Verses From the Abstract: Horrorcore, Trauma, and Falling Up | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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L to R: Clipping and Open Mike Eagle

Verses From the Abstract: Horrorcore, Trauma, and Falling Up

Featuring Clipping, Open Mike Eagle, Homeboy Sandman, Cakes Da Killa, and More

Nov 13, 2020 Small Bills Bookmark and Share

On October 8, some joker on Twitter (I won’t embarrass them by naming names/handles) posed the question—“who you think will have the better October album?”—with pictures of the covers of Clipping’s Visions of Bodies Being Burned and Open Mike Eagle’s Anime, Trauma, and Divorce underneath. Both artists caught wind of the tweet; Mike responded first with “we both tight. no need,” and Clipping retweeted him, responding “listen to the homie Mike and stop answering this question in our mentions.” Always nice to see that kind of diplomacy in hip-hop, but also, Mike’s very right. As it turns out, both records fucking rule, but in completely different ways.

Visions of Bodies Being Burned, a companion piece to last year’s There Existed an Addiction to Blood, is an instant horrorcore masterpiece. Never has the group’s marriage of noise squall and virtuosic flow sounded so natural, nor so expansive; on “Eaten Alive” (which references Tobe Hooper’s utterly batshit film of the same name in both its lyrics and its clattering sonics), the trio even collaborate with Tortoise’s Jeff Parker and improv percussionist Ted Byrnes to expand their palette into freer, jazzier realms than anything else yet heard from them. The whole thing is sounding fire as I try to finish this column on Halloween night (give me a break, pandemic is still on hard and y’all should stay home more), but it’ll sound just as good tomorrow, in a month, or in 10 years.

Anime, Trauma, and Divorce, meanwhile, is a much more intensely personal record, and more visceral than any of Open Mike Eagle’s prior work for that fact. Mike deals with the titular concerns head-on, and it gets pretty raw. That said, it’s not a navel-gazer, and often still funny as fuck: “The Black Mirror Episode” is laugh-out-loud funny and painfully relatable at the same time, and “Sweatpants Spiderman” is brutal listening for anyone who, like both me and its author, is surfing the edge of a hipster midlife crisis.

Like Open Mike Eagle’s record, Homeboy Sandman’s latest Don’t Feed the Monster is a surprisingly heavy hearted emotional rollercoaster from a veteran MC known for their sense of humor. The album starts with “Trauma,” the most squrmingly personal thing Sandman’s ever done, an inventory of the youthful pains and confusion which have informed his existence and relationships to date. Kicking off this way colors the rest of the album, which seems powered by a hunger for growth. Not that there’s no room for old-fashioned goofin’ in growth: the back-to-back drop of “Hello Dancer” (featuring some great mush-mouthed spitting from Quelle Chris, who also produced the record) and “Waiting on My Girl” lighten it up quick. Still, there’s a pathos to Don’t Feed the Monster that lends the album a unique weight in his catalog.

Don’t Play It Straight, the new album by Small Bills (the duo of New York rapper E L U C I D and Michigan producer The Lasso), doesn’t get as deep into heartbreak and hurt, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t heavy. There’s a certain underground hip hop classicism to the production here, recalling Dilla and Doom on a cursory listen, but there’s also a dubby, punkish edge akin to Adrian Sherwood’s collaborations with the New Age Steppers or Pop Group frontman Mark Stewart. The staccato sax riffage on opening track “Safehouse” (which, full disclosure, was laid down by Kalamazoo, MI’s own Saxsquatch, who is a homie), in particular, could’ve been lifted from a vintage Pig Bag or Essential Logic track, and I always mean that as a compliment. The album floats into dreamier, more hopeful moods in its latter third or so; Moor Mother drops in on “Falling Up,” and while I was expecting her to bring the righteous vitriol common to her uniformly fine work, hearing her calmly intoning “I keep trippin’, falling up/my vision more expansive more imagined” over a languid funk loop is a surprising breath of fresh air. Did I mention that Nosaj, of ’90s cult heroes New Kingdom, drops in for a hook? This one’s a ride, ya gotta hop on.

While Small Bills might have the market cornered on piss and vinegar and hazy spiritual uplift, Cakes Da Killa is still absolutely dominating the dancefloor. “Don Dada,” his new single collab with Proper Villains, is classic vogue music; the video, which may be even better than the song (but of course, what is one without the other?), even has a fashion photo shoot, the most vogue move possible. It flips that script, though, by also paying tribute to the opening credit sequences of classic Blaxploitation films, and nails that, too, even if the accompanying music is a far cry from a Roy Ayers or Willie Hutch soundtrack joint.

I finished this column on the eve of a hugely consequential election, and if you’ve been following this column at all, you can guess roughly where my politics fall. The road we have ahead of us isn’t easy by any means, but (knock on wood) it’s looking a damn sight easier than it was before the election. Time, still, will tell. In the meantime, I’m fortunate to write about music that largely dares to address our uncertain times constructively, or at least cathartically, with an eye towards a potentially better tomorrow. Waiting out the next couple months, this will be as valuable as ever.

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