808s and Dark Grapes III
By Chet Betz | 12 July 2015
“I just can’t get deep into this, guys,” says colleague Adam Downer. Glassy eyed, I stare at his words. I’m not stoned, just enamored, entranced, I guess, with what I am listening to. 808s and Dark Grapes III is not one for depth. It’s a vast body of shimmering surface. It may be that the “Green Ova Diamond” is an emerald-y ocean horizon, Squadda B having to “sit down and really wait for mine / now put your shades on and watch a young nigga shine.” Far from the world of rap bragging and grabbing, Main Attrakionz’ newest espouses a teeming tranquility, an almost oxymoronic state of being—ever changing, never changing. Powerfully passive. We’re not diving here, we’re subsumed by the sight.
On mission statement “G.O. Style,” guest Dope G says, “I murder ideas / and kill philosophy,” and it may be unintentional brilliance that you can double the meaning of those verbs for the literal and the slang and apply both to what goes down here. On the hook Main Attrakionz declare that they are zoned out and this is “the G.O. style,” their pride a slurred drawl of an exclamation. Weed smoke’s the fog on this vignette but the picture’s clear, regardless of how it’s being exhaled into our faces. We’re standing petrified, exquisitely, by the unbearable lightness of being. Hip-hop is the soundtrack to our existential entelechy. As it should be.
Full disclosure and disclaimer: Friendzone might be my musical soul mates. Glory be, they produced this whole record. Main Attrakionz’ rapper duo MondreMAN and Squadda B seem casually reverent of what Friendzone do here, the understated wonders wrought. The raps hit the beats with energy but also enervated, bobbing on the tidal push and pull of this rolling stasis. Kinetics of the natural order and the secret progressions of “Cycles,” which is imagined here by Friendzone as synth lines pinging off each other in clicking synergy and climbing scales elegantly in their rounds before subsiding into downward stanzas. Main Attrakionz talk about cycles, too, sorta, then chuckle themselves off into the corners; as always, comfortably finding their pocket right behind the beat, just doing enough to keep up, our beloved stragglers. In many ways, that’s the ideal rap to marry with this masterful music. Mondre and Squadda follow where the beats lead, which is back and forth, in loping figure-eights with quiet revelations in each pass-through as the layers flutter around us. The beats don’t change so much as your perception of them is carefully directed to change, your appreciation to deepen, so that when shifts do happen they don’t have to be major for you to hear the pronouncement. When the synth bass goes full effect on “Dip,” your jaw dips.
Friendzone seem to have found an infatuation with horn patches and, God, I’m glad. I’m endorsing that shit right now. There are subtle horn accents in the final acts of both “G.O. Style” and “Ain’t No Other Way” which really elevate the resonance of those closures. Funny how the ‘Zone work a sound so traditionally associated with tonal warmth and weave that into their sparkling synthetic framework—as with the treatment of all their elements and structures, it’s like Friendzone’s transhumanist redefinition of the “organic” qualifier in music, and it balls benevolently. The horn loop that starts “Spoken Jewelz” is a jam unto itself, but the half-life hype it builds is in keeping with what this record does. Mondre eases into it and then when he really starts to dig in he basically starts repeating himself. Later, “Right Now” spins a staccato synth trumpeting, just in case you forgot how dope the horns were back on “Spoken Jewelz.” The record keeps you circling and cycling, caught in its undertow.
Except you’re only caught in your head and only for the most fleeting of moments before you realize you‘ve been standing on the shore still, always. There is no violence or aggression or even tumult here; this is the bliss of perfect neutrality and balance. The chiming verse beat on “Summa Time” comprises the record’s most melancholy measures while the song’s hook is the record’s most ebullient; everything is offset, counteracted, de-emphasized, or put into relief. Shady Blaze raps swiftly over beats like “Shoot the Dice” and “Two Man Horror Film,” which form the calm surface tensions for his spindly flow to skip across. “Ain’t No Other Way” might be the absolute triumph of this self-canceling give-and-take, this void of assertion that allows the beat to project onto you its own supreme contentment. These are washes of sound, savant-ish scribbles of melody, drums that chitter and knock, and a couple rappers smiling at you. On closer “Two Man Horror Film” they say it’s 2014 and don’t even care that it’s not any more. Time is irrelevant, right, especially when the music has a coda like this, synth chords punctuating a new rhythm, a new state, for the original melody to harmonize with and then fade, a sample from Bulworth admonishing that we’ve “got to be a spirit,” not a ghost. Merely to exist, never to haunt.
Is this the most noble use of self, inactive and unmoving, absorbing one’s environment? Standing on that shore, agape, sometimes squinting so sun glinting off the translucent crests is blurred into molten light, letting time Dougie onward until it all becomes outlines and sounds and the cool caress of air under the moon’s reign. This is where life came from, after all. Is there something essential in this type of feeling?
808s and Dark Grapes III will have your head nodding to that question, on every level. It is a message in a bottle from the ocean, and all it contains is more ocean, sloshing slightly within those glass walls, a microcosm. As Main Attrakionz so aptly put it here: “What the fuck is else to do?” Actions can be worthy of praise, but sometimes there’s not much to be said for the doing. Sometimes it’s the feeling that’s the only thing that’s real and that lasts and that can be, unequivocally, good. Sometimes it’s the being that speaks. This record is hip-hop as post-ambient.
I’ve listened to it about fifty times already and I can’t stop, won’t stop. This is where I’ll stand, transition-less at the edge of transition. My feet sink deeper into the earth; I am transfixed by that sight, the foamy peaks, dark eddies, a voluminous mass that writhes in place, and the placidity beyond that my perception creates, a seeming infinity that’s not for touching. Here is where I’ll grow, zoned out because there are no zones here. Everybody knows this is nowhere. Maybe I’ll even bear fruit, dark grapes for darker wine. And if I can just stay still, I’ll be free.