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US underground rapper releases a selection of his lyrics as poetry, as well as new pieces

The Poetics of Hip-Hop: On Uncommon Nasa’s Debut Book ‘Withering’

The US underground rapper releases a selection of his lyrics as poetry, as well as new pieces
WORDS BY JACK MCKEEVER

The parallels between song-craft and poetry don’t need exploring. Rhyme and verse, in various forms, have been at the epicentre of discourse for as long as humans have been communicating. Just like language itself, poetry, prose and music have all evolved via numerous man-made indents, constantly adding new flavours and dimensions.

Nowhere is this truer than within the genre of hip-hop. Certainly, if you were to look at the rap music that permeates the charts these days – all searing drill-style noise and braggadocious assertions about wealth and sex – then it would seem poetry and storytelling have been demoted to the absolute basest of natures, hoodwinking the public into believing that consumerism is all that matters. But in rap’s gritty, surrealist underbelly the art of storytelling is in rude health, and New York MC Uncommon Nasa’s debut book ‘Withering’ is a multi-textured example.

Nasa’s writing and music stems from two deeply set wellsprings. The first is a desire to outline the truth. He’s a man who has been deeply embroiled in the media sphere via Twitter (though he recently announced that he would ‘no longer be utilising that space’) and the ‘Dope Sh!t‘ podcast which he co-hosts, but he’s also fully aware of the perils of mob mentality and the buffer that it can be. In its capacity as the most malleable and personal form of prose, the poetry in ‘Withering’ is almost an excuse for Nasa to convince himself – and the seemingly small number of people open to it – of the truth.

The second foundation for Nasa’s perspective is his rich history within the New York hip-hop scene. His rhyming and writing style comes from a long lineage of East Coast tendencies, from Mobb Deep’s grim-as-hell depictions of life in New York’s projects to El-P’s 21st century paranoia. His deliveries are resolutely off-kilter and his imagery treads the line between being opaque and direct, entwining the reality of any given subject matter with evocative, late-night analysis. Nasa doesn’t so much create characters as use them as terminals through which his worldview can pass. In ‘Withering’, those deeply personal traits are laid bare in refreshing ways.

Though most of the poems presented here are from Nasa’s musical back catalogue, when delivered outside of that context they take on a whole new precedence. It’s not the notion that hip-hop isn’t powerful or widely enjoyed enough to make an impact; that’s been a misconception since the genre began. It’s that, in ‘Withering’, the words are allowed new freedom, new space to breathe and roam, and to take on new meanings by design. As before, the ethos behind the collection is to deliver the truth from the perspective of a man who has reached and embraced the ‘halfway’ point in his life, but there are ideas here that could be like looking in a mirror for any deep thinker – ideas that don’t always seem obvious when listening to their three minute, experimental recorded incarnations.

Take a piece like ‘Black Hole’, for example: in terms of sonic effects, it’s one of the strangest, most dystopian pieces in Nasa’s recent recordings (from his 2017 LP ‘Written At Night’), and its bleak analysis of the darkest aspects of the media are hard to misread. But in the book it becomes part of a bigger whole. Disgust at the despondency of the human condition continuously rears its head, along with the stagnancy of life and the proposed notion that nothing ever really changes. This frustration both strikes a more personal chord with him as well as holding universal relevance. At some point everybody’s life becomes stagnant and empty.

The moment where the collection undoubtedly makes the crossover into the sphere of poetry is in ‘Destiny’. Originally a track from Nasa’s 2014 acclaimed New York Telephone record, here, it’s the only example of Nasa veering from the structurally conventional template, presenting words and lines as short sharp shocks to the system and utilising grammatically destructive see-sawing. It’s one of the collection’s few examples of real spirituality, seeing Nasa write of how life is dictated to us via noise and outside influence beyond our control; the idea that things are predetermined and that paths are mapped out for us. The form of the poem reflects that ambiguity, but he quite literally brings the piece back down to Earth by capitalising the ‘NY’ at the end of ‘destiny’; an assertion that New York is where he belongs, no matter where life takes him.

The two short stories presented flesh out Nasa’s creative mindset, giving insight into it and his processes. It’s here that Nasa’s world view is portrayed through unlikely mediums; a female parking ticket officer in ‘Withering’, and a world weary, undefined office clerk in ‘Burt’s Dead’. Both of them are consumed by awareness of life’s perils, the former so dark as to assert that death is the only release from the mundane that leads to the moribund. But, the same inclination to keep people at arm’s length that permeates much of his poetry comes from a deep understanding of how people work. ‘Burt’s Dead’ is a damning rumination on the idealistic desperation of ‘do-gooders’; but, when you delve below the surface the true depth is revealed, meaning it makes perfect sense.

‘Withering’ is a prime example of how poetry, whether dictated in musical or prosaic form, can be a personal tool and a primer for one’s own identity. As a collection, the book clearly shows Nasa’s evolution through life, with regards to wisdom, perception and what he’s learnt. As a rapper he’s an antagonist, both sonically and lyrically, always looking for where to land the next punch; however, as a writer, he’s a realist, collected in his cynicism and always shows a studious awareness of the true power of words. Whilst that’s not the sole reason hip-hop has always been culturally important, it’s a new dimension to the sphere and has helped to establish this innovative artist as a creative force within his field.

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gaika basic volume

Review: GAIKA – Basic Volume

Gaika Tavares’ full-length debut for Warp records

In a scandal-consumed post-Brexit, post-Windrush world, the highlighting of the immigrant experience in London seems more necessary than ever before. Gaika Tavares has been encapsulating feelings of otherness in his music for the last three years, hopping across and blending a whirlpool of genre tropes that directly reference the diasporic value of sound system culture and the rich, historic, tapestry it weaves. But as knife crime figures soar in Britain’s capital, Basic Volume (Tavares’ debut full-length for Warp Records) feels more timely than any of his previous releases, and appropriately walks the line between navigating an alien, insurmountable cityscape and a guided tour through a lack of belonging.

In an interview with the Evening Standard, Tavares outlined an encounter in the immigration line at Stanstead airport upon returning home from Barcelona. Despite brandishing a British passport he was singled out and questioned persistently about his purpose in the UK. Aligned with the fact that the title of the record is an ode to his father, who passed away last year, Basic Volume immediately stakes its claim as Gaika’s most personal and emotionally charged LP to date. His music has always been bitter, angry and desperately searching for a sense of self, but here he uses London’s bleakest side not as a tool by which to sue himself into submission, but as an emboldening foundation upon which life for black people, and particularly the kids at the mercy of gang crime, can be improved.

A record as thematically sprawling as Basic Volume is theoretically difficult to find a solid sonic palette for, but Gaika’s vision is steeped in pulling elements together in ways which require three or four listens. Here his fusion of dancehall, hip-hop and industrialism feels more gruelling than the more accessible R’n’B flavoured climbs of 2016’s Spaghetto. The opening title track sets a cinematic precedent, built on a hyper-coloured synth overture that glazes along a crawling boom-bap groove that oozes the rusting mechanisms of London’s more fragmented areas, and immediately unpacks the fears that come with “being naked and black in a white man’s world”.

The nightmarish low-end dissonance and ear-piercing squeals of ‘Hackers and Jackers’ sits perfectly as the backdrop to tales of inner-city corruption and physical brutality simultaneously, whilst the metallic, brick-to-skull intensity of ‘Black Empire (Killmonger Riddim)’ is as fitting as can be a foundation for a gloriously unashamed and righteous call to arms for London’s black community. There are softer moments, like ‘Ruby’, and an eerie (but gorgeous) 4th dimensional melody is a powerful weapon at the heart of tunes like ‘Born Thieves’ and the celestial highlight ‘Immigrant Sons (Pesos & Gas)’, both a fist-clenching feminist mover, and a declaration of the individualism and distinction of all of the UK’s minority communities.

The push-and-pull equation between personal and cultural lows that runs through the whole record unerringly magnifies the need for a real change of status quo (something which Tavares himself has said he hopes to achieve with the album). Nowadays, with the crushing cuts to arts facilities and venues across the city, it’s easy to feel like art is losing its ability to mobilise real social change. But Basic Volume wonderfully underpins the notion that by not giving up, by consistently challenging in consistently leftfield and creative ways, an escape is provided not just for those faced with grim reality but provides a sense of belief for those who are really living it.

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Frasqueri A Girl Cried Red

ALBUM REVIEW: Princess Nokia – ‘A Girl Cried Red’

Photos – Alberto Vargas

For decades now, artists have been taking feminism and femininity into their own hands. Although that might be true, Destiny Nicole Frasqueri (aka Princess Nokia) is fusing firebrand confidence and intrigue in a way arguably not seen since Missy Elliot’s flare-up. Her breakout mixtape, 2016’s ‘1992’, built an identity on both firm-modernity and an assertion of heritage. But not only did she do this, in her debut Frasqueri utilised her passion for the hip-hop artform with the constant aim to reclaim & redefine femininity through a righteous scope whilst playing on and adapting degradations of womanhood, being confrontational and personal all in the process. In short, she has stamped a distinct mark allowing the musician to cover all bases and confound expectations.

A Girl Called Red

‘A Girl Cried Red’ is the first release since that project. Described by Frasqueri as her ‘emo’ album, the 8-tracker revolves primarily around heartbreak, bitterness and loneliness. However, it’s not limited to these themes – just like her 2016 debut, the latest offering doesn’t shy away from opening up a wider, socio-political discussion without largely pursuing any ideology. On the whole, ‘A Girl Cried Red’ rejects the notions of healthy living and ‘urban feminism’ that Frasqueri ‘s Smart Girls Club podcast centres on in order to orbit around the breakdown of a relationship and the ensuing depression & eventual hope that stems from that scenario. In effect, it’s her most conservative effort yet, but that’s not to say that the album is anywhere close to what anyone was expecting.

Couple the album artwork – a smiling Frasqueri adorned in a Slipknot hoodie with middle finger aloft – and the almost teenagery romanticism of opener ‘Flowers And Rope’ and one would be forgiven for thinking the release is a bad caricature of the social subset. There are several moments on ‘A Girl Cried Red’ that seem to go beyond sonic experimentation and fall into silliness for a number of reasons. ‘Look Up Kid’ is an attempt at universal reassurance but syrupy lyricism and 2004-5 era lo-fi Jimmy Eat World baiting musicality make it unbearably cheesy. ‘Interlude’ is one minute of layered, palm-muted finger picking which again aims for the nostalgia of early Coheed And Cambria records and just comes off as out-of-date. Unfortunately, these moments seem far less adventurous than they do hackneyed.

There are a handful of moments of real profundity, though. On lead-off single ‘Your Eyes Are Bleeding’ Frasqueri sounds genuinely bitter, angry and alone, balancing the heartbreak over rolling southern hi-hats and reflective arpeggios with the dryness we’ve come to expect as she coos ‘I want to face my demons but denial makes me high’. ‘For The Night’ would fit seamlessly into the runtime of ‘1992’ – a smoky, deep-set R&B stepper, lyrically towing the line between braggadocious excess and emptiness as a replacement for love. Though, it’s closer ‘Little Angel’ that makes the biggest impact. A gorgeous ode and reference to equality, gender dysmorphia, male suicide and the shifting, more inclusive attitudes which seem to be gaining a stronger hold all the time within the Princess Nokia generation.

Despite setting its stall out early, ‘A Girl Cried Red’ is a confounding listen. When it lands those moments of power though, it’s another testament to just how diverse and engaged Nokia can be.

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