Thursday, January 12, 2012

Album Review: N.P.R. (Nihilism Produces Revolution) by A Man Called Relik

"Many a house of life
Hath held me---seeking him who wrought
These prisons of the senses, sorrow-frought:
Sore was my ceaseless strife!"
- The Buddha

"My counsel is that we hold fast ever to the heavenly way
and follow after justice and virtue always, considering that the soul is immortal
and able to endure every sort of good and every sort of evil."
- Plato

It has taken numerous revolutions of this disc over a period of years for me to come upon a full understanding of its message. The display of poeticism (a style best described as "eloquent ferocity" or "ferocious eloquence") and the unconventionally unbroken, smooth (often drumless) hymnal music of the beats easily induces a state of tranquil marvel rather than rigorous contemplation. Now that I've managed to experience the latter and fully assess what's being said and presented on this record, I'd like to shed light on an underground gem of condensed mental minerals.

As it has interweaved with the rapid growth of the internet and technology, Hip Hop music has evolved to a point where there are far too many individuals pretending to be rappers. As MF DOOM once put it, there's "a whole host of roller coaster riders/ Not enough tracks." Listen to him rap for two seconds and it immediately becomes apparent that A Man Called Relik is a natural-born lyricist, an individual who deserves to cut straight to the front of any rap roller coaster line.

A Man Called Relik is the name of a brilliant young spoken-word poet and emcee hailing from the state of Indiana. His 2010 debut album Nihilism Produces Revolution (N.P.R.) is a unique showcase of hip hop music's ability to withstand the corrosion of its art form into pop materialistic commercialism---clearly the genre continues to produce otherworldly gifted poetic youths each generation. It should come as no surprise that there is a detectable Wu-Tang influence in his lyrics (explicitly referenced in the journey of adolescence described in the track "Middle School Militant"); from my first listen of Relik's music I could especially tell that he must have been impacted by the near-mystic spoken-word poetry displays of Killah Priest. The entire record consists of such spoken-word poetry tracks, all very much in the same vein as Priest's "Heavy Mental," "Places Where Pharaohs Go," and "Behind the Stained Glass." It sounds a bit like what one would expect to hear on Def Poetry Jam except that it's infused with a more powerful perspective that easily maneuvers from a cosmic view down to the Earth's minuscule grains of dirt and rock; a perspective that spans multiple lifetimes, generations, epochs while often being stuck in the grave dramas of young adulthood.

As I mentioned already, there are two ways to enjoy an album like this, the easy way and the hard way. The easy way is to just sit back and prepare to be awestruck by the display of lyrical brilliance, the hard way is to ascertain the complex overall theme and how effectively it is carried out. I want to try and explain this theme (or what I perceive as the theme) as clearly as possible in this review.

The record is essentially a journey through darkness trying to find light. The overall sound is often dark and dreary, the artist seems stuck in the perspective of the Buddha's first noble truth: "All life is sorrowful." Indeed, Buddhist elements recur throughout the record, especially reincarnation, and A Man Called Relik sounds like a Buddhist who's fallen off the path while seeking nirvana through multiple lifetimes. As a new lifetime of growth, maturity, and experiences unfolds, his poetic sensitivity is struck by the negativity in all existence, the grim sorrows, the dark shadow of life that makes it temporal. It's as though he's stuck here in earthly existence and has lost hope as a result, leading to a negative outlook on life (and, as the Buddhist cosmology sees it, guaranteed further reincarnations of earthly existence and suffering).

The key to this record is the process of revolution that is eventually produced by the artist's nihilistic outlook, as in the last song he realizes "purity is only found where there is nothing left to be polluted." As I'll explain later, the musical journey eventually reaches a conclusion where the character finally does experience the ego-shattering light of nirvana, but upon encountering the gates of this realm he decides to turn back. He is determined to return to this earthly life with a more affirming outlook and a desire to free the minds of humanity through social change (calling to mind Amita, the Buddha who refused to remain in nirvanic bliss until he could help all other beings achieve the same, so he came back to earthly life).

The album opens with the rantings of a soul that has died after a harsh life, now he denies the existence of anything better, of anything positive, and his soul thus returns to the womb again and into a new life. The first track deals with this initial death ("Cremation"), in which the final part of the song is "guilt-free, I'm reborn in this grimy nudeness" before the next couple tracks focus on themes of a young person coming up in the world.

Throughout the journey of life, he encounters the darkest realities, the plight of humanity in its modern earthly existence, and elucidates the voices of drunks, prison inmates, a raving schizophrenic homeless man on the streets, harrowed 9-to-5 slaves, and eventually (once again) someone who has died, their soul passing among the gravestones. It's quite a dark album overall, some tracks are too dreary for me to listen to for very long, but a flicker of light dances in the background throughout. In the midst of the musical excursion, it's clear that the speaker is a keenly sensitive aspiring mystic seeking to go beyond the veil of life ("I talk through my flesh to free my spirit like Hindus in Southern Asia, a priest appearance") but so thoroughly entrenched in the clutching grasp of society, which he represents in the skin-crawling "Spiders Land On Me Constantly":

"Spiders land on me constantly
constantly victimized by society's image of success"

Halfway through the album there's an interlude ("Repetition" featuring one of my favorite beats on the album) with a wise man giving advice to a seeker. The seeker is presented with the same striking dilemma that rests at the heart of Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the idea of eternal return:

"What if some demon were to say to you that this life, as you now live it, have lived it in the past, you would have to live it not once more but innumerable times more. There will be nothing new in it. Every pain, every joy, every unutterably small or great thing in your life would just return to you. The same succession, the same sequence, again and again, like an hourglass of time.
Imagine infinity. Consider the possibility that every action you choose, you choose for all time. Then all unlived life would remain inside you. Unlived. Throughout eternity. You like this idea? Or do you hate it? Which?"
This represents the first major step toward achieving a personal revolution. Because the key, as Nietzsche held so firmly, is not to deny but to affirm this life. Six more tracks follow this midpoint skit, their theme following the maturity of the poet who's once again challenged as he enters into the world of adulthood, jobs, family, escapist intoxication, and dreary monotony until finally a physical (or mental, or both) death and rebirth in the conclusion.

Here are a few brief thoughts on each track.

1. Nihilism (Intro)

This is perhaps my favorite beat on the entire record. Underground producer Woodenchainz provides the musical element throughout the LP and his contribution is a unique blend of serenity, darkness, and contemplative melodies, all of it from chopped samples but often in a form different than what might be called hip hop. The beats feel suited for the spoken word poetry approach.

The opening presents A Man Called Relik's most grim, nihilistic, rejection of life. A perfectly glass-half-empty perspective on life. "Paradise doesn't exist" he declares repeatedly, because he hasn't experienced it yet, hasn't escaped the cycles of earthly lifetimes. Childhood imprints darken his present outlook, "Someone stole my pair of dice when we was up in the bricks" or projects, meaning both his property was stolen and also the lost chance at living his dreams and aspirations. This is the modern depressed and impoverished youth, the anxiety of an apocalyptic generation in 21st century America with its endless wars and class discrimination.

Even the medium is cursed:

"Hip hop: America's stepson/ The accident/ Only loved by Mother Earth/ and changed by Father Time"

2. Cremation

The spooky, dark and "gloomy" skipping record, Billie Holliday's oft-sampled haunting tones on "Gloomy Sunday" crackle here. Sunday is either the beginning or end of the week, depending which way you look at it. I've always seen Sundays as gloomy because a new full week of school or work always lies ahead. Here in the first track, Sunday is both a beginning and an ending. We open with the words of someone who has just died:

"Do not mourn me my brother
I am exalted at rest as potential energy
subconsciously manifested in the randomness of dreams
dreamt by friends and family"

There are detectable elements here of not only the death of an individual, but the death of hip hop, and one considers the possible meaning behind the name A Man Called Relik, a relic from the days when A Tribe Called Quest briefly reigned and a true American art form was born.

The song concludes with a rebirth, the beginning of another cycle, "Guilt-free, I'm reborn in this grimy nudeness"

3. Middle School Militant

After rebirth, "my parents raised me to carry the kerosene through Hades" and we have here a full (and fervent) outline of the chronology of growing up, going to school in the 90s hip hop era, "quoting Biggie in the middle of any relevant speech with melodies," all delivered over the marching bootcamp drums of the beat. He carries us through 8th grade before the beat suddenly slows down to a tribal hum.

"I replaced addictive crazes
my only savior was pen and paper
I found my poetic nature in lonely places
at home in basements"

And suddenly, into this gestating soul's life, came hip hop... What follows is a steady streaming story weaved of both the artist and hip hop's evolution through the mid 90s until it was "misled by riches, cribs, MTV hit list shit."

His description of the initial spark of enlightenment brought upon by exposure to Wu-Tang, Gravediggaz, etc is verbally sharp and also a good description of my own incipient infatuation in those days. But the overall enduring image is bleak: commercialism took over hip hop, corporate record labels determined what should be popular and

"The music business has nothing to do with music, it's just business."

4. Fragments

Hypnotic beat. Once again focusing around early human life as he begins each of two verses with a human being's first experiences after birth and leads up into adolescent sexual urges ("boys and girls trade ancient grunts").

"Could nine months in the womb, give you such wisdom?
from years of evolution numbered in the billions
first you were a one-celled organism
you were a nebula that was spinning with precision
until osmosis was the beginning of your division
cell-splittin' until you resemble an amphibian
Reptilian, then you reach your peak as mammalian"

The second verse in this track (just quoted) is not only one of the best pieces of lyricism on the record, it's one of the best pieces I've heard in the last few years. Stunningly dope.

5. World Asylum

The last song had elements of puberty and now the development of the artist is nearing young adulthood. Eyes opening to the frightening scene of unadulterated reality. "I am a madman" he repeats. This is a personification of the muse, the beautiful and eloquent street soul of hip hop, reduced to a muttering madman. Those mutterings contain a frightening display of raw truth, though, in this very brief track.

6. Elephantiasis

This is high praise, but I'm reminded of 1997 Rza by this track. After the repeated mantra in a meditative opening we are treated to an intense display of verbal imagery, nearly delusional yet extremely eloquent and descriptive. This is Relik hacking jagged bars with maximum ferocity.

"CDs repeat release my creed in street meetings
my demons leak through emcee's teeth
breach through psychic readings"

"I scream until ears ring, treat brain disease like Nietzsche!"

7. Invisible Woman

A nice little vignette, our poet encounters an exotic beauty in a bar and admires, deeply fantasizes about an encounter before waking up "to the bartender's raspy screech: last call, 3:30 AM/ I must have fell asleep."

It was all a mirage.

8. Spiders Land On Me Constantly

"Constantly caught up in cobwebs and other nonsense"

Spiders and spiderwebs spun out into various metaphors, especially for ideologies and vast webs of mind-control. A brief, poignant, but dark and spooky track.

9. Dionysus

I would have loved this track had it not been for the manipulated vocals, which have been changed to sound so thick that the lyrics are barely understandable. A great beat to this track, one of the ones that comes close to the standard hip hop sound (i.e., drum loop and sample).

10. Repetition (Interlude)

See opening section.

11. Infidelity

This track has by far the darkest aura to it, very Edgar Allen Poe, so much so that I can barely stand to listen to it.

12. Top Bunk

Another very dreary song, fitting for the theme presented as Relik raps about the insanity of our prison industrial complex which currently imprisons more people than any nation on earth. The United States has less than 5 percent of the world's population, but almost 25 percent of planet Earth's prisoners.

"it's comedy to the aristocracy
mockery of street kid's problems"

Three verses present the perspective of a prisoner confined within thick cement walls.

13. Laundry

This is my favorite track on the album, to my ears it's the most perfectly executed song in every aspect. The piano loop strolls in a perfectly lulling rhythm and lyrically this track is a statue of sound, achieving steep heights as it progresses. The recurring motif is "just this room and nothing else," the image presented is one of a recluse, veering off the edges of sanity. "These walls romance an ascetic/ And growl at my tragic smile." He carries on intensely about the room and the society he's hiding from. Inside he seems to be hoarding thoughts, memories, words that "live between fits of dry heavings/ spit into napkins and tossed into this overflowing waste basket called consciousness." Stacks of dirty dishes cover the surfaces in this "old sanctuary", "a simple dwelling for a complicated untidyness."

The delivery and wordplay intensify as the track progresses until he's rapidly squeezing in bars that are overflowing with syllables like this:

"When it's just faded masterpieces
in this undecorated museum
in this underdeveloped gutter with a gun under my seat and a lead foot under my gas meter"

The track often borders on schizophrenia with dashes of OCD but its macrocosmic structure (repeated refrain, increasing intensity) and intricate brilliance (some of the best wordplay of the album) stamp it as a work of art. And that beat is so perfect I could listen to this song over and over again.

14. Centipede

With its slow beat, depressing chorus, and bleak tones this could've been a pretty sad track but the energy and occasional humor of the lyrics manage to uplift it. Coming from the perspective of a young adult now forced to give up his hopes and aspirations so as to pay the bills via some mundane 9-to-5 customer service job, this track rails against society's system of marching kids through a soulless path of school, work, marriage, babies, etc. until we "get buried, and that's it." His laments on the stages through which the average person robotically marches reminds one of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall."

There are a couple of funny gems on here. In the first verse he's describing showing up late to a job interview and he walks in "with the chorus from 'It's Yourz' on my mind"---a perfect juxtaposition to this apparent sacrifice of his goals, the chorus goes "It's Yourz, the world in the palm of your hand." He pretends to be flustered, makes up a story about having to fight off a gang who tried to steal his bike as an excuse for being late, and then tries to make small talk with the job interviewer. Sounds simple enough, but the presentation is pure poetic mastery:

"Faking like my pulse was racing
I lightly take a seat and invite
a conversation, similar to the ramble in ancient
Coliseum animal cages, a string of meaningless phrases
the subject of psychoanalyst papers
But anyway I was hired cheaper than machines
and now 40 hours a week gets sacrificed
out of my dreams"

By the third verse, he's already stuck in this lame job and struggling to muster the will to wake up in the morning. We've all been there:

"Wake up. Get up.
Fuck it. Just give up.
Call in and tell them you have the shits then hang up
No, go in have a fit, spit in ya boss' face then quit six months
after you started the gig, instead fuck it
Let's just get drunk"

15. Leashes

What an interesting song. The only musical accompaniments are bongos and the thumping heartbeat of a caged beast. Coming on the heels of a song about being shackled into a soul-draining, low-income job, this track repeats a motif of "waiting at bus stops." The theme opens one's eyes to this whole idea of collars associated with our grinding daily labor, something we all seem to accept unflinchingly. Relik does not:

"I hate blue collars, and white collars
and all other things related to leashes carried by anyone anywhere throughout history"

The fury increases as he goes on until towards the end he realizes he is becoming "more and more animalistic/ just as a way to tear through this blue collar/ and leave my leash tied to this bus stop." Great presentation in a song that really challenges one to think.

16. Graphite Huey

This is perhaps the song with the greatest density and thus I'm really reaching when trying to come up with the meaning behind it. It's clear that the tone has changed and matured since the opening. The repeated motif of "gravestones" suggests death once again (just as does the opening), except now there's deeper reflection, and a sense that the artist has achieved a personal revolution. "The meaning of death is much harder to find than the meaning of life," he states at the opening.

Perceiving the imbalances and injustices in existence, he is less nihilistic and seemingly more optimistic about everything and prepared to participate in the betterment of society. When the beat reaches its most tender tones, we hear:

"Dreams of idealists in the faces of children
ancient fulfillment of traditional sentiments of the savior is willing but..."

17. Return to Reality (Outro)

This final interlude is very important to a complete understanding of the overall transformation we've been talking about. A man who has been practicing deep meditation confesses to a woman that he had achieved a state of such incredible light that he couldn't withstand it and decided to turn back. He had been "bathed in light and suddenly time and space did not exist, only absolute radiance."

This is the experience of nirvana, the shattering of one's individual earthly ego and he could not withstand it. He felt something urging him to return to reality, "something that I do not wish to let die." Whereas the album opened with a negative outlook on life and the assertion that "paradise [or nirvana] doesn't exist" now paradise has been realized but the character has purposely turned back and returned to life. This will or drive to come back into life is the affirmation, the saying YES to life, that allows one to live with fulfillment and so the Revolution is now completed.

Overall, I'm not quite sure I can give a rating to this album because it's so unlike anything I've ever listened to. It certainly has elements of hip hop but the emphasis is strongly on poetry and elocution with heavy themes being presented. It seems like an unorthodox approach but there's no doubt that this is the revelation of a very gifted poet; this guy needs to be heard whether one initially understands the material or not. It's loaded with awe-inspiring lyricism. As for the dark, often dreary feel of things, I look forward to hearing if his next album builds on the growth and transformation we've heard here. Would also be nice to hear him rap over some good hip hop beats in the conventional style.

Here are a few other favorites of mine from this artist.

The Darkest Hour (prod by Kevlaar 7)

BC 2 Me (Relik appears in the second verse and shows what great potential he has in a regularly-paced song)

And here is a new video of Relik reciting an original piece entitled "Autopsy of a Supernova"

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