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Cherry blossoms may be approaching peak bloom, but Northeast rapper Ankhlejohn’s latest tape A-Cold-World* conjures the chilliest, slushiest months of recent yore. A prolific stylist with a serpentine delivery, Ankhlejohn’s dispassionate decrees (“I just need the utmost respect, love, it’s simple/ Put the barrel of the H.K. right on this dimple”) veer into absurdism; last year’s raucous Lordy By Nature (UUV) LP explored the finer points of vehicle theft, whereas Van Ghost, a full-length with blogger-turned-composer Big Ghost Ltd, was almost gothic in flavor. Through it all he’s emerged as a sparkplug in underground rap circles, commanding premium prices for limited-run vinyl releases and inciting online tiffs with challengers in the now-widening corner of loop-based neoclassical rap.
While elements of Ankhlejohn’s brutalism—from dusty soul samples to rigid percussion and ad libs—will seem familiar to listeners steeped in no-frills I-95 rap, the effect is a far cry from his immediate predecessors. Similar to his peers and sometime-adversaries Westside Gunn and Tha God Fahim, his contraposition of an outsize persona against dour music elicits a desolation bordering on the dystopian. They are anarchists and materialists, devoted to individual preservation and propagation rather than that of a wider culture or value system.
Boston producer Vinyl Villain supplies all eleven beats on A-Cold-World*, outfitting Ankhlejohn with a wash of anxious minor-key chords, unvarnished snares, and a consistent, deliberate tempo. The spare piano of “The Informant” and “Body Bags” evokes classic Havoc productions, where “Voices” sounds like a slasher flick’s slowed-down score. True to form, Ankhlejohn administers drugs, stick-ups, and dark humor in abundance. The paranoia of “Hitman Holla” is a function of vivid foreshadowing, Ankh setting a scene, “I don’t trust him, he could be hot as an oven mitt/ Get caught, he the type to snitch on some other shit.” While there are numerous ’90s touchstones, such as the Juice-inspired album opener “Bishop’s Return,” A-Cold-World* doesn’t commit to nostalgia: “The Informant” excoriates recently convicted viral rap star 6ix9ine.
The heft of Ankhlejohn’s oeuvre naturally lends itself to cold-weather environs, so prospective listeners will be excused for taking a late pass on his latest. But even among his high-volume output, A-Cold-World* stands as an accomplished listen which doesn’t stoop to cheap thrills, an understated romp which plays to his strengths and showcases Ankhlejohn’s contrast of oddball flair with East Coast prestige.