KEXP is counting down the best records of the year with our annual Top 90.3 Countdown. Ahead of the countdown, KEXP staff make the case for some of their favorite albums from 2021. Tune in to hear what makes the list on December 17.
I grew up in an era where the classic rap album was a nationwide event. Before the internet fractured every little subculture into bits like a sledgehammer to plate glass. Now every good album is a classic to somebody, and the collective joy of listening to a culturally significant hip-hop LP depends on what type of rap music you like the most these days.
When Life After Death came out, I heard it everywhere in the North Carolina city I grew up in. Didn’t matter if I was at my mother’s friend’s place, in the parking lot of Oak Hollow Mall, or listening to the radio while my crush’s mom drove her minivan to take us to the movies. When I moved to Washington State, I’d hear Hard Knock Life or Aquemini bump out of somebody’s car at nearly every gas station.
Groups of us would loosely gather in our friend’s living room while their mom wasn’t home, listen to the latest album that received The Source’s 5-mic honor, and see if it lived up to the critical acclaim. We’d argue about the greatest guest verse, the best beat. “Kick in the Door,” with DJ Premier’s eternal Screamin’ Jay Hawkins flip, is to this day one of my favorite beats ever produced.
There’s no equivalent to the rush of hearing the brilliance of rap music. It’s a more visceral experience than reading a great book, watching a great film, binging a great TV series. All those art forms require a bit more open space. It’s different from experiencing a timeless punk rock album or a mind-expanding jazz record. There’s the pulse of a rap beat providing the backdrop for poetry, literature, sometimes the apex of the written word. Rap music should’ve been eligible for Pulitzer consideration.
An exceptional rapper is at once a regular person and self-styled myth, at once ace reporter and method actor (or whatever Jeremy Strong called it in his New Yorker profile). An exceptional rapper is at once a stand-up comedian and star of a one-person play. This is what people who don’t listen to rap don’t understand about exceptional rappers!
An exceptional rapper straddles the line between autobiographical inspiration and persona. An artist never strives to be all the way real, that’s why yuppies call us “creatives.”
There’s no shortage of rappers who can string words together in a compelling way, so it’s fun when an MC plays with the archetype in a way that feels fresh. Enter a multilingual, intellectually daring brother, always wearing a hat along with the Haitian flag draped over his face before masking up became a health concern. Although he occasionally jokes about it (from 2018’s “Hut One,” from the perspective of a hypothetical label head: “‘How are we supposed to make money off this motherfuckin’ production if he keep his face covered?’”), he doesn’t flirt with pastiche like MF DOOM did. Mach-Hommy uses anonymity partly as cultural commentary; an aesthetic tribute to friends and loved ones who can’t show their faces in their line of work for legal reasons.
He sold digital downloads for hundreds of dollars while other rappers were falling all over themselves to give their music away. File-sharing servers were alight with Mach’s discursive, unpredictable, and atomically memorable writing.
Haitian Body Odor (2016) was a major concern for a big subset of in-the-know rap fans; a cult-classic rife with samples of psych-rock and cartoon tugboat whistles and allusions to being in league with assassins and Haitians being deported from the United States on the strength of affidavits signed by their own compatriots. He raps and sings about staying alert in treacherous climates, snakes in tall grass, surveilling you like the Stasi.
Around this time, Mach was affiliated with Buffalo’s Griselda Records at the beginning of their ascent to subterranean rap superstardom; alongside Westside Gunn (pro wrestling and fashion-obsessed aesthete par excellence), Conway the Machine (torchbearer for the type of skull fracture rap that never goes out of style), and Benny the Butcher (the second coming of Streets is Watching-era Jay-Z). Mach wasn’t necessarily “part of the family, but “a friend of ours.”
Mach’s slightly nasal drone matches the tone of whatever song’s mood may be, ferrying a style heavy on margin-busting rhyme patterns, colorful threats, glimpses of an old soul, auteurist vignettes of an outlaw’s life, and wisecracks worthy of reaching the rewind button for. Even during the early parts of his climb to infamy, his writing contained a defined literary sensibility, dipping between languages, patois, slang, and syntax in an engrossing way.
After nearly half a decade on the outs with Griselda and building his name on his own (which included full-lengths with close collaborator Tha God Fahim), a reunion with Gunn set Mach up for an explosion in recognition, starting with the immersive Pray for Haiti, a titular play on Gunn’s 2020 epic Pray for Paris. The Buffalo rapper/svengali also served as an executive producer of the project, bringing his much-celebrated ear for instrumentals to the album and his high-pitched snarl to four of the album’s tracks.
Every classic rap album has that memorable first moment, the note or vocal sample transforming into the instantly, eternally recognizable moment that flips the Oh Shit switch in a person’s brain. A woozy trumpet line—slowed down, pitch-shifted, almost sounding instead like a trombone—opens “The 26th Letter,” accompanied by subatomic bass notes and followed by jazz drums that sound like a stiff breeze would knock over the whole kit.
Mach uses the atmosphere of the leadoff track to unfurl his miraculous skill in the field of rapping. He drops an ace MF DOOM reference and follows it up with a dunk contest showstopper (“Rapp snitch knishes telling the cops their status / Lotta these rappers big 12 like March Madness”). Gunn gets his Sean “Puffy” Combs on between Mach’s verses, taunting rivals from the beach and casually unfurling sing-song melodies about said rivals’ bank accounts.
The beats on Pray for Haiti are dusty cathedrals produced by Denny LeFlare, Nicholas Craven, Sadhu Gold, Conductor Williams, and others. They’re rife with twinkling, slightly bent arpeggios, chiming melodies over dirty drum breaks, horns that sound like being driven through an island city at night. The bleak soul and brick-heavy drums of “Murder Czn” to the meekly triumphant “Blockchain.” Williams’ off-kilter soul flip on “Makrel Jaxson” sounds beamed in from Madlib’s sessions for J Dilla homage Beat Konducta Vol. 6: The Dil Withers Suite.
Mach cycles through a host of lyrical moods on the album: he’s glib, somberly reflective, cutting through other people's bullshit, clearly having a blast in the torrent of brilliant wordplay. The album is a complete work made of abstract fragments; Earl Manigault and Andrei Kirilenko, the curt dismissal of bloggers, the implied politics of rappers getting fashion braids and calling them dreadlocks, an interpolation of the second verse of 2001’s “The Takeover,” Ringo Starr well before Get Back renewed widespread interest in the Beatles for the 10,000th time, rocking a size 4XL “when Gore-Tex was a flex.” A melangerie of clever bon mots and piecemeal autobiographical detail crouched in dizzying wordplay. He references leader of the infamous booster clique the Lo-Lifes merely as an aside. Mach’s baseline is rare form.
Much has been said about the obfuscation and density of Mach’s lyrics and how they match the mystery of his pseudo-anonymous persona. Isn’t that refreshing, though? Isn’t it a thrill to listen to a rapper willing to challenge the artistic expectations of their audience in an era where the bulk of us aggressively share our most frivolous opinions and up-to-the-minute whereabouts on social media? Where any fan can log into a website and poorly translate and decipher the rich manipulation of language that rap music was built on?
It’s difficult to imagine even Yusef Konunyaknaa being able to annotate something like Ghostface Killah’s 2000 masterpiece Supreme Clientele, let alone some kid coming home from a burger shack rap cypher in Omaha or Toledo. Mach-Hommy confounds the orthodox standards of rap’s linguistic tradition, through sprinkling his rhymes not only with Spanish, French, and German—as well as augmenting long stretches of English with stanzas and full choruses of Hatian Creole, sometimes mournfully singing in the language of his homeland—but also a deep reservoir of slang, literature, sports, and pop culture.
Through these labyrinths of language, reference, and precise rhyme patterns, the flag on his face serves as a reminder of the incubator for his particular talent, the heavy barbells in the rucksack of ancestral weight, the shadow of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere cast upon him.
The emotional centerpiece of Pray for Haiti is the sublime “Kriminel,” a portrait of survivor's remorse and PTSD dreams, a soulful ode to the stress of poverty and the roads it leads people to. An ode to cousins and friends with gold teeth shining from the afterlife, or slumped over in their car riddled with bullet holes, or urging him to keep kicking verses, or flipping out on the verge of mental breakdown in the group chat in anticipation of a wire transfer. A reminder that, yeah, dope verses are cool and yeah, growing up on the streets instills a profound toughness in Black men, but “niggas’ feelings need songs.”
It’s easy to be nostalgic about a classic rap album, to reclaim the rush that makes you feel like a curious kid again. The classic rap album as a subgenre is a completely different world than it used to be, and it’s difficult to channel that 14-year-old kid when you’re 38. Furthermore, we don’t gather around the same way; we don’t pass rap lyrics around like a buried language of a bible verse.
But occasionally, we get a rap album that’s so singular and phenomenal, we can’t help but play it for hours on end, attempting to fully take in its world. A rap album that stands up against any canonized work of art in any field. Whether it slides into a vinyl sleeve, comes secured in a CD jewel case, or sails into the airwaves as digital ether swaddled in the Haitian flag.
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