Recommended if you like Mobb Deep, Night Lovell,
Tyler, the Creator
Favorite Tracks: 11, 12, 9
FCC: 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
When Shahmen arrived, their vision came fully formed. The first track from their debut EP, 2010’s Enter the Circle, is both a creation myth and a statement of purpose: Bless, the group’s emcee, claims that his “first heartbeat became the 808 tone,” and proceeds to fill the next two minutes and change with similarly obtusely autobiographical details, delivered through the gravel of a pack-a-day throat. Before Bless steps to the mic, the first sounds heard on Enter the Circle are washes of cymbals, wind chimes, and morose cello. Drums arrive to help anchor the beat, but they’re secondary to the morose soundscape, a cloudy and surreal mood-piece made up of several continents and centuries; the snare drum serves as glue rather than solid ground. The remaining six tracks, as well as the next year’s follow-up LP, All in the Circle, stuck to a similar aesthetic: a barely lucid haze and an emcee muttering incantations into the void.
You could imagine them sticking with this sound forever. It was firmly rooted in hip-hop traditions, especially those of New York in the ‘90s, but branched off into strange-enough territory to ensure that nobody else was doing quite the same thing. So it’s fitting that “Iron Out the Maiden,” the first track from Shahmen’s newest album, California is Cold, comfortably fits into the mold they cast eight years ago – creeping synth-bass and no-nonsense drumming, with Bless spurred into action with a splatter of drums and some distant wailing. Similar themes emerge: the music scans as desolate, and the lyrics alternate between borderline nihilism, autobiography, and left-field braggadocio. While the throughlines of California are worth talking about, though, they’re ultimately nothing new to their sound. The more notable side is the tweaks they make – the mold never breaks, exactly, but cracks start to show.
Throughout the record’s thirty-seven minutes, these cracks spider off in all sorts of directions, but predominantly follow a single sonic vein: whereas All in the Circle was uniformly produced by Sense, California hands the bulk of production to Billy Blunts. The two producers both make sense with Bless’ rasp, but their sonic palettes are still radically different. Both craft forlorn beats, instrumentals that sound uniformly distant and morose. But where Sense crafted his beats from woodwinds, groaning cellos, and dust-covered drums, Billy Blunts trades in the orchestra for spaghetti-western guitars, a drum machine, and a handful of electric bass tones. This isn’t inherently a problem, but it is certainly a tonal shift – a dangerous move for a group so predicated on mood, but a potentially exhilarating one.
Unfortunately, it’s a left turn where the record may have been better served by going straight. The central problem with California is a lack of depth: in subject matter, in texture, in musical palettes. It all stems from the beats. On previous releases, Bless was by no means a stellar emcee; he was prone to occasional eye-roll melodrama, and his flows sometimes turned stale. But the beats proposed that he was a mere element in a broader landscape, texture and cadence rendered more important than the exact meanings of the words. Here, he remains largely unchanged. Even when he raps about being in love on a few tracks – a previously inconceivable idea – it’s with the same world-weary voice, and he still slips into questionable platitudes now and again in between verses about death and getting high. But the instrumentals are, by and large, much thinner than Sense’s; after disposing with the pile of instruments used on previous releases, not much replaces it besides empty space. Redefining the music as a lyrics-first proposition isn’t a flattering look, especially when textures have always been the project’s strong suit.
Sometimes, this relative sparseness leads to great results, things that wouldn’t have made much sense before California: “Ghost Town” is a swirling cloud of synth masking a wall of voices trapped in amber, and “Beyond the Pine” works wonders with a guitar and glockenspiel. Those are exceptions to the rule; much of the beats in display are inoffensive but forgettable. But Shahmen’s past releases have proven that atmosphere alone can carry their style of hip-hop; to fault California for a lack of lyrical ingenuity or instrumental virtuosity may be missing the point. The muffled drums and guitars, combined with Bless’ flows and generally morose subject matter, nurture a mood somewhere between nihilism and negativity that somehow doesn’t grow wearying over the course of the LP. The issue lies in the complexity of the haze rather than its overall structure, but even a simple fog can be entrancing if one stares at it for long enough. This trick is one that Shahmen haven’t lost since Enter the Circle, and that they’re able to pull it off with a record so instrumentally different is both commendable and beneficial, the main allure to a few tracks that would otherwise be second-rate. It may not be as lush this time, but their cinematics can still captivate.
Not to say that individual moments don’t shine through – there’s a great EP in here somewhere. “Suicide Drive,” which has unofficially floated around YouTube for years, is the record’s most successful attempt at trap-gesturing hi-hats, thanks to the way Bless dances atop them. The title track’s spindly guitar and open-kit drumming sets up a rock-solid foundation for some of the project’s most comfortably cool rhyme-schemes (“And I find a diamond in my spine fortified / The Navajo blanket here to keep me warm inside”), and “Wild Brush Fire,” featuring a rare sung section, marks a late-album foray into All in the Circle-style density: a crowded mix of meaty drums, accordion, and thick vocals. For every great line or song, though, there’s the awkward lyrics of “Mulholland” (“I miss our good mornings / Your name’s now goodbye”), the immediately forgettable “Dogtown LoveSong,” or the tonally-confused “Poison.”
The most engaging tracks on California are those tracks that follow “Wild Brush Fire.” That track, “1985 Pt. 2 (Black Flowers),” and “Lost Angeles” are the closest to breezy shit-talk that Bless lets himself get. On the first of these, Bless says that his mic’s akin to loaded dice, and in the moment it’s completely correct. The cellos, accordions, and dusty snares that accompany him, originally played on Sense’s MPC in 2009, feel like a breath of fresh air. He sounds at home here, and it casts the rest of the record in an odd light: is it a self-conscious left turn to avoid being pigeonholed, or just a different interpretation of the same aesthetic? Either way, the result is the same. California is both cold and claustrophobic, unforgivingly and suffocatingly single-minded, which has always been Shahmen’s main draw. But it’s not much else.