No matter how hot an emcee is, you give him the chance to pair up with a rock musician and the odds are strongly against the result being anything but awkward. Mos Def’s attempt to go rock ‘n’ roll on The New Danger got a little too close to nü-metal for comfort. Lil Wayne’s retch-inducing Rebirth was awful enough to make nü-metal sound refreshing by comparison. And even when a collaborative effort, in theory, sounds kind of cool, like the now infamously bizarre pairing of GZA and Black Lips, the recipe can end up undercooked, or even worse, a cake wreck.
But suppose you put a hungry young hip-hop group in the same room with a handful of Brooklyn art-rock musicians, working not in the interest of making a hip-hop album sound more like a rock album, but rather just to lend an experimental ear and some innovative production. That’s precisely the situation that yielded Nine 11 Thesaurus’ debut album Ground Zero Generals. A unique, sometimes sparse, sometimes dense work of stoic, clear-eyed rhymes and modern production sounds, Nine 11 Thesaurus’ debut is an intriguing and highly enjoyable trek through a paranoid and bruised New York City, set to productions from former Gang Gang Dance member Tim Dewit and Skeletons’ Matt Mehan. It’s dark, sometimes inspiring, sometimes chaotic, and loaded with jams.
With six emcees, each offering his own unique flow and style, Nine 11 Thesaurus have already earned comparisons to Wu-Tang Clan and Odd Future (though dropping Odd Future’s name is practically an SEO tactic at this point). But the group is neither as grimy and gritty as the former nor as absurd as the latter. Rather, their unconventional approach falls somewhere between the futuristic darkness of Cannibal Ox and the space-age surrealism of Shabazz Palaces. They describe an unglamorous urban landscape over eerie backward samples on “End of the World,” while ramping up the energy on an Eastern-flavored banger on “Rookie of the Year.” The hyperactive synth loops of “16 Bars” score tales of redemption and self-aggrandizement, and “Stressin'” finds the young rappers addressing the national tragedy that informed their name.
One can’t really discuss Nine 11 Thesaurus without addressing the World Trade Center attacks, and on Ground Zero Generals, the event still hangs heavy in the hearts of the group. The back of the album reads “When the Towers Fell We Rose,” and the album features numerous lyrical references to 9/11 (some members even lost loved ones). This sometimes lends the album a somber quality, but also one of optimism. Nine 11 Thesaurus wear the reference not as emotional bludgeon but as a badge of survival and identity, and with an album packed with forward-thinking sounds and perspectives, they’ve begun a compelling new chapter in hip-hop.
Cyne – Pretty Dark Things
Shabazz Palaces – Shabazz Palaces
Cannibal Ox – The Cold Vein
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.