Review Summary: An enjoyable high to ride, but you'll swear you've been there before
Occasionally, the music industry gifts listeners with albums that are best explained through feeling rather than through their technical makeup. Even though a large part of the critic's job is to attempt to objectively assess what makes a piece a positive experience or not, some weight of the opinion given must always lie in the subjective experience. In IIWII, Kirk Knight has come through with an album that expresses itself as a singular vibe rather than an impressive feat of songwriting or lyricism. It's enjoyable to lose yourself in this wave, and it provides a satisfyingly potent blend of heady hip-hop, smooth R&B flavouring, and even flirtations with emo rap when the occasion demands. Whether or not it can be evaluated in such a positive way objectively notwithstanding, this album has some serious flair on display and some pleasantly memorable touches.
Delivering with much the same hazy dynamics and complacent atmospherics currently popular in the realms of mainstream rap but imbuing them with Drake's style of affable, everyman delivery, IIWII has a nice sense of diversity between its relatively contained 12 tracks. Second song 'M.O.' has a caustic verse structure and a singalong chorus, keeping one foot in mainstream sensibility and the other in a more hip-hop oriented slipstream. Although these intentions work for the most part, unfortunately the lack of focus does hurt the album somewhat. On songs such as 'Duffle Bag' and 'Leverage', the strung-out ambience lacks any real sense of inspiration and comes across as rather lazy- shoehorning in underdeveloped rhymes and predictable melodies that are inoffensive enough, but seem to be devoid of any real enthusiasm. Similarly, 'Full Metal Jacket', with its attempted pairing of grit and vulnerability, is a real oddity. It feels scattered and underwritten with a weak hook and bizarre Stanley Kubrick references. It is important to note, however, that these tracks remain serviceable despite their mediocrity, and function better in the context of the album than as standalone pieces. The same cannot be said for the only honest-to-goodness hip-hop track on the release, 'Run It Back'. Truly lively and a welcome departure from the IIWII's other offerings, the instrumental feels quintessentially modern and the bars, whilst a little underwritten, are entertaining and delivered in an uncharacteristically engaging way.
In a stark contrast to the aforementioned tracks, however, there are compositions like 'Downtime', which perfectly encapsulate a sense of apathy, and the struggle of trying to find a drive to continue. As there is a clear, defined focus, the instrumental appropriately warps with tuneful melody and the thrum of a low bassline, keeping the track at a pleasant, easy-listening texture. It is unhurried, and spacey in the best possible way. By the same token, 'TmI' which takes a similar tack, represents Knight as a legitimately hurt character, with one of the few displays of genuine emotion in his voice found during the chorus. It is heartfelt, and does not feel forced or contrived, despite the fact that lyrically the track is wanting. 'Not For Nothing', undoubtedly one of the release's strongest ventures, is an understated, menacing composition which dips its toes into the emo subgenre perhaps more than any other on the release. Equal parts emotive and angry, the instrumental is understated with smartly implemented builds and some fittingly grim, evocative imagery. The balance between R&B and rap is definitely at its most nuanced here, and it is a shame that this could not have been achieved more consistently elsewhere on IIWII.
Despite the fact IIWII leaves a lot to be desired on an initial listen, and perhaps may not strike a chord with those invested in the current American hip-hop game, there is definitely an audience for an album such as this. The vibe established in the opening tracks quickly marks a plateau for the release that it then confidently rides through, and for what that is worth, it is an entertaining listen. The emotions on display are, for the most part, relateable, and the beats are pleasantly unchallenging without being dull. Visions of slow cruises along sun-drenched beaches, luxurious apartments, hazy mornings after- it all plays into this fantasy world that Knight wants his listeners to experience through the music. It may not offer a lot in terms of innovation or quality musicianship, but as an attempt to capture a mood, a feeling, a vibe? It is thoroughly atmospheric and a genuinely entertaining portrait of gangsta-lite vibes and of a hazy, offbeat world view.