I'm Your ManMitski
Mitski over the years has garnered much praise through an almost total misunderstanding of her work. You'll hear people talking about how sad it is and how good of an artist she is to listen to after breakups and other bullshit like that. It's a very shallow interpretation as is the norm with real art. It should be no surprise then that one of her most accessible albums ever brought her more praise and notoriety than any singular album in the past. What might come as a shock is the fact that she managed to do this without compromising any sort of artistic vision she had. This album in fact may be her best work yet as it signifies a coming change we haven't seen before. Her work thusly has been very focused on the idea of 'nothing'. She speaks on so much, oftentimes in incredibly hyper-specific ways, and yet it amounts to 'nothing'. It is a 'nothingness' that she has created out of 'something', a self-contained void. As of yet I have only ever seen this done through Lil Ugly Mane's record Oblivion Access, and that requires a look at his past work to understand it (John Cage attempted to capture 'nothing' on 4'33 and failed to create art, just an interesting discussion piece). Mitski has made 'something' into 'nothing' over and over in new and fascinating ways, all self-contained within individual songs that somehow amount to a greater 'nothing' in the individual albums. This is truly a feat to behold and already had her cemented as one of the best artists to ever work in music, but she's taking things further now. In her latest work, The Land is Inhospitable and So Are We, she finally presents us with 'something'. She gives up on this idea that she is only a person through another's eyes on this project and comes to terms with the fact that she is where 'something' must begin. This conclusion is prefaced by one of her best songs to date, I'm Your Man. I'm Your Man is one of those parts of an artist's career that feels defining. In truth, the whole album that the song is contained within is vital to Mitski's career, but this track is the crux of the record. I'm Your Man is a relatively simple song, on a relatively simple album. I don't mean this as any sort of insult, simplicity and experimentation are not traits that define quality. This song is void of any of the more out-there moments in Mitski's discography (for example Shame, Drunk Walk Home, a lot of Puberty 2 honestly, and so on). Instead, we have Mitski and an acoustic guitar on the front of the track and the same guitar plus a choir and some ambient sounds in the form of crickets and dogs and whatnot to take us out of the track. The track is not written from the perspective of some romantic partner or anything like that. Instead, it is the inner dialogue of the patriarch inside of Mitski's mind (this is not interpretation, those are her words). It starts with comparisons to show just what that part of her thinks of her, and in turn, will try to make her think of herself.
"You're an angel, I'm a dogOr you're a dog and I'm your man"
These two statements show contradictory emotions and go to show different tactics used to manipulate. An abuser will often beg for pity, stating that they are so much lower than the person they are after, they are nothing compared to them, and are fully reliant on that person's kindness and compassion. Or, they will treat the person as something that should be subservient to them. The relationship between a dog and a man most often is not abusive, but it is set upon the idea that one is higher than the other, one is the owner, and one is the owned. The back and forth is continued, threats are made to intimidate, and right after threats are made to worry. As the written parts of the track close out the narrator turns from those methods of manipulation to telling the absolute truth. Even this can be seen as a method of manipulation, almost an attempt to build credibility so they can take advantage of the other one more time. As the track closes out the idea of this masculine figure is driven even further with choir chants of "Yoo hoo," meant to imitate a fictitious idea of a pirate. This fictional caricature is something that reinforces these hyper-masculine ideologies. This track is not just a moment for that part of her to have a voice, it's a moment of acceptance and understanding. A discography of songs, many of which can be looked at as her feelings living under a white patriarchy did not save her. She had to realize how it had become ingrained within her, and from there could absorb it. This is shown on the next track, I Love Me After You. I'm Your Man is about yin and yang, the feminine and the masculine. The track is healing through understanding, bringing things once hidden into the light. Even though we know that the land all around us is inhospitable, we have to take that honest look inside and see that we are as well. DUSTCUTTERQuadeca
Quadeca is an example of how art can come from unexpected places. Anyone familiar with his work prior to 2020 can recognize the absolute shift he underwent. To be clear I don't want to call it all bad, most of it can fall within a niche internet subgenre of "YouTube rap" that I don't particularly find interesting but if others do that's valid. However, when he released his album From Me To You in 2021 it was an impossible-to-miss sign of a change of pace. Ethereal synths, stringed instruments, and beautiful melodies paired with a glitched-out motif and often stunning lyrics presented a side of experimental hip-hop that hadn't been seen before. It was a project you listened to, basked in it, and wondered where the fuck this guy was going next. That intrigue was furthered and capitalized on with his 2022 work, I Didn't Mean to Haunt You. I won't sing the praises of this record too much, purely because I want to dedicate a whole post to it. It was completely unlike anything else, the merging and melding of genres were done perfectly, resulting in an album that sends out a big "fuck you" to anyone who makes their life out of putting albums into genre boxes. Everything presented on the prior album was there, just perfected. And once again, it left the listener wondering where the hell this guy could take things next. He announced the Scrapyard series in 2023, a collection of small song packs (so far 2-3 songs per) that displayed different ideas musically that he wanted to put out. I was incredibly happy to hear this, but I was unsure if they would just be fun songs or powerful tracks. In the end, we got both, and while most people tend to say Easier is the best so far, I think beyond a shadow of a doubt DUSTCUTTER is the best song he has ever put out. DUSTCUTTER continues the pattern in Quadeca's artistic journey: keep putting out better shit. Many of my favorite artists ever are the ones who showcase ways in which they consistently improve after each consecutive release, always learning from their last work. Sometimes it hits a point like this though, where I have to sit back and wonder what in the world they could do better. This track is stunning. The production is ethereal, taking you to a fuzzy yet soft world of lush tones and hypnotic guitars, all backed by drums that keep the sections fast-paced and hard-hitting. The vocals are haunting (no pun intended) and emotional. They carry a sense of desperation and hurt that's so well done it doesn't lose its punch no matter how many times I listen. A big part of this longevity is the lyrics. He's begging and pleading throughout for any scraps (no pun intended again) of warmth that can save him from the environment he's being pushed into. The vocal alterations allow for this back-and-forth narrative that I'm choosing to take into consideration in my interpretation of the song.
"Close your eyesPlease don't leave me out in the coldLeave me out to dryPlease don't leave me out in the middle of the night"
Initially, he tries to take responsibility for himself, giving the other person instructions on what to do so the pressure is off of them and they don't have to blame themself. Followed up right after are his actual wants and desires. This track can be interpreted numerous ways but seeing the obvious connections with his last release I want to take some of that into account, especially with lines like, "Walk through the light, watch my life…" which in that context relate to the ghost character he created on the record. This is someone who is no longer there, still trying to be there, and getting upset that it isn't working out. He lists off how no one could have known what was to come, and then right after flips it and says that everybody knew except the one who should've. It's bitter and relishes in it. The bitterness very clearly comes from hurt, hurt that now the narrator is perpetuating in their own life. It's a devastating track that doesn't leave off with any real conclusion because that's not what it set out to do. It's an exploration of the emotions of grief, loss, jealousy, and desperation. DUSTCUTTER is a tragic state of mind that often feels nigh impossible to escape. Fanta seaworldMe oh myriorama
God, what can't I say about Me oh myriorama? The greatest artist of our generation has once again morphed into a new form with his latest alias. Moving on from the greatest artistic journey of all time with the CLK projects (Coin Locker Kid, C'est la Key, and Come look with me) there was great anticipation for what he would do next. The "Cloud Tapes" project he dropped was quite fascinating, many songs are still in my rotation. However, it seemed clear they were mostly about experimentation, which doesn't take anything away from their quality, it's just to say they were not as focused on being a cohesive album. His "debut" album Iris was that cohesive album I had been longing for. A tight seven tracks managed to bounce around in a hyperpop cartoon landscape built upon a dream. I was able to get a much better grasp on this record and what went on behind it and his thought process through an interview I did with him, but even without that, the themes and meaning are evident. This was best shown through the longest track on the record, the exact middle, Fanta seaworld. Fanta seaworld is a 6-minute and 22-second song that transitions from a cartoony-in-your-face hyper-pop track full of lyrics ripped straight from the mouth of a man waking from slumber, into an oceanic experimental pop sound that could have been on a more deranged version of Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion, before finally ending on a sample of the 2023 film by Ari Aster starring Joaquin Phoenix, Beau is Afraid. Throughout it Me Oh Myriorama takes you through layers upon layers of disillusionment and dissociation (more on that specifically can be found in the next track on the project). It's almost a shame to not dive into this line by line, but one of my favorite examples of what the whole song is about is found in these few lines:
"Atlantis? Lemuria? Ancient Rome?Where are ya?Somewhere in America."
This is the anthem of a country so caught up in absurdities we believe are commonplace that we treat the problems that stem from that false reality with more false realities. He starts with Atlantis, a place most people will see as just a fictional city talked about in stories. Then comes Lemuria, a theorized continent that started as a scientific hypothesis before people discredited its existence. After that ancient Rome, which is a city from the past that no one would question the validity of. Finally, he gets to America. Every single one of these places is a fantasy. Atlantis is a myth. Lemuria is a disproven science. Ancient Rome is a place we are constantly told stories of either in academia or in general life and so we build up these false notions of what it was. America we are sold a fantasy since birth. This idea of a place of freedom and equality, where anyone can prosper if they simply work hard enough. None of it is real. The history we are taught of this country is hardly ever real. It is all a fantasy world. A fanta seaworld. A place you can go to watch others suffer behind some glass (a screen) all while being funded by companies that will sell you drinks that kill you off faster. Realizing how the garbage he is being fed reduces him to his base instincts he freaks out and the track dissolves into a repetition of his realization:
"fanta seaworld fanta seaworld fanta seaworld "
Fittingly, after this breakdown we're introduced to a man going through the same exact things through the sample of Beau is Afraid. The track is lost and confused, not out of any internal strife, but out of the pure insanity of living in the world we currently live in. It represents the first moments of awakening to what is going on outside of yourself. Fanta seaworld is a track made for the times we're living in.
MikahelMaterial Girl I have been aware of Material Girl's work since 2020, with the release of their debut record, Tanagram. Even though it had a feature from my favorite artist, it took me a while to check it out. When I did I was amazed. The use of sound collage was done perfectly and created vivid landscapes to which the listener was transported, often changing drastically from song to song. And yet, for some reason, I truly never paid much mind to their next two releases. It truly was not any sort of lack of interest, I just did not have the time or energy to invest myself into an artist I knew deserved one's full dedication. I still plan on going back and listening to Drujjha and i85mixx21-22 a few more times than I have, but their third record was announced for the end of 2023 and I knew it was going to be one I had to check out when it dropped. Izumi Hazuki End of Days is a complex project that I still have not fully figured out, unsure if I will. But, I can say with absolute confidence it is some of the most impressive showcases of pure talent and skill I have heard in a long time. Every song was varied and engaging, often challenging the expectations of listeners. As much as I don't like to revisit singular songs from full albums, I often find myself drawn to one in particular, Mikahel. Mikahel is the second song on the album, clocking in at 6 minutes and 38 seconds, and features Childboy. Released as a single months before the album, the track traverses through different sonic landscapes, never staying in the same place for too long. The best way I could describe it is it sounds like what the radio would be playing during a car ride, years after an apocalypse. When tuned into the right channel, we hear Childboy lamenting what the world has become. There's a cosmic sense of abandonment he expresses, coupled with bitterness at being the only one who seems to notice it. After a verse, chorus, and another verse, we're given a bit of peace. We seem to have driven straight off of a cliff, free-falling downwards to oblivion. Whether this is hell or relief from the struggle isn't clear immediately, but the instrumental builds upon itself, before cutting in out. Suddenly the radio comes back on, taking us to the start of the drive. Our life flashes before us, before being hit with a blinding light, in the form of some all-encompassing synth keys. It feels like acceptance. It feels like a promise. Mikahel is not a definitive place, it's heaven or hell depending on who is experiencing it. Either way, it's an experience that transports you far away from here if you just tune in. Untitled #1Animal Collective
It may seem like cheating to put a track on the list that comes from a remastered version of an album that came out 23 years ago, however to my knowledge this specific track (as well as a few others on the tail end) has never been officially released until now, so I say it counts. The album itself, Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished, was a formative piece in my conception of art. I remember the mental barriers being broken when I listened to it so many years ago, redefining entirely what I considered beautiful. It is a transformative listen that unfortunately, many people will gloss over because of its abrasive nature (which is a vital part of the record as that abrasion goes towards furthering the confused nature of the record as well as the idea that there is more beyond the surface). From front to back, all ten tracks are intentionally, particularly, and wonderfully made. The conclusion of the album, Alvin Row, contains some of the most genius lyrics I've heard as well as one of the best climaxes I've ever heard in music. Needless to say when the vinyl dropped for the remastered version I bought it without any care for what the bonus tracks would be like. But, they dropped two songs before releasing the full thing, the remaster of Chocolate Girl and an unreleased track, Untitled #1, which blew my mind. Untitled #1 is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard honestly. I am a huge AnCo fan, specifically their 2000-2012 run. Through their work, they managed to express ideas and emotions that I'm unsure were ever expressed before because of how they approached the creation of their music. Everything from the production to the mixing to the writing was so unnervingly perfect, resulting in records that say so much more than feels feasible. I mean, their first album was 23 years ago and remains one of the best albums I have ever heard. This track was never even supposed to make it on the record, it was a demo done before the start of the album process that they had no plans on releasing. And yet, the writing and vocals manage to capture the same identity as STGSTV while the production is a merge of the pure whimsicality of the record and the softer elements that came to characterize their later work. It does work perfectly as a precursor, almost a prologue, managing to capture so much of the spirit (so many puns not intended) of the album, without diving into the real meat. The lyrics are very poetic and sprawling, traveling through locations and emotions, building towards the highlight of the whole song: the chorus. In my opinion, it is so rare to have a chorus that outshines a whole song, but this one does, no competition.
"Sometimes when we're in griefAnd you won't be there to hold my handSometimes my covers reekOf old nostalgia left from lovers years ago"
These few words, matched with the vocals provided by Avery Tare, invoke such powerful emotions, more visceral and direct than most AnCo lyrics. The sense of longing and hurt is clear, even as he reminisces on all of these good times throughout the verses. This chorus feels like self-insertion as he now looks back and is pained by the dreadful reality of change. Again, in a sense, it is an encapsulation of so much of what STGSTV is about. This idea of lost childhood lost innocence, lost love. These non-corporal yet so tangible aspects of life slip away and such trivial things can bring you back to that state. And yet, it's only you back in that state, everything else has changed, so where does that put you? It's a question posed and answered on STGSTV, yet this track leaves you with just the emotions. It is powerful and potent, in a way much more similar to a painting than music often is able to achieve.
Through a series of choices I made to try to expand upon my writing capabilities and talk about the art I love in some form of public capacity, I wound up creating a website where I posted my writings and interviewed artists. One of these interviews directly led to me being connected with JJ Shadow, who I ended up also doing an interview with. I initially was just excited to do the interview and find a new artist, but I truly was blown away by what I found on his latest record, I Still Can't Afford Therapy! The album is a multifaceted exploration into how to heal from pain and trauma to no longer allow those things to impact your life. At first, only the impact is touched upon, JJ's behaviors and actions that harm him and others. The crux of the album comes when he dives deeper than most people are willing to in their personal lives, much less on a song released to the public. This comes in the form of a three-part song, Freakout/Drugs. Going into the 19-track album, I Still Can't Afford Therapy!, I knew that Freakout/Drugs was the one I was most excited about. Knowing next to nothing about it, this came purely from the fact that it featured Me Oh Myriorama, one of my favorite artists. After experiencing it though, it remained my favorite track on the project but for entirely different reasons. While the feature is great, what the track is rises beyond any possible expectations I had for it. Starting with a heavy instrumental, JJ Shadow rips into the chorus providing an anger and energy that is more than palpable. His verse continues along the album's trajectory, showcasing him on the precipice of drowning in the issues that have been presented so far. He drops references to films and albums and other rappers as he does often in the project, not as some vapid attempt to gain notoriety, but out of a genuine love and admiration for other art and artists that comes through even in his worst moments. Me Oh comes in after a repetition of the chorus, keeping up with the prior verses. I find it interesting how instead of any sort of overt anger coming through in his verse (which I know he is more than capable of through his other work) his part on this section is much more cold and almost dismissive and arrogant, very reminiscent of his first work in 2012 but under a new light. After another chorus, the track has its first switch up and we see JJ and Me Oh singing over a rather lovely instrumental, in stark contrast with the previous displays of rage. This is the end of the first part of the song Freakout. Slash is up next and begins with a sample highlighting the hopeless nature of life (or how it can seem hopeless from certain perspectives) before JJ comes back in over a piano instrumental. The passion seems to have left him as he tells a story in a very defeated tone. Very quickly the reality of what he is talking about sets in, as he recounts the story of being groomed as a child when he was just starting to try to put music out online. It's a painful story for anyone to hear, even more so if you have ever been around anything similar. The whole album begins to click when you hear the last lines of this verse, as he shares how this experience continuously haunts him and affects any relationship he's been in, before lashing out at the very end and seemingly throwing his headphones to the side. It hurts to hear, that all the behaviors and the patterns related to the album converge into this singular point of trauma. Slash ends with another sample coming in, discussing the depiction of artists as tortured beings, almost implying that is all they ever can be. Drugs are the final section and JJ comes back in with once again, a very reserved tone. However, it's a very different feeling than the defeat previously mentioned. He sounds exhausted and drained, but determined. He starts with an apology to an ex, and although it most likely is a specific person, we the audience don't have any concept of that so it acts as a representation of everyone he's been in a relationship with who he hurt, because he was hurt. This is all backed by a relatively low-key instrumental that kicks up a notch when the guitar comes in after the verse. The outro on this track is one of my favorites in a long time. He sings some heartfelt lines about his insecurity moving forward, as well as the recognition that he is still harming himself because of the original hurt. He ends with the line:
"How many drugs do I gotta take to feel anything anymore"
This can be taken many ways, but following the narrative of the album it reads to me as a surrender of self-will. His way of coping and dealing with the original issue is not working, and now he has to cope and deal with the effects of how he was coping and dealing with the original issue. It's a hopeless cycle that could not be dealt with without the admission of the feelings and emotions (Freakout), the original issue (Slash), and the behaviors/his part in what is going on in his life (Drugs). It's almost a blueprint for problem-solving. Right after the final line the instrumental launches into high intensity, explosion of noise. It's bright and colorful, it's vivid and emotional. The chaos has switched from its former dark and muddied state, to now a prismatic and sharp one. As this settles there is about a minute of clarity, provided by a mellow guitar instrumental, almost a way to catch a breath before now dealing with the things that came out in the track. This track is the highlight of an incredible album about healing, and it works as such because of the painful honesty displayed here. The raw emotions put on the forefront allow anyone to feel the hurt, and then rejoice in the relief. Freakout/Drugs is a masterclass in how to show growth and change, by serving as the tipping point for a record dealing with those very things. Vampire EmpireBig Thief Big Thief has carved out a significant place for themselves in indie rock history since they began releasing in 2016. Not to put them in a box, but it truly feels like they're a household name amongst queer folk. I would like to restate, that this is not the best list of 2023. This is a list really of the ten songs that were either the most impressive, have stuck with me the most, or made the biggest impact on me. Originally, I made a list of thirty songs and set out to narrow it down. When I got down to ten I had my first version of this list. Then I changed it a few times before settling on version five. The inclusion of this song makes it version six. This song is quite an interesting one, as it had no impact on me in 2023 because I did not let it. I won't even try to hold to some bullshit façade of objectivity in journalism, it does not exist. I did not listen to this song because I knew it would hurt me in ways I did not know how to deal with. Same for Big Thief as a whole, but Vampire Empire from what little I had accidentally heard of it was bound to leave a gash. The ability for music to be so surgically bound to an experience or person cannot be understated. But they say time heals, and that it did. As such, I was finally in a place where I felt I could listen to this incredible band again, and I went through their albums and was thrilled that I found as much in them as I used to. After the albums, I played Vampire Empire and I cried. Anyone familiar with the band or Adrianne Lenker's solo discography knows well the painfully potent metaphors they use to convey the most minuscule aspects of the human condition. Paired with a band that perfectly compliments their voice and adds so much texture and breath into the music, it feels like these are songs that are unable to be emotionally moving. Vampire Empire paints a bleak picture, one that feels all too familiar to most. We're thrust into an observer's position, playing the role of the fly on the wall while we watch the corpse of a relationship shamble along, looking for some way to keep going. Lenker's vocal abilities keep things shifting and tense, with their delivery starting with the word "chills" standing out as phenomenally stunning. As we go on further we see the desperation come out, the desperation that is utterly illogical consideration the complete acknowledgment and admittance of the futility of the whole thing. This desperation takes a turn as things become past tense. Lenker isn't feeling this way anymore, they are recognizing how they used to feel, reconciling it with the reality of the situation, and feeling an anger grow. There's a manic insanity behind it all, insanity that comes from the ways you have to delude yourself to stay with someone you know is not good. And once again, Lenker portrays this perfectly through their delivery. The track circles back in on itself, void of any sort of internal conclusions. Instead, we are left with pure recognition. Is that in itself good enough? Perhaps if we know better we can simply enforce better around us. Or is action needed? Is it on us to leave when we are the ones being sucked dry? How cruel and unusual. The track presents all these questions and more, questions that so many people have on the tip of their tongues, they just can't figure out how to say it. I'm enthralled with this track honestly, I cannot and probably will not get enough of it.
Double TrioBy Storm
I have been aware of Injury Reserve since their first release in 2015, Live from the Dentist Office. That album as well as subsequent releases I enjoyed quite a bit, especially their self-titled release in 2019. Tragedy struck unexpectedly, when one of the three members, Stepa Groggs, passed unexpectedly. Time went by and I, along with others I assume, figured the group was finished out of respect for him. Instead, after about a year they announced an album in his honor, By the Time I Get to Phoenix. Specifically, it was dedicated to "his constant insistence while recording to simply 'make some weird shit.'" The first single immediately set expectations high, and rightfully so. The finished product was an 11-track record diving deep into the loss, confusion, and grief surrounding their loss. It was a hopeful album, almost feeling like it was made despite the idea of giving up or diving headfirst into some of the vices discussed on it. This felt like the perfect finale, and in some senses it was. They continued to play shows, I was even lucky enough to catch a performance in 2022. In 2023 they announced the final Injury Reserve track, Double Trio, which also functioned as the first track of a new group, By Storm. By Storm consists of the remaining two members of Injury Reserve, Ritchie with a T and Parker Corey. The name is a play on the title of the last track of the last Injury Reserve track, Bye Storm. Whereas that track was a farewell to the calamity and loss found in the aftermath of Groggs' death, By Storm is a group pushed forward by that very same force. They move forward by storm. To keep up with the linkage between the two, the title of the track, Double Trio, serves as a way to point out the loss as well. Ritchie begins by declaring why this track, and really By Storm as a whole exists:
"This is the only right way"
There is no option to wallow in misery and give up. To truly honor the legacy that has now been set in stone, the group must continue on in the truest possible way. Those previously mentioned words act as a guideline for future endeavors, just "make some weird shit." After an intro consisting of a few lines meant to set the tone over an oscillating and airy synth, Ritchie comes in with a brief first verse. This section is once more just hammering in the idea that something has changed completely now. The pain he felt did not numb him, it did not lull him into some form of self-isolation, it has left him "wide awake." He includes a quote from his mother:
"'Now get off your ass,' is what your mom would say"
This immediately brings me back to one of Injury Reserve's best songs, Knees from BTTIGTP. Specifically, I think of what is, as far as I'm aware, Groggs' last verse, and the lines:
"Shit, I seen my aunt the other day, she started roastin meLike, "Baby, how come every time I see you, you gettin round in the face?"
It's a relatively minute connection and may seem surface level but I believe it directly speaks to the ideology that pushed them all in this direction. There's a blatant honesty there, one that isn't masqueraded by any sort of pretenses because it doesn't have to be. There's an overarching love and protection, made even stronger by the fact that it comes from people who not only know how to love but also know how to express it. Right after the intro, the listener is hit with some extremely crisp keys that bring a kind of vibrancy to the track that it was so wholly devoid of before, not in a bad way, it's just that the new addition completely changes the tone of the track. The drums roll in carrying warm undertones that keep the listener enveloped in the song, hypnotized by the ongoing creation. After a repeat of some earlier lines, Ritchie brings a verse completely opposite of the last, commanding a sense of respect as he rises from the slump with an energy that completely matches the new aesthetics of the track. He continues to build on the earlier motifs, especially how the pain brought him out of the slumber he was in (Side notes: the cover is a bed which plays perfectly into this. The start of the track is him still in that sleep, and now we listen to him "wide awake."). The verse is followed by a chorus and then a breakdown of the instrumental as the keys come not as full progressions, but as brief and chopped. This is honestly one of my favorite aspects of the track. It is hard to hear the voice of a producer, but Parker makes himself known. This section of the instrumental is populated with another verse by Ritchie that again capitalizes on what the song is all about, but genuinely nothing stands out more than Parker's progression. Even the way the verse is mixed in and Ritchie's voice is altered feels like a rejection of the idea of the group being just a vocalist and producer, instead, this is two people fully expressing their own emotions through different methods. It is a beautiful marriage and does so much more than they could have achieved alone or even working with any other rapper or producer. This track is an introduction to what I am hoping to be one of the greatest hip-hop duos to have ever existed. Double Trio is a triumphant overcoming of the most painful emotion, loss. It achieves the opposite, pure creation.
Similar to JJ Shadow, I was put onto Decuma through an interview I did. I checked out their catalog and was thoroughly impressed. As soon as I heard their latest release I immediately bought a physical copy. Their last few albums (their whole discography but the latest ones especially) showcased an insane amount of talent as a writer, producer, and vocalist. However, it wasn't their latest album, a grand cinematic piece that needs an essay of its own, that featured their best track this year. Instead, it was their first album of 2023, let's play pretend!, that contained one of the best songs I have heard in a long time, action figures.. action figures. pack quite the punch within just three minutes and sixteen seconds. For those unfamiliar with Decuma, his writing style is often very dense, which lends itself to an ear who wants to listen. This track is an exemplary example of that. Maneuvering through four verses with a chorus added in on occasion and a bridge at the end they manage to give precise (think an X-acto knife) details describing why they became the person they are. The chorus goes:
"Had to ask why I got so violentCause y'all don't listen when I use my words,That pussy shit is for the birds"
There's a noticeable absurdity laced within this whole track that is explained in the chorus. What we're looking at is people who have the gall to not put out a fire they started by tossing a cigarette butt into the woods and then condemning it for lighting the forest ablaze. With Decuma as our Virgil we travel through hell, viewing rapists who masquerade as believers, homophobes more concerned with how they eat hot dogs in public than the safety of their female family members, transphobes who are okay leaving their kids with cisgender pedophiles, and Decuma themself, there the whole time, witness and victim. The weight is heavy, and as the years go by the ever-present need to be constantly on guard only gets worse. If there are any cracks in the dam, the violence and anger won't come out in the same ways it was instilled, but it will come out. Part of how these cracks are presented is by ensuring that nothing can make cracks. If nothing can touch the mask that's been created, no touch can break it. How simple. Throughout the track there's a continued repetition of:
"Don't fucking touch me"
On a very literal level, it's about physical touch, relating to the effects of everything that has been going on. Why would touch be welcome when it's only ever been followed by pain? It's that absurdity again. But this idea of not being touched also goes back to the mask I just mentioned. If no one is allowed to touch them emotionally or spiritually as well as physically, then they are guaranteed safety, right? This is where the action figures come in. The third verse is extended by this section:
"Don't fucking touch me.I remember playing action figures, pretending to be bigger, strongerDismembered my fa-[CENSORED]I remember playing action figures, pretending to be biggerI was stronger, I was a superhero who couldn't falterI was a God with no faultsNobody could fucking touch me playing action figures"
I'll be honest as I sit writing this I had to take a second to reflect on my past after reading these lines over and over. There's this idea that can be brought about after someone deals with pain alone for so long, that I can completely be there for someone else, show devotion and love and care for them, and do everything that they could ever want, but I don't want it from them. And I don't want it to cause then they have a genuine impact on me. That could hurt. If I'm playing action figures and can control and will (and manipulate) the lives of these playthings that's all well and good cause I know for sure that I am a "God with no faults." I mean, how could I have those faults? I have seen every fault imaginable, I have experienced them, and knowledge is power, right? But if someone else were to have that power? They might not have been through what I have, or seen the things that I have seen so for sure they probably have faults and they cannot be trusted with that power. So don't fucking touch me. It's arrogance born out of pain and fear, manifesting into this weird and illogical coping mechanism.
"You can't wash your hands of thisYou created me, and now you can't run from me"
Before a repetition of the chorus and the final verse, we're hit with these lines. It's a conclusion that seems inevitable, but it is sad nevertheless. The wheel has turned and no longer are we looking as someone who wants to warn others or call people out about what is going on, we went from that to numbness, and now to revenge. The final verse is distinct, it is contradictory to the rest of the song (the whole song is inherently contradictory but that's the point as it is a deep dive into an illogical mind state that is far too easy to fall into). Decuma may not admit it there, but they are the action figure very clearly in the last verse. They are acting and reacting solely based on another person's input into their lives, there is no autonomy. As evil as the actions they have described were that put all these unruly and volatile emotions into them, they now wish that back on the other person. An eye for an eye is not even applicable here, Decuma will always be the one who suffers more because, at the end of the day, the other person simply will not care as much. But it doesn't matter anymore, the path is set and Decuma wants to dance this dance till the end and beyond. It is a tragedy. Hurt people hurt people yeah, but hurt people hurt themselves so much, especially the person they were before the hurt. The little kid playing with toys never wanted this to be their life, but because of the actions of so many others as well as their actions when they grew up, that's what it became. Now, this is a song and I do think someone has to have a least a little self-awareness to make Art. This is not even the final track on the album in which it resides, and so the question must be asked: what's the point? I'm inserting myself a lot into this mini-review as opposed to others because as I finish it up it is really hitting me how powerful this track is. Art is expression obviously but beyond the hurt and the pain and the sorrow and the grief, I see something expressed here which is so rare to find: accountability. I won't go into it too much cause this is not an album review but especially considering some of the next tracks, and action figures. is a moment in which nothing mattered up until Decuma acted a certain type of way. Again, this is not me diminishing the effects of what other people can do or victim blaming or anything like that, but when it comes to the control that humans have over their emotions and lives, all of it is taken completely when a conscious choice is made to hurt because of hurt. This track lays that out on a bloody tray, disgusting and revolting as it may be. This track is cathartic, it's human, and it's necessary for those who have seen how trauma can be multiplied. This is one of those pieces of art that if I had heard it before I was the person I was now, I would've misinterpreted as a song about justification. These inherently wrong things are right if they were done to me first. It's circular thinking and took years for me to get out of and now I don't hear that in this track. It is honesty, despite the brutality.
New JoySlauson Malone 1
The emergence of the slums movement in hip-hop was quite possibly the best thing to ever happen to the genre. The amount of extraordinary art and insane talent that was birthed from that sub-genre is truly baffling, especially in the short span of time it really began to become its own thing. Its popularity skyrocketed with Earl Sweatshirt's, Some Rap Songs. Not only did the sound become more recognized, but the two features began to get more attention, and then people associated with them, and so on. Off of that album, the track, Ontheway! features a collective named Standing on the Corner. I remember checking out the two albums they had out at the time and being completely baffled by how under my radar they had been for so long. It was pure genius, brilliant artistic expression, especially Red Burns. In 2019 I heard that the producer for SOTC, Slauson Malone 1 (it was just Slauson Malone, and the 1 was later added), dropped his own project, A Quiet Farwell, 2016-2018 (Crater Speak), and it was getting quite high praise. So I listened, and I fell in love. To describe that album is to ruin a capital E Experience, and so I won't. Instead, I will just say there was at least a whole year that went by when I didn't buy the album at least once a day. He followed that up with a release in 2020, a continuation of the 2019 project named, Vergangenheitsbewältigung (Crater Speak). This would be his last solo project until 2023, Excelsior. Excelsior is just as ambitious and grand as I would've hoped Jasper Marsalis' (Slauson's) next project would have been. There seems to be a tangible knowledge that he can express anything he wants exactly the way he wants. One of the most beautiful expressions of this talent that I found was on the track New Joy. "Hi, Hi, High"
Right away we have the foundation of the meaning behind the track with a play on words. We have a brief introduction between two parties, displayed through a simple, "Hi," said once from each of them. Then the euphoria. This is that new joy, the elation that comes from the act of human connection with the person under the right circumstances. These lines repeat throughout the whole song in an angelic tone, furthering the idea that this has to be something more than it is. This isn't a meet-cute, this is fate. Jasper rolls along on a spew of consciousness, at once full of himself and doubting all of what he is saying. Before his verse begins we hear the lines:
"I lieHow I feel, knowSomething's goin' on"
These lines throw the listener off about, wondering if the 'joy' is real or fake. At the end of the verse, it's explained with the same motif we saw earlier, it's used twice at the end. We had hi versus high originally. Now we have that line just mentioned above, paired against:
"How I feelYou know something's going wrong"
Things start to make a little more sense now. Our narrator instinctually jumps to the idea that anything new happening, is something wrong happening. It's a lack of control that scares him because as much as he wants to be able to front as if he is "a sun, solar, self-centered," he has a certain amount of awareness that he can't control what is in front of him. That leads us to the outdo of the track that also follows the same motif:
"It's all a rideAh, it's all a rideOh, it's alright"
He relents. It starts off as a giving up of his self-will, conceding that whatever is going on is just something that he and the other person are passengers for. This repetition leads to the realization that nothing was wrong to begin with besides the thought that there was something wrong, which came from him. The fact that ultimately he lacks the control he was grasping for inevitably leads to the conclusion that things are and will be okay as long as he does not try to take that control back. The original new joy was a misdirection, this is the New Joy. The Joy is found in the freedom that stems from the lack of control that the narrator now realizes he has. New Joy is a beautiful track, one from which so much can be gleaned, on top of sounding addictively sweet.