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.

November AOTM : Apollo Brown – Sincerely Detroit

 

 

As the landscape in Rap has changed over the last 5 years I’ve stuck to what I know. The exception has been the ever consistent ‘Mello Music Group’ and their pillar producer Apollo Brown. Over recent years he has partnered with the likes of Ghostface Killah, Planet Asia, Ras Kass, Rapper Bog Pooh and Joell Ortiz among others. His boom bap soul filled Detroit sound has not only re-invigorated many MC’s careers but has also has owned much of my listening time.

 

Apollo Brown’s latest effort perhaps is his most challenging and best executed to date. Encompassing 59 Detroit MC’s his ‘Sincerely Detroit’ is a love letter to a city of sorts and showcases the depth of MC pedigree that the city has to offer. Through 21 tracks you feel the love and pain that the currently ran down and trying City of Detroit brings on a daily basis with Apollo perfectly pasting together an onslaught of head nodding beats.

 

Brown’s MC’s combination on first glance is un-expected but work well. Tying up Nolan The Ninja and Dopehead on ‘Skimmin’ shouldn’t work but it does. Whilst teaming up Guilty Simpson and Fat Ray on ‘The Backbone’ seems like a life long partnership.

 

Detroit heavy hitters Royce 5’9, Guilty Simpson and Slum Village all deliver lyrically but don’t over shadow the rest. At one moment you’re blown away by Paradime on  ‘Never’ or the smooth bars from Boog Brown. I admit that 21 tracks can seems allot in the days of EP’s and short albums but the further I get into this album I struggle to find a track that I would drop.

 

Why do I love this album? It’s pure hop hop, it’s boom bap, and conveys the honesty that I struggle to find in hip hop these days. It reminds me of the hip hop I fell in love with in the late 90’s when I bought decks and hunted for raw underground hip hop.

 

Being mindful that this may move you away from your hip hop comfort zone I encourage you to spend some time with this album, it’s worth the investment.