There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
New York’s Antipop Consortium has a real knack for contrarian disc titles. Initiating listeners with streams of rapid word-blurt and lean stone-age beats, the quartet’s 2000 full-length debut, Tragic Epilogue, was neither. MCs Priest, Beans, and M. Sayyid first teamed up with DJ E. Blaize at a downtown “Rap Meets Poetry” gig, and their gleefully poeticized album provided a much-needed reminder of hiphop’s avant-garde roots, extending the tradition of such rhythm-and-verse pioneers as the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron. But Tragic Epilogue was, as they say, only the beginning: Though Blaize & Co. definitely have designs beyond mere shake appeal, their new full-length, Arrhythmia, is never as unfunky as its title might lead you to believe. Indeed, these guys like a wicked beat as much as Jay-Z does. But instead of living by the well-thumbed Book of the Jigga Man, the Antipoppers take a page from the Daisy Age, leaning heavier on the agape than the vitriol: “Gun talk runs New York/But down here we run lyrics…lyyyrics.”
And, boy, can they run some lyrics. Just check out Tragic Epilogue’s “Rinseflow,” an affecting catalog of quotidian realities: “Careful baby girl/Daddy’s mind is gone/She saw me standing still/Still moving trying to keep it gathered/Together we laughed/Gave her a bath/Put her in bed/Crashed/Next to wife/Life/Infinite perspective perpetual dawn rising/Horizon.” Or consider “Disorientation,” a classic piece of ol’-school self-promotion: “Adjust your vision/Grand exquisite, lyric verbalizer/Witness the fire/Break down the rhymes through enzymes in my saliva/Deliver, I’m the liver/Futuristic inscriber of cities enclosed in plastic bubbles/You spell trouble P-R-I-E-S-T/My ESP harder than SP1200 snare taps/Over bare tracks snapped like bear traps.” Indeed, the trio’s raps were so wordy on Tragic Epilogue that Blaize spent most of the disc trying to stay out of their way. Even though his retrofuturist analog production was a big part of the draw, it always seemed just a little too sparse and mixed a little too low.
And words alone don’t make people put their asses in motion. As great as it was, the poetry-heavy Tragic Epilogue needed some louder, jiggier grooves to put it over the top. Which is something Antipop seems well aware of on Arrhythmia. Although the minutelong intro, “Contraption,” sounds as if it had escaped from one of Warp’s abstract-techno breadwinners—Autechre, say, or Aphex Twin—the bleepy slice of electronica is merely a prelude to the album’s worth of throw-down prog-funk to come. Following with hand claps, bongos, and low-end synths front and center, the discofied “Eueelz” finds Antipop checking in with the grooviest and most accessible rhythm the group has yet dropped to tape. The result is tweaked, sure, with a Sun Ra-at-the-moon-base sensibility, but it’s still more block party than Knitting Factory.
Sayyid’s head-scratching verses on “Eueelz”—”Yo, yo/Like tits make milk/I was built on tilt/To talk with the stilts/While like a dragon suit/Blood-red silk/Up at the hilt/With a bottle of seltz/So what’s the rap, yo, like six chicks in a quilt”—show that Antipop is still into wha-tha-fuh rhymes, but this time out the MCs keep their mouths shut a little more often, finally giving Blaize’s backing tracks equal time in the mix. “Dead in Motion,” for example, keeps the beats and synths in the foreground to majestic effect, with sci-fi glitches swirling around throbbing electronic bass and an infectious swing beat. Even the delirious vocals get swept up in the musical undertow: When Beans raps “Spit the flame on” about a minute in, Blaize covers his vox—and the rest of the mix—in a thick distortion that weaves in and out of the rest of the track. The song’s overdrive-driven spiral architecture works so well that even Beans’ most inscrutable lines—”You’re dead in motion like a ski lodge”—sound crystal-friggin’-clear.
“Ping Pong,” based around a tight table-tennis rhythm by Blaize, even finds Antipop taking its cues directly from the DJ. Over layers of bouncing ping-pong balls, drum machines, and electric piano, Sayyid raps: “Watch the ball/Watch the way I climb around your hall/Walkin’ up walls/Sideways and I stall.” Similarly, “Silver Heat,” all robotic percussion and squishy bass, begins with Beans giving props to “Earl Blaize on the boogie” before sparring with the “pitter” and “patter” of the DJ’s creation. And “Conspiracy of the Myth,” the requisite Sept. 11 track, climaxes as Sayyid mimics Blaize’s syncopated kick-drum hits: “Alfred Hitchcock back with a twist in pitch/Wabba wabba strike/Throw up your mix.”
Wabba wabba? Whatever it means, it sounds great. Unlike such out-there rhymesters as Kool Keith and Ghostface Killah, the Antipoppers haven’t given up on reality quite yet, even if their raps on Arrhythmia have moved much farther into the surreal. When Priest brags, “I could write a rhyme with nothing rhymes” on “Human Shield,” he delivers not only one of the song’s most coherent verses, but also the disc’s MO in a nutshell. And when Sayyid follows it up with something about “Dodging anaconda/With a bomber/In a Honda/Full of marijuana,” it becomes clear that Antipop’s love of twisting, winding wordplay has almost totally taken precedence over logic. Even Beans’ relatively straightforward narrative on “Z St.” doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense: “Yo this theme wasn’t a dream/I’m deadass Nolene.” The chicks-in-bras-cum-coke-bust tale gets ambiguously and unsatisfyingly chalked up to “demons” trying to “get your soul by any means.”
But Arrhythmia at its most ambiguous and unsatisfying has little to do with the MCs, who, gifted with incredible flow and deep enough vocabularies to put it to good use, are in dizzying form throughout. Like Tragic Epilogue, the new disc drags only when Blaize forgets the funk and moves too far from on-the-corner accessibility. “Mega,” for example, sandwiches a buzz-killing opera breakdown into a clumsy, herky-jerky keyboard loop. And “Focused” gets bogged down by slow percussion punches and fake steel drums that never quite coalesce into anything resembling a pulse.
Overall, though, these brief spells of arrhythmia feel more like interludes between the hits. Not that any of this is gonna end up on TRL, of course. The beat science is almost there, but the labyrinthine lyrics are far too weird to be pumping from anyone’s Jeep. Which ain’t a bad thing at all: In a hiphop scene dominated by bling-bling and bloated egos, a little honest weirdness goes a long, long way. CP