In a year short on albums and EPs, Madison emcees released plenty of memorable songs. | By Henry Solo and Scott Gordon
While it felt like a boom year for hip-hop in Madison, or at least a continuation of momentum that's been building for the past couple of years, 2017 was a fairly lackluster year for hip-hop albums and EPs on the local front. Hip-hop artists in Madison still put out a lot of worthwhile music, but it's decidedly been a year of singles. When we were assembling our top 20 Madison records of 2017 list, we noted the lack of hip-hop albums, and that maybe does a disservice to what has in fact been an exciting period for the genre in town. So here's a rundown of the best loosies, singles and one-offs of Madison hip-hop in 2017.
On a track reminiscent of A Tribe Called Quest's hit "Can I Kick It," Oakland native and UW-Madison student Basi makes compelling use of a repetitive rhyme scheme. In the first verse alone, he mostly rhymes words ending with "-al" ("My n***** say I'm influential / found my heart in the instrumental") and later the -ee sound "In hell out here, I gotta leave / Won't fail, won't fall. I'm not a tree." This kind of rhyme-intensive style, rife with wordplay and extra vocal emphasis added on each rhyming word, has been Basi's consistent approach thus far. But on "MakeAChange," and his just-released album Skylord, he pushes that approach to new heights. He's as confident as ever, but tracks like "MakeAChange" also show a more sentimental side of Basi, which somehow only makes his rhymes more incisive and direct. On this track's chorus, more than ever, he also embraces melody in a way that slows the track's forward march, creating some breathing room before he speeds back up again in the song's second-half. Basi collaborated with hip-hop ensemble ME eN YOU on the production here, with a slick snare pattern giving Basi a sturdy platform and the sweet keyboard melodies and guitar riffs furthering the song’s natural buoyancy.
A short performance from Gretchen Carvajal, aka Bello, was one of the highlights of this year's Line Breaks festival, an annual showcase from UW-Madison's First Wave program. The singer/rapper/multidisciplinary artist's set featured a new collaborative track with UW grad student knowsthetime, the delicate but enveloping "Rewind." Between two aching sung passages, Bello delivers a subdued verse that hints at all the turbulence under the mundane fronts people put up: "I bet a smoothie that the reason we are hiding is the same / I bet the reason we be hiding is insane." There's nothing hurried or wordy about it, but the lyrics manage to create a lot of contrasting layers of unease and relief, and both vocals and theme fit beautifully with the ambient textures knowsthetime has been exploring lately.
Broadway Muse, "Writing Session"
Now back in her native Chicago, Broadway Muse, real name Taneisha Broadway, left us this ars poetica-esque track (and a few other solid singles) before she left Madison. On "Writing Session," Broadway sets her fiercely skillful delivery over a slow, undulating beat, as the lyrics explore those moments in the creative process where the artist is fully absorbed and the output is plentiful: "I'll get you out of that writer's block / I'll get you hotter than hot enough," goes one refrain in the song. From the start, the song uses sex as a metaphor for the relationship between artist and muse. "Buddy hit my line talking, 'what you doing later ?' / told him, 'I'm prolly doin you,' just to be frank with it / Told him we got pink matters to tackle I got a track we can settle, and unravel its many faces / Or plain basic; anxious, to see how many ways we can paint old places new stages." Broadway's verses jump fluidly between that metaphor and a focus on craft: "Change position, plot thicken into fireworks / I come to body work / I know how sentence work / essay writing, edit verse until it had enough / I got the magic touch / young thriving gifted Blackest stuff." Many authors have reflected on the creative process, but few do it as wisely as Broadway does on this track.
Rob Dz, "Been Around The World"
Longtime Madison MC and spoken-word artist Rob Dz gave us one of the more improbable releases of the year. His 53-track Yacht Hop mixtape piles together a slew of soft-rock, R&B and pop songs, applying only minimal production flourishes, and in lieu of DJ drops or what have you, Dz proclaims "spuh-LAY-ush!" a lot. Fortunately, Dz not only made a giddy summer soundtrack (it was released in July), but also unleashed a lot of pent-up rhymes after a period in which he's focused less on rapping. On "Been Around The World," Dz takes Lisa Stansfield's 1989 hit "All Around The World" and uses it for a moment of reflection: "Had some conversations and situations / Had some deep infatuations / But I really need something real / Cause that's the only way I feel that my heart'll really heal." It's one of many brief verses throughout the record that let us know Dz's charm and sincerity are still very much intact.
Bay Area native and First Wave student Jonnychang's strength as an emcee has been carefully crystallizing his own personal experiences into forms that are just general enough to be accessible, but still personal enough to be stirring. On the short and sweet love song "hide," Chang mixes past and present like complementary colors. "Ma told me to find someone I wouldn't have to hide with / Ride or die she pump the aux, we silent on the highway." Chang juxtaposes scenes from past and present, without giving too much detail, to show how relationships casts ripples that are felt at all times. His slow, almost slurred vocal style and the dreamlike instrumental inject a tinge of nostalgia into the song's lyrics.
Kenny Hoopla, "Waves"
Though he's a gifted rapper, there's not that much identifiably hip-hop about Kenny Hoopla's mesmerizing song "Waves." Over producer Taxpurposes' chiming, clean-toned electric guitar arpeggios and a simple drum groove, Hoopla sings cinematically about coming to terms with trauma and one's mental health, and, how, in some cases the only way out is to just let them take out you like a riptide "and [take] the long road," rather than struggle. In the refrain he sings, "They could never write my stories / You could never drown my worries / Just a faint silhouette always caught in the waves." The most exhilarating part comes in the song's second half, where the song breaks down before Kenny Hoopla goes back into the refrain. But this time he adds layers of vocals that thrash against one another like, well, waves. This song, a possible turn toward melody and rock, shows Kenny Hoopla getting a lot more confident as a songwriter, and suggests he's beginning to come into his own as an artist as well.
King Retro, "100 Backwoods"
Few artists this year were more confident and uncompromising in their vision than the young MC King Retro, real name Branden Higgans. Convinced of the untapped artistic potential of trap music and the power of psychedelics, specifically LSD, Higgins has concocted a form of music he likes to call "trippy trap." At times his style verges on actually being psychedelic, but just as often he makes trap music with lyrics that happen to reference LSD and other substances. "100 Backwoods," though one of the more conventional King Retro tracks so far, showcases Higgans' natural, effortless flow and deceptively witty lyricism, over an insidious piano-driven beat that crawls through the ears. "I fuck with chemicals but Retro ain't a chemist / N**** talking and the pistol has descended." This track also features a verse from Minneapolis-born MC Lucien Parker, who's spent a lot of time in Madison and had a productive 2017, releasing two EPs.
Ra'Shaun, "No Questions"
MC and singer Ra'Shaun's 2016 debut EP, Kolors, struck a balance between sugary hooks and hazy production, and this year he followed up with a handful of singles. His recent tracks all have their merits and show a young artist exploring a variety of sounds, but "No Questions" stands out for its rugged foreboding. On much of Kolors, Ra'Shaun was bubbly and endearing, but here he's all about determination and drive, singing "I don't need your handout, I'm a get that shit all by myself" and grounding the song in a refrain of "I got too much to prove / But if I lose it'll be alright / That's what they tried to tell me." A mid-track sample of a ranting Allen Iverson just drives home the message that Ra'Shaun is sure of himself and doesn't care to be trifled with.
The best single so far from Son!, a newish solo project from singer/songwriter/rapper/multi-instrumentalist Daniel Kaplan (formerly as Lord Of The Fly), blends competing emotions and perspectives through its lyrics and dynamics. At the start, "Dog" appears to be a song about the simple relationship between human and dog. The verses are from the human's perspective and the refrain from the loyal furry friend. No matter how high-maintenance its owner might seem ("Sedative, take and make me feel like I'm fine with the / Way I'm breaking / I'll fade away given time"), the dog is always there ("I'll be there always / Be where you call me / I'll be here for you"). But "Dog" seems to gradually mutate into one about a more complex, human-to-human relationship. Kaplan backs up the shades of lyrical nuance with into the instrumental's changing time signatures, alternating focalization between the cheerful guitar and mournful synths, and a shifting array of vocal styles. It's the kind of track that doesn't yield all its fruits easily, instead rewarding multiple plays and in-depth listenings with new meanings.
In addition to producing several strong tracks this year from Madison-based or -connected artists, including the above Kenny Hoopla song and CRASHprez's "Fascists Don’t Cry," Daniel Zych released some less-heralded instrumentals on his Soundcloud. On "Heartful," he starts with the unlikely combination of a trap beat and Freaks And Geeks audio clips, and builds a sort of narrative. Though the F&G clips are emotionally charged, they find the characters acting nonchalant in an attempt to mask the emotional tension. Taxpurposes’ beat, which comes in between the two moments, unpacks the emotional weight and puts it at the fore, with a thumping snare pattern, haunting vocal samples, and synth glissandos.
Trapo, "Break From Me"
After 2016, which brought the release of his debut album Shade Trees and his She EP, Trapo has held back a bit more, releasing a handful of singles ahead of his planned follow-up album Ford4Door. On many of these tracks, but especially this one, Trapo seems to be reflecting on his journey so far. Over airy synths and minimal percussion, Trapo works through a few vignettes from life as an artist, reflecting on attaining some national recognition but still having so much ahead of him. The stresses of being an artist and being himself collide, and all he can do is withstand the impact. "Looking fused in office, stayin' confused and all / Ready to throw a punch, I wonder if it would land / Wonder if this is right, wonder, I pause." In the chorus Trapo addresses himself, wondering if he needs a break from himself amidst all the transition and chaos in his life.