Review Summary: UK hip-hop just ARRIVED, son.
So far, the story of 2009 in hip-hop has been the release of Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Pt. II
, an album that has been greeted with glee by the hip-hop community for harking directly and impressively back not just to the original, but also to one of the most enduring albums of the 1990s, Wu-Tang's Enter the 36 Chambers
. While Rae should clearly be applauded for releasing a sequel to a classic that's as good as the original - something almost unheard, of in any art form - it also functioned as a lap of honour of sorts for the Wu-Tang Clan themselves. Plenty of albums were released in the years from 1993 to 1997 that remain undisputed classics, but few have seen their reputation grow and grow as steadily as 36 Chambers
and its most faithful child, Liquid Swords
. Once overshadowed by the likes of The Chronic
, Me Against the World
, and The Infamous
, it now enjoys a blanket popularity that exceeds all of them. Hearing a great solo album from a member that hadn't made one in over a decade was a reminder of that, and a welcome one, too.
And yet, across the Atlantic, an album was being primed for release that may just prove to have more in common with 36 Chambers
than Raekwon's effort. A meeting of some of the most talented and overlooked minds in UK hip-hop, the collective - made up of Melanin9 and Cyrus Malachi from Triple Darkness, Kyza of Terra Firma, and a fourth MC I'm unfamiliar with called Masikah - might be about to step out of the shadows by surrounding themselves in darkness. White Noize
is bleak as hell in a way few hip-hop albums this decade have been - Prolyphic & Reanimator's The Ugly Truth
is the only recent record that gets called to mind, particularly on "Pop Tarts", which may as well be a straight sequel to "Artist Goes Pop". Like 36 Chambers
, each member is talented enough to stand out, and each is spurred on to greater heights by a palpable spirit of competition. And maybe it's getting ahead of things, but it's not difficult to imagine that there'll be a lot of interest in the projects these members go on to make after this. The reason for the latter is simple - this is UK hip-hop's first true masterpiece.
Maybe that's too big a statement, but the albums people are likely to point to as alternatives don't hold up to this record. Original Pirate Material
doesn't hold a mood or theme anywhere near as well, while Boy in Da Corner
has too much filler amongst the killer, The Criminal Minds have seen their music always over-rated due to its limited release, Lady Sovereign is about as talented as David N'Gog, and both Run Come Save Me
and Awfully Deep
always had the whiff of being good, but nothing more. You could argue the case for Mmm...Food
or The Great Adventures of Slick Rick
, but really, the fact that we're reaching that far shows the paucity of the competition. Only Klashnekoff's The Sagas Of...
really stands up on the same terms, but this is just plain better. It really is incredible what this record could - and should - do for UK hip-hop as a whole.
Just as importantly, though, is what this album does for the city of London.
London has been visualized and mythologized plenty of time in popular music - whether through the hip, youthful vibrancy of Blur and The Kinks, or the multi-cultural melting pot of Asian Dub Foundation, or the urban centre of discontent in the music of the Sex Pistols, or the slick centre of middle-class nightlife captured by Suede and All Saints, or the blank sea of faces where everybody is physically together but emotionally and mentally alone, as pictured by Burial. But nobody has ever articulated a London rife with organized crime, violence, and drug abuse as passionately and clearly as Orphans of Cush do here. This is the New York we've learned so much about from the likes of Jay-Z and Mobb Deep, shorn of all the necessary glitz and glamour attached to a city so closely associated with Frank Sinatra.
It's funny, then, that it achieves this essentially British vision through compromise with America. Typically, UK hip-hop is guilty of trying too hard to sound un-American, a vice that has led to things as depressing as collaborations with third-rate electro acts (Calvin Harris) and third-rate rock acts (Feeder). No such problem for White Noize
- the production here is closer to an album like The Infamous
than 95% of the UK scene. It's a mid-'90s throwback for the most part, so the production credits should be no surprise - RZA, Godfather Don, and Lord Finesse all appear. Impressively, it's consistent enough that you'll never notice unless you know the beats already.
'Real music is a lost art', they rap on "Pop Tarts", tackling a theme that just about every smart rapper has this decade. And yet, somehow, it rings truer here. The fat, obvious Miles Davis sample probably helps, admittedly, but there's a serious commitment that shines through on White Noize
- a commitment to making something real, something lasting, something on another level to everything around it. They succeeded. There's been more than a few brilliant albums released this year, but none have come as far out of the blue as this gem. Don't sleep.