MORE RAP THAN HIP HOP Essence’s sophomore effort delivers.
There’s a solid local contingent that will tell you Essence is the best MC in Maine. How you’d even define that is a legitimate question, but it’s hard to argue that for pure vocal delivery, the way the words roll off her lips, her enunciation, she is unassailable.
Having dropped the “Lady” from her performing alter-ego (hey — Macklemore used to be Professor Macklemore, but you don’t hear that much nowadays) since 2011’s debut full-length Right Now, Essence recently released a sophomore effort, An Unseasonable Spring, which does nothing to diminish her burgeoning reputation as a rapper. Like Shane Reis’s debut this year (which is unsurprising, considering their work together), this is a piece more “rap” than “hip-hop,” whereby the production is relatively minimal and straightforward, serving most importantly as a platform on which to lyrically dance.
Which isn’t to say it’s rudimentary. With a healthy dose of long-time collaborator O*Zee, the samples, piano riffs, and horn blasts are always tasteful alongside snare-heavy beats, with the occasional heavy bass when Essence wants to get aggressive. Like with “Push,” where she teams up with production by Beat Blocked and MC Alyssa Marie, plus Kristina Kentigian, who does chorus vocals for four songs here. It’s an equality anthem, part and parcel with Essence’s uphill battle as a female rapper, in a slice of the industry where “women ain’t promoted/That’s for shaking asses/Making master think we’re only here, to serve as viewing pleasure.”
It follows close on “Halo,” where she pulls off an immaculate verse of clipped and sibilant syllables while describing the rudeness she’s had to endure from guy rappers because “she doesn’t fit that mold.” It’s hard to imagine a bigger douche than some inferior guy giving Essence a hard time because she’s a woman.
Well, maybe it’s the guy trying to win battles by disparaging his opponent with homophobic teasing. Essence tackles that in “Critical Thinking,” a tight broadside that comes in under three minutes and shows maturity for acknowledging that even she doesn’t always have it in her to call out every instance of “faggot” being thrown around the hip-hop stage: “My integrity is eaten for playing into it.”
But it’s not all political screed here by any means. The title track is surprisingly playful, built on a familiar bit of strings and steel guitar, and featuring a sing-song, almost-Gaga chorus: “You know I’ll be poolside with my hands up high/Just chillin’ in the breeze and I don’t care if it’s a million degrees.” But when she chuckles to herself, there ain’t a lot of mirth there. Essence wears her emotions on her sleeve and I wouldn’t call her happy-go-lucky.
The love songs here, like “Price of Love,” are hardly odes. With a bass-bass-snare beat and a bit of jazz piano, she sets up a situation that could best be called settling — “we gotta take the best reality and live it the same” — and then makes it sound more tortured with the Kentigian chorus: “I keep on pushing, you keep on pulling/But like a square into a circle, the pieces just don’t fit no more.” Also, that sounds just a little bit dirty, right?