Once upon a time, I honestly hadn’t heard a proper hip-hop record. I was perusing through Sputnik’s recent releases, and lo and behold, a hip-hop album with cool artwork! Sobhi’s review for Dark Time Sunshine’s Vessel sounded promising enough, and so I decided to go out on a limb for the album. I found it on Amazon for a penny, and three days later I experienced the thrill Sobhi did– my experiences with it really lacked that pivotal context, though. I think one appreciates Vessel the most when they’re aware of hip-hop’s history, and understand how many new things the record brings to the table. This is drastically different than my first– and rather superficial– interpretation of the album: “Whoa, these cool beats, man!” In the beginning I saw the diversity of the album, as well as the fact that it traversed both optimistic and grimy territory with the flick of a switch– and really well, too. But there’s more about Vessel to consider.
One of the biggest things about Vessel that I’ve come to appreciate is what rapper Onry Ozzborn brings to the table. His lyrics are personal, but not too revealing– although we can all tell “E.R.” stems from a personal experience he’s had, we aren’t being drowned in the details. We can understand where he’s coming from, and that sense of relatability is what makes songs like “E.R.” really stand out. But on the other hand, Onry sometimes removes himself from the narrative, and paints gruesome pictures. “Little Or No Concern” is a drug-addled glimpse at death itself, through the lens of a suffering mother and daughter, and Ozzborn does an excellent job at portraying the brutality of the situation, but as the middleman. He doesn’t get involved with the story himself– he instead decides to present it from afar, and with interjections of the mother and her daughter’s bandmates. And while Ozzborn doesn’t get involved in the emotional ties of the storyline, he still conveys the sense of loss incredibly well, through his meticulous use of description. I mean, that way he describes the daughter’s death at the end of the track is heart-breaking (spoiler alert?.) So while I initially chalked up my enjoyment of Vessel to producer Zavala’s phenomenal work at blending so many differing musical styles into a cohesive work, I’ve realized lately that Onry does just as much for me.
Dark Time Sunshine’s second release, ANX, was my album of the year for 2012. It’s funny, then, that I’ve realized I don’t enjoy the album as much as Vessel anymore. To be clear, Zavala’s work on ANX is phenomenal. The album has a happier mood overall, and it’s all because of Zavala’s ability to inject optimism into the beats at hand. On “Take My Hand,” “Prarie Dog Day,” and “Never Cry Wolf,” the beats are simply infectious, and I give the man props for making this happen so fliudly. But my biggest gripe with ANX is that it sacrifices the paranoia frequently found on Vessel for a more complacent musical setting– there’s not much tension here. The dark and grimy “View Items 3” worked really well for me on Vessel, because the ominous atmosphere it created meshed particularly well with Onry’s stories about losing control.
The funny thing about ANX is that it’s about anxiety– it has a much more cohesive theme than Vessel, and is one that seems to call for darker moods. But as a whole, the album doesn’t seem to connect the dots of anxiety like it should. ANX seems to pretend it doesn’t exist for half its runtime instead, focusing on happy tracks that, while exciting alone, serve a purpose on ANX that’s curious at best. One could certainly argue there’s reason for these songs to be there thematically, that they convey the flip side of anxiety– or the mood that a person with anxiety is really aiming for– but those types of explanations don’t really cut it for me. If Dark Time Sunshine wanted to make an album based on anxiety, it would make far more sense for them to elaborate more on the grittiness of tracks like “E.R.” and “Great Dane,” and not to embrace the joyous eccentricities of “All Aboard” (as much as I love that song.) It just feels like there’s a very clear dichotomy between what ANX is, and what Dark Time Sunshine wants it to be.
And Onry Ozzborn would sound much more at home if this happened, too, because in carefree tracks like “Can’t Wait,” the lyricist doesn’t offer any of the important stories that made his work on Vessel so special. He instead gets outshined by the guest artists– Aesop Rock’s eccentric work on “Take My Hand” is the song’s definite highlight, and “Valiant” wouldn’t be half as compelling without Child Actor’s contributions. I just think Ozzborn works best when writing about the dark things, which is why I find it so strange that much of ANX sidesteps these topics.
There are times when ANX focuses on anxiety very acutely, but they don’t feel half as vivid as they should be. It’s near the album’s end, with tracks like “Look Forward” and “Forget Me Not.” And while I am glad that ANX comes back to its motif, these tracks don’t have the passion that the other songs on the record possess. They’re simply outshined by the radiance of other tracks at hand, and it gives the impression of the anxiety theme being less important than other topics the album covers.
I don’t mean to make this sound like an anti-ANX rant, because I still adore the album. I just feel like it’s for the wrong reasons, considering what the album’s ultimate purpose is. Dark Time Sunshine is an interesting duo to think about, though– they’re probably my favorite hip-hop group, although one wouldn’t really be able to tell that from my ratings (about a 4 average.) I think that goes to show how ratings aren’t the end-all, be-all with music, because even when DTS does something musically that I’m not a huge fan of, I still enjoy the process of analyzing it– especially because there’s a lot of substance to consider. We all have initial opinions on albums, but they seem to change frequently with time.
So I suppose if you’re going to take anything from this post, let it be this: our opinions on music shift rapidly, and if anything, I’d argue that to be an indicator of truly lasting music above all else. When we can’t decide how much we enjoy a particular piece of art, it means that in a way, we’re oddly committed to figuring it out. And through that experience, we’re spending more time with it than any other piece of art we consistently love. I’m not sure exactly how I feel about Dark Time Sunshine’s albums as of right now, and something tells me that won’t ever change. But regardless, I’ll keep listening, trying to decipher what it all means. Maybe I’ll get somewhere, or maybe I’ll end up overthinking it (if that hasn’t happened already!.) But either way, it’s good to think about how much these albums mean to us, and what parts of us they really speak to.