaigen)" is like a musical distress call from a distant planet that comes through as a darker analog of YTCracker's recent release Space Mission. "Psychonaut" combines a delicately layered backing with reverb-soaked vocals to create a musical mind-fuck like no other, and closer "Good Bye (feat. Raven Madd)" adds a dash of brightness that is nonetheless unsettling.
Hidden Fortress are themselves a bit of a qualified recommendation from me, and All That Is even more so. If you like the unrelenting energy of horrorcore but can't abide the laughable imagery or enjoy the verbose linguistics of nerdcore but crave a more holistic, almost spiritual slant, then this is not one to be missed.
Selfhelp – Broken Shadows
Broken Shadows from Canadian rapper Selfhelp, a cat who once described this particular artistic alter ego as "a guy who complains about stuff." Broken Shadows collects remnants of that trademark social commentary clipped from the sessions that gave us 2009's Old Friends and a nearly endless parade of earlier recordings. The 20 tracks presented were among more than 50 random cuts found backed up on numerous hard drives, all of which were songs not previously released in any official capacity.
Opener "Questioning Reality" offers an interesting blend of upbeat production (provided by Fresh Kils) and Selfhelp's trademark art school rhymes, while "Mooncat & the Girls (feat. Thesis Sahib)" is an early standout that's actually proven an all-time favorite for me. There are a couple of missteps as the collection shifts gears, but the odd jazz hook of "Kiss of Death" makes for an interesting diversion, and "Humans" is both another high watermark and stands out as Selfhelp's practical musical mission statement.
It's very much hit-or-miss from that point on, and your enjoyment of the disc will likely depend on how abstract you like your abstract hip-hop. Still, the undeniable charms of tracks like lyrical chill-out "Escher's Forehead" and the heavy-handed but still satisfying "War Pigs" made for a fun listening experience on my end. Likewise, "The Rent is Too Damn High" and instrumental "Mountain Antique" really wind it down in style. Oh, and "Misguided Child" boasts a guest vocalist referred to as Kitty Pryde, which is worth something own its own.
Offering such a broad retrospective is a bit of a risky gambit and a number of these tracks don't hold up against Selfhelp's current output, but it's an interesting enough collection, particularly for the price. If you're looking for some left-of-center indie hip-hop that's not afraid of experimentation, Broken Shadows will surely satisfy.