PHONIKS photo by Benjamin Boutin
Halfway through the “Pay Homage Interlude” on the new Stories from the Brass Section, we hear some OG asking rhetorically: do you make music that sounds like hip hop, “or do you put out what hip hop is?”
It’s an important distinction. Are you being reductive? Hearkening back to the Golden Age? Or do you put out what hip hop is?
I think it’s fair to ask that of Anti-Lilly and Phoniks’ full-length collaboration, which ought to be endearing for lovers of late ’80s/early ’90s hip hop.
Yeah, there were great performers back then, but so much of their allure was that they were bringing a brand-new sound, something no one had ever heard before, and it represented their lifestyle, their culture. They were our Beatles (I was a freshman in high school when 3 Feet High and Rising came out. When do you ever love a band more than when you’re a freshman in high school?).
If you don’t move that forward, you’re fundamentally doing something different. It’s not lesser. But it’s different. It’s like genre fiction. If you’re playing “bluegrass” or “jazz” or “hip hop,” you’re giving your listenership a framework, and baselines on which to form opinions. How do you like that guy’s leads? Her brush-work. Her delivery. His lyrics.
It lends me personally to focus more on the performance. It has to be outstanding — otherwise I’ll just go grab that previous shit that sounds the same, but better.
Anti-Lilly is a strong MC — quick and lithe, with a consistent delivery and lyrical inventions that are smart if not overly provocative. He’s solid and tempered. And therefore well-matched with Phoniks, whose constructions of piano and horn riffs recall Guru’s Jazzmatazz project and are really easy to listen to, laid back and without a ton of dynamics. There aren’t many sit-up-and-take-notice moments, but neither is there anything to make you stop listening. Looking for something to fire up blunts and chill with over good conversation? This is your thing.
Like “Decension,” which is a perfectly enjoyable piece, with a muted lead-in (that happens often here), a catchy little horn line like an ’80s sitcom slowed down, and Anti-Lilly’s smooth delivery. The bass is more active in the melody than in typical hip hop, and the repeating elements are more like a good band finding itself in the pocket than a simply programmed construction of phrases.
When does the change in volume or excitement happen? Pretty much never, but that doesn’t seem to be the point. This isn’t throw-your-hands-up-in-the-air hip hop (which is good, since Lorde has declared that’s all over with now).
“Big Payback” has more of a pop. When Awon (Phoniks’ collaborator on his debut full-length as producer, Return to the Golden Era) comes in, like he’s rhyming in a cardboard box, mixed deeper into the middle, and angry — it feels like something’s truly happening. And the lilt on the titular phrase just ahead of that gives you a delicious heads up.
There’s a medical marijuana tune (“Blue Dream”), an art-themed piece (“Rothko”) that pulls together some interesting elements and finishes with tasteful cutting, and another throwback work in “14 Til,” which lionizes the past.