Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Preview/Review of Toki Wright & Big Cats' PANGAEA

(UPDATE: the album is available now)

I didn't have song titles on my advance copy of Toki Wright & Big Cats' new album "Pangaea." I was about to email to ask for them, but got distracted by the music. And maybe that's part of the point. This isn't just a collection of hot songs-- it's a cohesive, intentional, capital-A Album. A statement. A manifesto.

It's also a left turn. When I heard that my favorite producer (full disclosure: "Guante & Big Cats" also exists) was collaborating with someone whom I've said may be the most underrated MC in all of U.S. hip hop, may be the best pure MC in the saturated Twin Cities scene, and is definitely one of the smartest, sharpest hip hop artists you'll find anywhere... well, I anticipated something different. Maybe something a little more meat-and-potatoes, a high-level "beats and bars" type of rap album.

Because this duo could have done that, and it would have been magnificent. What we have instead, is something just as rich, and just as rewarding, but not nearly so "easy."

"Pangaea" does a lot of stuff. There are live instruments. There's some spoken-word. BJ the Chicago Kid shows up for a knockout guest spot and then disappears. There are jazzy breakdowns. Lydia Liza of Bomba de Luz haunts the project like a vengeful spirit, adding yet another layer to the already rich, multilayered arrangements. There are fakeout endings. The songs are rarely predictable, toying with traditional song structures and dynamics (not to mention audience expectations). It's deeply personal. It's deeply political. It doesn't sound like anything else out there.

The closest comparison point that comes to mind is Kendrick Lamar's GKMC; not because the two albums sound anything alike, but because they both do a masterful job blending the personal and the political. They explore emotions without ever coming off as melodramatically manipulative, and they explore political issues without sacrificing heart-- focusing on real human beings' stories as opposed to rhetoric and platitudes. And they're both gorgeously constructed, from the individual beats to the sequencing to the overarching themes and motifs.

In 2014, I'd rather listen to an album that takes risks than an album that does everything right. "Pangaea" doesn't do everything right, at least according to the metrics that most listeners will apply. Again, that's probably part of the point.

When Toki says "they holdin' up the gate/ I tell you who I am and they tell you who I ain't," that's not a message that will get all the Minnesotan indie rap kids to run out and buy the album. But it's a brilliant line, and one that encapsulates the larger conversation around identity that "Pangaea" isn't afraid to have. Toki has touched on these themes before, but "Pangaea" presents an artist who is deeply in tune with himself; these are songs that have not been focus-grouped or made to fit into a formula in order to get more rap blog buzz. The songs here are confident, challenging, and very honest.

And that isn't to say that this is a "weird" rap album. It's really not. It's unorthodox in a lot of ways, but it still bangs. It's still fun to listen to. It still features airtight rhyme patterns and big punchlines. But what's really striking about it, at least for me, is how it takes me back to being a teenager listening to "36 Chambers" with my headphones on, eyes closed, with no distractions. "Pangaea" is tailor-made for that kind of experience. It's a great album to get absolutely lost in, to unravel yourself along with the music.

As a listener, that means a lot to me; but as an artist, it is invaluable and inspiring.

"Pangaea" begins with a mushroom cloud and ends with rebirth, and recurring motifs of confusion, frustration, and growth really drive home the idea that change-- personal, cultural, political-- is like being inside a cocoon: it can be claustrophobic and confusing, but what emerges from those dark places can be beautiful... and powerful.

"Pangaea" is out September 23. Release party is 9/26 at Icehouse, with an all-ages show 9/28 at Intermedia Arts. Follow Toki Wright and Big Cats on Twitter for additional updates.

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