AOTM June: Skyzoo – All the Brilliant Things

At best we will choose a hip hop album for our album of the month yearly, and it’s for good reason. Hip Hop is at times hard to approach, and hard to find time to listen to away from your kids as 4 middle aged fathers.

For me there’s more of an issue. I remember when I first heard the likes of Nas, Common (Sence) and Rakim. Each song was a lyric twisting journey into their world. As time passes I find it harder to find MC’s that blow me away with their word play. I often wonder is why latter generations of MC’s are less focussed on this? Does it matter anymore? The genre of Hip Hop is a bit confusing these days. I find it hard to understand how much of the hip hop that ‘the kids’ like these days is listenable. Misogyny, violence and criminality seem to be more prevalent than ever.

I came across Skyzoo in 2014 through his collaboration with his New York collaborator weight Torae. Instantly I was a fan. His word play and commentary put him amongst the hip hop heavy weights that I love. The more you listen to his lyrics the more layers to his lyrics you discover. Growing up in Brooklyn in the 90’s made him a student of some of the greats such as Biggie to Jay-Z and it shows. He has an uncanny ability to bring you into his world and keep you there. I was hooked and instantly delved into previous releases which included a heralded mixtape produced by 9th Wonder, followed by his debut album on 9th’s Jamal records (home of Rapsody amongst others) and later releases on two of my favourite labels; Duck Down Records and Mello Music.

You can find music from Skyzoo over the last 20 years, but the last 10 have seen him at his best. Releasing at least an album a year, it’s hard to find any weak piece of work among them. It’s understandable why he’s become one of the most respected underground MC’s around the globe. From working with boom bap super producer Apollo Brown to hip hop general Pete Rock, Skyzoo’s output is diverse and more-ish.

So this brings us to his latest effort, ‘All the Brilliant Things’. Like last month’s St Vincent album, it comes with a theme. This is an album about the gentrification of Brooklyn. Not only highlighting the change but also the world Skyzoo has grown up in, why he loves it, the memories, the stories and the dreams.

My notes for this album have been extensive. I was lost for words, how do you encapsulate the plethora of Skyzoo and what he does to this album? Lucky I read an interview with him where he described it perfectly. He said ‘My music has always been a combination of a few things: storytelling, motive, and intention’. That narrative rings true with another Brooklyn native that I love, Spike Lee. In fact there are cross overs throughout between the two. Perhaps I’ve seen too many Spike Lee movies.

I love hip hop albums that set the scene for the album on the first track and ‘Free Jewellery’ does it to a tee. Skyzoo dives in from the start. Weaving, layering, and provoking thoughts with each line. Amongst the journey he dips his toes into the irony of the critic’s interpretations his world whilst at the same time gentrifying it themselves.

‘So don’t mistake me, yo, I don’t do this for Complex

Nor a Pitchfork or any other facade

Where the culture is determined while chugging a PBR

And telling you how to represent all of the shit that you made

While they move in your building with their roommates’

‘Culture-ish’ is another remarkable track. Full of recollections…

‘I was buying art, my friends was buying dope.

I went and made friends with rappers that was buying both’

….was the line that caught my ears, but every line in the song is spotless. I’ve spent so much time getting my head around the layers of lyrics. He reminds me of Jay-Z on Reasonable Doubt. From Brooklyn or not, you’re pulled into his world (then and now) as you sit ring side in Skyzoo’s world in Brooklyn.

There are lyrics throughout outlining changing worlds. In line with the theme, but not blatantly. ‘The Scrimmage’ looks into money and how it’s made, old and new and it’s ruthlessness. I love the track lyrically, but when the track finishes with a clip of two people talking about being removed from their neighbourhood, it makes you listen again…. Because he was talking about it the whole time.

Hip Hop was born in the Bronx, but since its inception the New York boroughs all battled to own the top spot. Brooklyn arguably has a strong claim for the top spot. Jay-Z, Biggie, Sean Price, Yasin Bey (Mos Def), the list goes on. That mixed with exceptional graffiti artists and their influence on me is the reason Brooklyn has always facinated me. That fascination of Brooklyn for me and so many others may just kill where that fascination comes from; it’s soul. This album concept is well overdue.  ‘Bed-Stuy Is Burning’ is not only the stand out track on the album but one of the best hip hop songs that has been released in recent memory as Skyzoo delves into the world he loves and how it’s crumbling at his feet.

‘To whom it may concern, don’t let this happen to you

True to what you heard, they want this back like a loop

They gave you a curb and kept you back on the stoop

And now what they prefer is to help you pack when you move’

There are few reviews on this album, but many podcast interviews with Skyzoo. From a fan point of view some say it’s his best lyrically rounded album while some say it’s too long and the beats could be better on many tracks. I don’t disagree with either to a point. Personally I think that this is an album that when digested the four of us will use as a reference point for many albums in the future as this in its’ bones has the feels. The song by song justification and the ability to continually discover with each listen. Its’ long term importance to all of us is unseen but on different levels this album is important to all four of us and is worth everyone digesting. I’ve stayed in New York three times for work, once in Brooklyn. I’ll take Brooklyn and day of the week. It’s mind kind of place. It’s cool. Like east London is cool. The hipsters came in and made it cool for the middle classes. But at what cost? This album is about that cost. About a changing neighbourhood. This message transcends globally.

One of most common narratives on the blog and on the podcast is album length. ‘All the Brilliant Things’ is 14 songs long and just over 55 minutes which is standard for a hip hop album. At first I considered that the album could drop the middle three or fours tracks, but lyrically they’re growers and some of the best on the album.

The more I listen to this album the more I discover. Will it be perfect to the lesser hip hop fans? I’m not sure. I love it because it’s out and out hip hop that also delivers on a social commentary that we should all digest.

10 thoughts on “AOTM June: Skyzoo – All the Brilliant Things

  1. First off, nice one Nolan for picking a proper, real Hip Hop album. Fair play to you. I know you were nervous to pick this but I am genuinely glad that you did. Despite being a big Hip Hop fan I’ve always been vocal about my feelings on the genre when it comes to albums. Truly great (truly Hip Hop) Hip Hop albums aren’t that common. So many of the titles that people share when I make that statement simply aren’t great albums, yeah they have 4 or 5 bangers but the rest are clangers. Most are far too long for their own good and Skits … don’t get me started on relentless, pointless and often juvenile skits.

    It was refreshing when I first heard All The Brilliant Things to check the track list and see no skits. Thank you Skyzoo. When I got into immediately I was struck with the short intro on the first track, and introduction and scene setting 4 liners to kick things off;

    ‘When lookin’ for the salvation, there was a
    Realization of a dream deferred that
    Spawned from makin’ music for my friends and
    Was all in celebration of us
    And became All The Brilliant Things, ha’

    I love the sentiment and love that is carried consistently through the album. As Nolan says there is a clear them through this album, of community, change, the passing of time, reflection and gentrification. This little intro sets it all up perfectly.

    What this album doesn’t give you is instant ear-worm hip hop bangers but it does give you slow build joys. The tracks sit well together. If there is a complaint then perhaps it is they are not differentiated enough and need a little more ‘stand-out’? But what you get in return is a proper body of work. A proper album. Ok, 55 minutes might be standard for Hip Hop albums but its still too long. It feels like hitting the 45 minute mark would make this so much tighter. As with Nolan I thought there were 2 or 3 tracks from the middle of the album that you wouldn’t miss. But as I rarely get to listen all the way through, I started listening by starting at track 8 and have grown to love those middle tracks. I didn’t like ‘I was supposed to be a Trap rapper’ at first but really do now. When you listen in one sitting however, the ‘pace’ and ‘drive’ of the album does dip in the middle so my gut says there are still a few too many tracks or that one or two are longer than they could be … but hey, this guys got a lot to say and he says it so well.

    As Hip Hop albums where every track comes with an ‘E’ on Spotify it’s pretty tame stuff. I get away with playing this in front of the kids and don’t get told off. There is no violent or sexually aggressive lyrics, no misogyny, the odd shit and fuck and hey, my wife hasn’t noticed.

    This albums feels both retro and fresh at the same time. It never feels like contrived ‘old school’ and it doesn’t sound like someone banging on in the same way that they always did which is cool. One thing that this album makes abundantly clear is the VAST gulf between the craft and intelligence of a proper rapper / MC and what ‘the kids are listening to now’. I do get some of the newer hip hop, I’m not saying it;s shit … but its a completely different genre than this. It’s fundamentally wrong to call them both ‘Hip Hop’. I don’t want to get into Sub-Genre wankery (well I kind of do but) but surely we have to call these things by different names!

    Ok. That’s me for now. I will write more before we pod.

    I like this a lot. I’ve not totally fallen in love with it but I am playing it loads, enjoying it more and listening to more hip hop as a result. Thanks Brother Nolan.

  2. Two lovely things to read, right out of the blocks. I always look forward to a hip-hop album because I know you guys all are much bigger heads than me, and it’ll be an education. While I’m really only getting my head around this album so far, I really like what I hear. I have to say I agree with so much of what’s been said here. NY runs through this album like words in a stick of rock and there’s a real lineage where you can hear the influences here. There’s definite moments where Jay-Z looms largest for me.

    As it’s been said, this isn’t just an album about gentrification, but about time passing, change, history, family, community, and what ‘progress’ means to places in big cities like New York. I can certainly see parallels with London, where I lived for two decades or more, and hold my hand up as part of that problem. But these are ageless themes, and ones that Skyzoo leans into with ease.

    I agree that 55 minutes made me sigh. It feels really long for an album, and while Genesis zipped through, at least right up to near the end, this does sag a bit in the middle. As Joey says, there’s no bangers, and perhaps some variation would offset this, but the quality is high and the lyrics, message and flow is consistently good from the off, so while the energy drops, there’s no point where you think there’s a standout weak song.

    Also, let’s mention the samples and some great live brass in there. One thing that stood out for me at the start was the really brilliant melodies that underpin the whole album. I want to delve into these a bit more because I’m a sucker for great samples (and why I always hark back to the likes of De La and Tribe). It’s always a much better listen when these things are done well.

    Standouts are obviously Bed Stuy is Burning, Culture-Ish, but there’s other growers so far, including Trap Rapper, and Something To Believe In. I do feel that 3 tracks less and 40-ish minutes would leave this as a really tight, memorable album. But it’s just a moan. 40 mins is about as much as I ever get in one go these days.

    Great choice though brother Nolan, I’m looking forward to getting to know this more and talking with you all about it.

  3. Looks like I’m going to be the sole voice of dissent then!
    I’m only a few listens in, so I want to give it more time before I get down my thoughts. But I’m having a lot of problems with this album. More as I have it….. 😉

  4. So yup, I guess it’s my turn to be the voice of dissent. Uh oh!

    Seriously though, I am really, really struggling with this record. I am struggling with what to engage with, what to hook in with, what to latch onto. In short, I am seriously struggling with Joey righty calls the feels.

    So what’s the problem? Well, look, it’s a classy album, it’s nicely made, he’s a decent rapper, it’s a got conscious-y vibe and he’s rapping about stuff that matters. So there’s that. I think the problem for me is what it’s built on. This sounds SO mid to late 90s, it’s unbelievable. In particular, I can’t stop thinking of both Jay Z’s The Blueprint and Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides. Tunes built largely on jazz samples, bit of a electric piano, simple, sparse beats. It feels so incredibly familiar. And that’s nice, it’s like a warm hug from something you recognise.

    And then….well then nothing. There are for me no stand out tracks. Like, not a single one. I’ve been listening to it LOADS in the last week, including three times in a row during a food bank delivery session. And it was just like a lump of noise. The lyrics aren’t really jumping out at me, I’ve had a good read of them and am trying to get into them. I think, weirdly, the theme of the album is part of what it makes it so repetitive – like, it’s kind of all about the same thing. And also, he’s reminiscing so much too about his neighbourhood and to hip hop acts of the past he loves, it almost adds to that sense of nostalgia. But I’m afraid, for me, not in a good way. It feels to me like Dad Rap (sorry!).

    Brother Nolan, I know you’re a big lyrics man with hip hop, so I’m sure that must be a big part of the appeal for you with this. And I can hear he’s talented at what he does, it just feels so musically uninspiring and the beats are so ordinary, that I struggle to get through it every time I listen, though to be fair I have managed every time. I just want a lot more than it’s going to give me.

    All the Brilliant Things? For me, it’s All The Pretty Average Things at best.

    1. Blimey. That’s hefty.

      I get it’s all about the feels. But then you fell in love with an album that sounded live 70s and 80s mac/Kate Bush and others. So it can’t just be the vintage feels. But sometimes it just doesn’t fit.

      Dad rap seems pretty harsh though!

      1. I’m not sure where I am on the arc of the “AOTM listen” with Skyzoo.

        I enjoy listening to it. I’m pretty sure I always will. But beyond the standout tracks for me (and they are fantastic) – Bed-Stuy, Trap Rapper, Culture-ish, Rich Rhetoric – I find the album blends a bit more into one. I can’t recall every track until I listen, it does drag a bit in the middle because it feels like there’s 2-3 too many tracks on it, and the subject matter, while engaging and richly-painted, is quite uniform.

        But I like what it makes me think about aging, history, and change.

        I wonder where I’ll be with it in a month. Or a year.

  5. Pingback: This Is Not Happening – Season 2 is here! – THIS IS NOT HAPPENING

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