Updated: Oct 3, 2022
This post is written by Michael "Farley" McFarland - founder of Second Street LLC. Farley has worked at several recording studios in Chicago and has produced and engineered several works of both his own and others' music.
One particular style of hip hop has been called a variety of terms amongst Twitter eggs and arguing Redditors on the internet: abstract rap, avant garde rap, or the always-overused "alternative rap." With a sample-heavy beat often borrowing from world music or jazz, the artist usually takes a poetic tone, less focused on melody and more keen on transparency and wordplay. This genre marries the off-kilter, inventive sounds of experimental acts (e.g., MF Doom, the Alchemist) with the the dusty, nostalgic textures of boom bap (e.g., Nas, Wu-Tang Clan), with a modern twist.
Call it what you want, but this style has some serious staying power, recently spawning hit records like Earl Sweatshirt's Some Rap Songs, Mach-Hommy's Pray for Haiti, and redveil's Niagara, not to mention plenty more music out of New York City's [sLUms] Collective and Buffalo's Griselda camp. But fresh on their heels is Chicago's William Griffin -- known as Willyynova -- a whirlwind onto the scene with two quality LP-length releases within this 2022 calendar year.
NOVACANE is an eight-track offering spanning a tight 18 minutes. With no features and minimal, looped production, this record is a wide-open playground for Willyynova to express himself on his life experiences which he describes as finding "beauty within the journey of the storm." A clever play on words, "NOVA-CANE" is both a reference to his stage name being trapped inside of a hurricane, but also, the numbness associated with the anesthetic drug "novocaine." So before we even start, there's a double entendre for those counting.
Like many of the aforementioned works in the abstract rap sub-genre, this project has an album cover somewhat indebted to the neo-expressionist art movement; Willyynova commissioned artist Zesty (IG: @artbyzesty) for a striking painting to match the chaotic, subconscious feel of the album. As the second project released just a mere three months after the first, NOVACANE is marketed as a thoughtful, stripped-down counterpart to his May 2022 project BURNING BUSH.
What Does It Sound Like?
The album begins with "ILL WILL," a confident, mellow introduction a la Drake's "Champagne Poetry." A sophisticated vocal choir swings along, cutting in and out at-will to accentuate Willyynova's punctual delivery. Short, simple and palatable, this intro serves nicely as an appetizer before the heart of the album begins.
Within moments, the listener is dropped right into a dense, slow, hazy atmosphere. With a drunken drum groove and spacey keys, "Suntalk" is something you might hear out of Isaiah Rashad's Cilvia Demo. The entire instrumental wobbles left to right in the panning field, constantly moving and changing. In most music, the lead vocal sits inside of the mix, comfortably within the bounds of the other elements. This is not true here -- the vocal is the highlight, and everything else -- bass, keys, SFX, and all -- dances around it. It's a dizzying effect that works incredibly well in this application. Continuing to listen, there's no secret who Willyynova pays tribute to in his music -- there are plenty of hip hop homages strung together with lines like, "Let MAVI said, let the sun talk," "JAY-Z to Beyoncé,"like a goblin to a goon," and "villain to the doom, MF theory of that groove." I find it's always nice to hear when somebody wears their influences on their sleeve.
Willyynova certainly has a knack for the "stream-of-consciousness" flow, where one line sort of just bleeds into the next, held together by internal rhyme schemes and word association.
But what I really enjoy are his multiple decisions to take pauses to let the listener collect and digest. For instance, in "Lost in Boston," he lets the beat breathe after his verse for a solid seven or eight seconds before coming back in with "...'cause it's that Ali vs. Tyson..." When operating at such a high lyrical level, some rappers oversaturate the space of the beat with punch-ins and try to say too much at once. Great artists recognize that silence is saying something, too.
"The Godfather" sounds like a major highlight off the rip, with the type of wistful jazz melody that instantly evokes feelings of desperation and loneliness. The drums are dirty and dark, just like the vocals, as he raps abstractly about strained relationships and substance abuse. Use of imagery helps to further the album-wide dichotomy between the sun and the rain as we feel, alongside Willyynova, trapped in a hurricane. This feeling continues into "The Blues," where we get some complex metaphors that take some dissecting to understand.
The album ends with a slower beat flip of"Suntalk" called "SuntalkULTRA." This reprise is pitched lower and serves as a head-knocker not unlike the [s l o w e d + r e v e r b] style prevalent on YouTube. It's a fun way to highlight some of the best bars he rapped earlier on.
What Does It Feel Like?
Not only does Willyynova "let the sun talk" in this project, but he also does something very refreshing: he lets the sample talk. Through leaving longer portions of the original material intact and looping them (straying from traditional songwriting wisdoms), a few intriguing things are able to happen.
First, by omitting typical hip hop elements from the composition (think: punchy 808s, rattling hi-hats, synth pads), the artist's voice is laid bare. Because of this, listeners pay attention to more personal things like the intricate cadence of his flows, the adept slant rhymes, the breaths and sighs. The lyrics start to feel much closer to free-form spoken word than they resemble rap bars. Put simply, it gives an intimate peek into Willyynova's psyche as a human rather than as some unaccessible entity who performs on-stage.
Second, by leaving the sample raw and largely unaltered, a certain pipeline to the world before us becomes clearer. When a producer puts too many distortions or filters on a sample, it obfuscates where it came from in the first place -- stripping it, in part, of what those musicians had to say many decades ago. For many artists, sample selection brings to the forefront an intimate, personal connection with their own heritage or history -- with Earl Sweatshirt, for example, sampling his own uncle Hugh Masekela, a South African jazz legend, on his track "Riot!" or perhaps Mach-Hommy having a young boy speaking Haitian Creole in a bustling background on his skit "Leta Yo." This helps to weave a rich sociopolitical quilt that gives the music important context.
The album altogether feels honest, foggy, hypnotic and personal. While there are subtle themes of numbness, pain and gloom, nowhere does Willyynova feel completely resigned or defeated. Instead, the grand sounds of a brass section and thumping bass make some appearances (albeit tucked far away), allowing him to exude the same confidence we hear in BURNING BUSH.
You may not be surprised to hear that, like many other talented pioneers in abstract rap, Willyynova is young. At only 22 years old, his momentum has mounted steadily as an artist and a producer. He is continuously bringing a unique sound to the Chicago scene that will no doubt continue to flourish as 2023 comes around.
Feel free to leave a comment or share your thoughts on this project! We at Second Street would love to discuss your opinions.
On The Block...
"DMX" - ALIAH
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"STOFRONT" - BandLand ZZ
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"HAHA" - NOT THE TWOS
A distorted vocal leaks out over electric guitars and sirens as the ultra-clean production and tantalizing melody ("keep calm and carry on") shines. This is the second single from the anonymous-yet-clearly-professional artist with a mysterious branding scheme.