Review Summary: Structurally unsound
Despite Blockhead’s glittering timesheet as an instrumental hip-hop extraordinaire – being partly responsible for the launch of Aesop Rock and boasting a place on Ninja Tune – he’s sounding rather lacklustre on new LP, Free Sweatpants. While each instrumental component is expertly sampled and polished – the percussion is the most organic I’ve heard on a sample-based project in a while – the whole jam comes together tasting rather sour. Most of Free Sweatpants seems to follow a messy formula of interchanging piano plinks, guitars, saxophones and pipes that never seem to feel wanted, disappearing into the blue as quickly as they came. Rather than blend and progress together seamlessly, each layer rarely gets the space it needs to make any significant impact; something Blockhead rarely gets wrong. The exception being closer “Make America Gape Again” which is allowed a more fluid build-up thanks to its comparably extended runtime. Furthermore, the vocal samples are utterly uninteresting, and even if they were, the instrumentals ensure they are frequently drowned out. I can’t help but worry if a dog was strangled during the recording of “By Myself Meeting” either.
When Free Sweatpants isn’t engaging in its sample scat in order to make way for its gilded rollcall of guest rapmen, it drops flat drabbery that couldn’t moan its way onto a YouTube study beat playlist. As much as the guests try to instil some life and identity into proceedings, they are hindered by beats that are completely blunted in terms of originality. The one exception being Homeboy Sandman-assisted “Weeping Well” with its bleeping horns and moody bass guitar riffing. The performances are solid though: pen-pal Aesop Rock sounds particularly dizzying on “Kiss the Cook” while “soul-trap” aficionado Tree comes through with an intriguingly weird and amusing hood tale about “Frank”. Billy Woods is man of the match however with his customary declarative delivery and mind-splitting bars dominating the tracks he features; his peculiar decree of “I invented being black” on “Slippery Slope” is sure to turn a few heads. However, this is meant to be a Blockhead exhibit, and without much substance to show there isn’t much to enjoy. From a producer we’re so used to seeing effortlessly string together samples into masterpieces (check “None Shall Pass”), it’s disappointing that Free Sweatpants feels nothing more than a hard-drive clearout of samples that sound relieved just to have avoided the recycling bin.