Kanye West has unsurprisingly dominated the music press this week, with critics eagerly guzzling down his leaked ‘Yeezus’ in a mad rush to get the first review online. So far they’ve generally fallen into three categories – 1) hopelessly fawning; 2) unconvinced but without enough conviction to award a low score; and 3) deep psychological analysis on the meaning of sampling the virtually sacrosanct ‘Strange Fruit’ while rapping about croissants.
Our take? If you ignore the more moronic lyrics (about 50% of them), it’s maybe the most interesting album he’s released to date. But worthy of quite so much attention? Probably not. While quoting Liam Gallagher is rarely the sign of a strong argument, his response to West’s self-canonising was bluntly on the money: “You’ll never see Jesus banging his head”.
In fact, far from being the album of the year, ‘Yeezus’ isn’t even the best Jesus-referencing hip-hop album of the month. That honour goes to ‘Gesus’, an album by YBP (aka Young Black Preachers) from the Black Jungle Squad, a collective that revolves around the extraordinary talents of Jeremiah Jae. Raised in one of the rougher parts of Chicago by his jazz musician father (who worked with everyone from Miles Davis to Ramsey Lewis) he’s been described as both the Windy City wing of Brainfeeder and a natural successor to the late J Dilla. High praise indeed.
In a Resident Advisor interview a couple of years ago, Jae summed up his musical manifesto. “I like the challenge to create something on a computer and try to make it sound handmade and raw,” he enthused, “…the technology is here…and you see so many kids rapping over millions of beats, but they all sound the same. What’s missing is a certain substance that connects and communicates with people in a positive and spiritual way”.
One of the people he’s so far managed to make a positive connection with is Brainfeeder’s Steven “Flying Lotus” Ellison, who released Jae’s debut solo album, ‘Raw Money Raps’, last year. “He freaked me out a little bit,” is how Ellison described putting out his music, “[His DXNCE EP] felt like something that I’d been trying to achieve in my own work”. Jae is now a fully fledged member of the Brainfeeder stable, collaborating with fellow mindspooner Azizi Gibson on last year’s ‘Ignorant Prayers’ mixtape (of which a follow-up is due soon) and touring with the excellent Teebs.
The album itself slinked through typically tripped-out Brainfeeder territory. The poundingly intense ‘Guns Go Off’ feels like the sound of your heart spurting out adrenaline, while ‘Guerilla (Evolution Pt. 1)’ is a slurring recollection of stoned dreams over a descending orchestral ostinato, which eventually lurches into a queasy beat. While his lyrics and delivery aren’t quite at the same level as his astonishing production, lead single ‘Money’ also provided a genuine slice of post-economic downturn hip-hop, focusing on the struggle to make a dollar rather than bragging about stacking a million.
However, while the sprawling, expansive ‘Raw Money Raps’ caught a few ears and confused a few others, Jae has been going from strength to strength since; the amount of music he’s released recently matches the amount of expletives Joe Kinnear spits out in the average press conference. He kicked the year off by putting out ten free tracks over ten days, before releasing possibly his best work to date, the superb ‘Rawhyde’ cassette – a collaboration with fellow Black Jungle Squad member Oliver the 2nd.
The lonesome lament of ‘The Block’ would’ve ripped the Django Unchained soundtrack a new one if it had been released in time, while the warped guitars of ‘Purple Moonshine Part 1’ recall Bibio’s ‘Hand Cranked’ album. Yet despite the Wild West theme, it’s not all ricochets and spaghetti western samples. ”Pistols’ has more of a hard-boiled noir vibe, ‘Blood Money’ is all wonky psychedelia and the brutal ‘Get Off The Horse’ makes for an epic battle scene in any genre. Perhaps best of all is the gloriously woozy ‘Billy Kid’, one of the few hip-hop tracks to reference Percocet, molly and purple drank that actually sounds like it was created by someone mashed on all three.
Despite its brilliance, with ‘Rawhyde’ even appearing on NPR’s favourite albums of the year list, Jae hasn’t rested on his laurels, as ‘Gesus’ proves. The YBP group originally also consisted of his two god-brothers Tre Smith and Aaron ‘Projeck’ Butler, before Butler sadly passed away last November. Tre Smith remains, under his Dirty Sinatra alias, and you wonder whether the event effected the record – a meditation on spirituality in a morally bankrupt world.
It’s a funkier, quirkier record than that might sound. Packed full of obscure samples both musical and verbal, it suggests the pair can dig crates as deep (and smoke blunts as strong) as Madlib. There’s the kaleidoscopic shimmer of ‘Giant’, a reefer-stained run through the story of Ms. Magdalene on ‘Mary’, and a classy shift between celestial organs and hellish bass groans on ‘The Light’. On ‘Care’, the tinny reverb on the vocals almost make it sound like Jae’s speaking from within the cavernous confines of your own empty soul.
When you consider he also creates all the artwork for his records, the man is clearly prolific to the point of absurdity. Apparently he hasn’t been to any gigs in years (apart from his own of course) preferring to stay in, get high, meditate and make music.
Having that space and dedication has clearly helped him develop a strong musical focus; even if some of his tracks seem hard to pin down at first, they’re clearly the product of a strong vision. As he told The Quietus last year, his approach to hip-hop lies in treating it like classical music or jazz, “considering it as a musical form rather than a limited, formulaic, 4/4 time signature beat, because you can expand beyond that. I’m into expanding that basic hip-hop shit”. Free your mind, it seems, and class will follow.