The most innovative hip-hop album to emerge in 2008 wasn’t released on Def Jam. It wasn’t released on Def Jux either. It’s not on Jive or Roc-a-Fella, 1st & 15th or Lex. It’s not on Geffen, Interscope or Warner Bros. It’s not on Cash Money or Rap-A-Lot, and in case you think this might be a trick question, it’s not a mixtape either. No, against all expectations, the most sonically stimulating hip-hop release this year comes not from a giant in hip-hop, but rather Portland-based indie rock label Hometapes. The equilibrium of the world must certainly be out of whack.
While, upon first glance, Hometapes may not seem like the most likely home for hip-hop’s brightest, consider their new signing Cyne. The Gainesville, Fla.-based rap quartet is based and beats and rhymes, and sounds absolutely nothing like labelmates Pattern is Movement, Stars Like Fleas, Slaraffenland or The Carribean. Yet, like those bands, Cyne has a sense of experimentalism and playfulness that sets them apart from more conventional outfits. They cite Nas, Public Enemy, Kate Bush and Kraftwerk among their myriad influences, yet bite your tongue should you feel compelled to drop the `nerd rap’ banner. This is the real shit.
Pretty Dark Things is unlike any rap album that will grace your ears this year, or likely the next few. Cise Star, Akin, Speck and Enoch configure hip-hop tracks into malleable shapes and forms, bucking convention while honoring tradition. Within first track “Just Say No,” Speck and Enoch layer Nigerian highlife samples with restrained, snare-absent beats, laying out a groove that defies any club pulse, seemingly more spoken-word than rap. Yet just as it appears to be a bit too laid back, out comes the triumphant shout “Wake the fuck up!” Something odd is clearly going on here, but it’s really, really good.
By track two, “The Runaway,” faster, harder, more precisely punctuated beats emerge, as do more African samples, a jazzy trumpet sample and the shout-along chorus call of “I trip to the light fantastic!” Cyne reveals shades of Southern contemporaries Cunninlynguists on “Escape,” drawing a stark contrast between laid-back, mesmerizing samples and beats and militant chants “Now we all caught in police state/ do you want to escape or pray?” Similarly, “Pretty Black Future” presents an upbeat combination of jazzy keyboards, yet “Elephant Rome,” one of the most conventional tracks here, is one of the most stunning as well. It bumps and it throbs, yet a lone, eerie classical guitar sample loops beneath frustrated political venom like “fuck shit up like FEMA/ no help for you bastards.”
A deep, new age ambience permeates “The Dance,” amorphously flowing beneath Akin and Cise Star’s flows. And a similar, dark sort of synth wave floats throughout “Prototypes,” yet accompanied by a deep, throbbing bassline and ringing bells and space-age bleeps that place broad cosmic rays over the song’s musings on race: “I really can’t take it/ I heard in Africa, they run around naked/ nah, nigga fuck you/ why can’t I coexist with ignorant assholes?” A bed of ’70s-style strings lay the foundation for the awesome “Fuzzy Logic,” which poses the existential question, “do you really see what I really am, or just what I project to be?” And while “Radiant Cool Boy” exudes more atmospheric sonic bliss, “Excite Me” finds the meeting place between electro-funk and primitive, tribal beats.
While Cyne’s approach consists primarily of looped samples and thought-provoking rhymes, that’s where the comparisons end with any other hip-hop act. Cyne are taking rap into a new sonic plane, redefining its rhythms and its elements without abandoning the central tenets of hip-hop as we know it. They can bang out a hot single when they see fit, but it takes a pretty special group to combine Nigerian highlife, ambient synths, political commentary and turn it into the ultimate Southern rap jam.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.