Why do musicians make the music they make? It's not a question we're going to answer here, but it's one that's constantly to the fore when listening to the brand-new From the Floor Up, the first record released by hip-hop duo A-Frame and Mike Clouds in about five years.
STEPPING OUT And letting you in — A-Frame and Mike Clouds.
There are those who would make music their profession, and it's clear A-Frame wouldn't mind earning his living that way. There are those who rap for the rush of battle competitions, and Frame seems more than ready to engage, as angry as he's ever been. There are those who do it for the release, and that is where A-Frame settles in most snugly, the kind of guy who rhymes because he has to.
A-Frame has huge talent, with seemingly endless voices and deliveries he can use to assume personas and personalities, but listening to his record is like sitting in the chair as the psychologist while he pours his heart out on the couch next to you. It's so intimate you feel like you have too much information.
But that's the charm, too. Hip-hop as bloodletting. That he can be so silly and funny, honest and raw, self-deprecating and bombastic at the same time presents this weird experience where you're not sure if you're supposed to laughing or crying or staring in disbelief.
Long-time collaborator Mike Clouds has been more hard-at-work, releasing solo albums and producing music while A-Frame has been largely out of the scene, but the close-knit friends are seamless here, Clouds delivering the backbeats and hooks that are central to Frame's message in "Downslope": "What happened to the hook?" A-Frame may be underground, but he loves the big chorus, the classic song structure, the dynamics that make a song catchy and listenable.
Yet where he was once so playful he's now so angry. And he's responsible now, too, with a song about his six-month-old daughter filled with worries about fatherhood and being a good dad. Plus, he's as real as he's ever been, exploring his own psyche and day-to-day Maine living as well as anyone in any genre.
"Stone Church," the duo's contribution to the Milled Pavement Goosebumps 4.0 collection, has even greater impact here amid the rest of their material. It's speaking for those who can't speak for themselves in the best tradition of important art: "She only needed love, but dad was out lobstering . . . now she's got a man but he likes to make a fist."
If A-Frame would focus on material like this, instead of throwing away "whack MC" lines in tunes about how other MCs suck ("Still Can't Diss," "The Comeback"), he could tighten this record up considerably. It would also provide more balance if he could be narrative more often, instead of always diving so deeply into psycho-analyzing nostalgia.
Which is not to say the psych-analyzing nostalgia doesn't produce some great lines. "I put soul in the lyric," he spits in the title track, of his move away from jokey raps. "I slowed down the flow so the poseurs could hear it/We used to wanna be rich/Now we're going for the comfortable."