Beware of the Monkey
Release date: December 21, 2022
Written by Demone Carter
I am not ashamed to admit that sometimes I’m a slow learner. The best new rap records don’t always catch my ear immediately. Such was the case with Michael Jordan Bonema, better known to rap fans as MIKE! Despite the critical acclaim of releases like Weight of the World and Disco! I had filed MIKE! away with a glut of rappers working in the shadows of Earl Sweatshirt’s genius. I am somewhat ashamed to admit it was a Tommy Hilfiger advertisement that changed my mind. The fashion brand commissioned a four-song mixtape which features MIKE! spitting alongside the New Jersey sidewinder Wiki on tracks produced by the Alchemist.
Perhaps Alchemist production brings out the best in everyone, but all of sudden I was locked in on MIKE! and his unorthodox approach. His style is both drunken and precise. He doesn’t flow so much as sway, entrancing the listener with a pendulum-like cadence. As a recent MIKE! convert, I went into his latest album, Beware of the Monkey, with somewhat high expectations. And this record delivers.
The thing about MIKE! that jumps off the track, is his tone of voice—low and penetrating. There is a sadness in his voice, but it also seems like he is rapping with a smile. The production is handled by DJ Blackpower, whose beats seem to form and disintegrate at will. MIKE weaves in and out of each track with melancholic ease. Songs like “nuthin I can do is wrng” and “Light” (rivers of love) showcase MIKE’s talent for evoking nuanced emotions that exist between joy and sadness. Subjects like grief, sibling bonds, or fear of failure are dealt with in a way that feels heartfelt and authentic without being overly sentimental. The standout track is the song “Wake Up,” which is a collaboration with reggae legend Sister Nancy whose 1982 rendition of the song “What A Bam Bam” continues to echo through pop culture. Beyond the sticker shock of the Sister Nancy feature, the song “Wake Up” really works as MIKE! is somehow perfect for this ’80s-inflected reggae tune. Overall it’s a great album and hopefully a harbinger of great things for one of my new favorites.
Favorite Track: “Wake Up”
Release date: August 31, 2022
Written by Brandon Roos
Since 2018, Kenny Beats has proven himself a relentless creative and pliable producer with a list of collaborators that includes rappers Rico Nasty, Vince Staples, and Freddie Gibbs as well as rock groups Trash Talk and IDLES. Despite keeping busy behind the boards, he had yet to officially craft a solo project.
Kenny contends that he had nothing to say. That changed when he discovered in late 2021 that his father had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Louie is his creative response to a trying time.
The beats begin in earnest with “Parenthesis,” where crisp snare hits merge with soulful, pitched vocals. Understated horn stabs, string section samples, and quick weaving synth leads add lushness without weighing down the composition. “Hold My Head” is a clear standout, dealing in the currency of current rap sonics while utilizing a rhythmic framework indebted to golden era greats.
Knowing the inspiration behind this album, the sampled lyrics on “Eternal,” taken from Shira Small’s “Eternal Life,” feel poignant: “Eternal life is the intersection of the line of time and the plane of now. We live forever.” Coupled with contemplative keys, the song feels like a meditation on existence and mortality.
“Still” may just be the most soulful beat of the bunch. Kenny sends the song into the stratosphere by adding moody supporting vocals atop simple, punchy drum programming, all in service to a tasteful flip of Linda Kemp’s gospel tune “I Can’t Stop.” JPEGMAFIA’s energetic, amended verse somehow adds another emotive ingredient to the musical stew, an obvious instance of Kenny’s magic touch in action.
There’s no established style or sonic touch point that reigns supreme. Instead, what shines through is Kenny’s keen ability to stitch together the old and new, the sampled and supplemented, the humorous and heartfelt, in thoughtful, organic ways. Though Louie never feels like it’s drawing too much attention to itself, when the notes finally die down at the end of the slow burn intensity of “Hot Hand,” it becomes quite clear why Kenny is so in demand.
Favorite Track: “Still”
12 Days of Christmas and Dia De Los Reyes
Release date: January 6, 2023
Written by Demone Carter
Homeboy Sandman is one of underground rap’s true eccentrics. A master craftsman with words, he has released a deluge of albums over the past decade. What separates Homeboy Sandman from his contemporaries is his uncompromising weirdness. A contrarian’s contrarian, the New York rapper has made a point of going against the grain in a way that feels true to himself.
Case in point is the title of his latest album, 12 Days of Christmas and Dia De Los Reyes. Released on January 6, 2023, via Dirty Looks Records, the album name references the “Twelve Days of Christmas” carol and the Dia De Los Reyes (Day of the three kings) which is observed in much of Latin America and Spain on January sixth. Given the album’s release date, the title kind of makes sense. But also making an album named after Christmas, weeks after the holidays, and having nothing to do with Christmas or Dia De Los Reyes content-wise is just the type of head scratcher one would expect from Homeboy Sandman.
Each track is named after a different day of Christmas (and of course Dia De Los Reyes) but the track titles are merely place holders for the Sandman’s handy work. Each beat feels like an experiment in rhythmic cadence, the boy Sand (as he often refers to himself) proving his mettle on different tempos and syncopated samples. Seemingly mundane everyday observations are mixed in with motivational self-help themes and of course emcee braggadocio. One of the standout tracks is “Third Day of Christmas” where Homeboy Sandman makes the following observations: “Made it to the farmers market / From the days of the farting armpit.”
The production duties are handled by a collection of beat makers, including Peanut Butter Wolf, Illingsworth, and Mono En Stereo (to name a few). The beat palette is sufficiently quirky. The song “Dia De Los Reyes,” in particular, demonstrates how Homeboy Sandman bars really sound great over almost anything, including an up-tempo Salsa sample.
The only thing this album leaves me wanting for is cohesion. Despite the title and theme/non-theme, there isn’t much to make this feel like an album as opposed to a collection of tracks. All that said, the album is enjoyable, and the song titles may allow me to put it on some Christmas playlists next year. Maybe that was Homeboy Sandman’s plan all along.
Favorite Track: “Third Day of Christmas”
In These Times
(International Anthem Records)
Release date: September 23, 2022
Written by Taran Escobar-Ausman
In a way, drummer Makaya McCraven’s new LP, In These Times, completes a cycle. Always a bedroom beatmaker, McCraven started taking recordings of live performances of his band in Chicago, chopping them up, stitching different snippets together, and adding some magical post-production flourishes to create a new sound that he calls “organic beat music.” This resulted in his first aptly-titled release, 2016’s In the Moment. With his second LP, Universal Beings, he played live studio sessions with various collections of musicians on both sides of the Atlantic, similarly rearranged the recordings with his own brand of hip-hop production, but took it a step further by going on tour to play the new rearranged versions live. In These Times is his first release with deliberate compositions, which are now, however, infused with the techniques, slightly off-beat time signatures, and head-nodding complexity developed from those past live shows.
The magic of finding new rhythmic patterns within the sea of improvised music changed McCraven’s drumming style as he now seamlessly and subtly shifts between off-kilter hip-hop beats and polyrhythmic jazz flourishes. He straddles so many musical worlds that it would almost be sacrilege to simply call his music “jazz,” a term which he states is “offensive at worst and insufficient at best.” Instead, his organic beat music lives in its own musical multiverse, pulling from different genres and eras without garnering any trite labels such as “hybrid” or “fusion.”
“Dream Another’’ sounds like a lost track from Donald Byrd’s Street Lady. A flute, harp, and baby sitar flutter in and out of the melody over a soul-inspired bass line and hypnotic 7/4 hip-hop–like beat. Somehow the track “This Place That Place” simultaneously plays as a funk-jazz piece and hip-hop influenced chamber music. A personal favorite, “So Ubuji,” lulls you in with a gentle, meandering harp and marimba before breaking way for a rare 4/4 head-nodder. You’ll undoubtedly be making your best stank face. The highlight of “The Knew Untitled” is Matt Gold’s guitar work that pulls from the Bill Frisell school of tonality and angular phrasing.
As McCraven develops and refines his approach to making music he has become an alchemist and enchanter of sorts. There will always be magic to be found in his creations.
Favorite Track: “So Ubuji”