Review Summary: A 2018 phonk classic. Soulzay, DJ Akoza, and co. capture much of what made early Three 6 Mafia and Lil Ugly Mane great while remaining fresh and original.
In 2011, the fledgling internet genre known as vaporwave came to many music listener’s attention. Defined by fuzzy textures, eerie slowed-down vocal samples, and faux-nostalgia, it eventually came to exert some influence on the production style of several hip-hop producers. These producers met vaporwave halfway, combining the former’s penchant for cloudy soundscapes with the sinister pitch-shifting and topical matter of early 1990s Memphis rap. As a result of this unlikely union, phonk was born.
Phonk in 2020 is by far and large dead. Too many artists in the subgenre failed to distinguish themselves as anything other than Underground Vol. 1-era Three 6 wannabes. Perhaps the only rap outfit able to properly combine the vaporwave aesthetic and Memphis rap ethos while explicitly identifying themselves as phonk is Houston underground label Doomshop Records. Doomshop’s in-house producer, DJ Akoza, collaborated with Mexican American rapper Soulzay to jointly create much of the obscure 2018 internet classic, Empty Vessels: The Lost Soul.
So what makes Empty Vessels so good? The production is absolutely killer. The closer, “That’s Where I Stay,” opens with an interview excerpt of what sounds like DJ Paul ridiculing rappers who are forced to try their luck outside of their hometown scenes due to an embarrassing lack of talent. Slowly but surely, an aggressive vocal sample proudly boasting “THAT’S WHERE I STAY” builds upon clattering drums and a looped, tinkering xylophone. Soulzay comes in at the crest of the instrumental, ominously laying threats, bragging about blindsiding detractors, and expressing pride in being from H-Town. It excels as a dark spin on the archetypal “hometown anthem” banger popular in so many rappers’ discographies. It also sums up Doomshop Record’s stubborn devil-may-care attitude when it comes to obtaining popularity outside of Houston, Texas.
Another highlight is the Jak3-produced “DoBadOnMyOwn,” which features a sample of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “My Posse on Broadway” layered beneath a demonic ambiance. Lyrically, it sounds like a serial killer manifesto, with Soulzay lashing out against society and slurring lines such as: “It’s hell on this Earth, try and escape from the mystic fog.” Guest rapper Freddie Dredd’s high-pitched vocals are nigh indecipherable, with only the occasional “f*ck” and phrases such as “hanging from the noose” popping up as intelligible to the listener. But this only adds to the B-movie horror film charm. Most of the rest of the album follows a similar formula, although the upbeat, jazzy “Step Up” and the quicker-paced, sound collage of “Neva Die” serve as a foil to the constant apocalyptic vibe.
Empty Vessels checks many of the same boxes that Underground Vol. 1, Mystic Stylez, and even Mista Thug Isolation do, but with a unique spin that never comes close to sounding like shoddy imitation. While featuring similar slower-than-molasses pitch shifting and equally sinister production, Empty Vessels is far more serious and contemplative. Instead of facetiously rapping about murder and drugs, Soulzay employs a calm, observational approach, as someone observing a real apocalypse safely from afar would—while stoically lamenting the suffering. With Doomshop’s in-house producers behind the boards, including DJ Akoza and Jak3, Empty Vessels proves to be a 2018 SoundCloud phonk classic—one of the few to exist in what has become a quickly forgotten internet subgenre.