I would hardly consider myself expert or even well-versed in hip-hop or rap, but I know that the vast majority of what goes on in those circles today is distasteful to me. I am weary of the over-the-top chest-puffing machismo and misogyny, xenophobia, and militarism that plagues much of modern rap/bling-hop.
Thankfully Height is different.
Height recalls old-school rap and hip-hop of Tribe or revivalists Jurassic 5, with a steady, if slightly inelegant, flow and a relaxed cadence as solidly reliable as circadian rhythms. Height’s signature is the infusion of his relatively slow tempo rhymes with remarkable intensity that feels it could boil over into aggression at any moment, as opposed to the jocularity of the majority of the old-school set. He isn’t the most eloquent rapper, hardly possessed of the flow of masters like Jay-Z, Nas or Rakim. But what he lacks here, he makes up for with adventurous music choices and solid lyrics.
Height is a storyteller, and rap merely his medium of choice. This is readily apparent in his latest album, which has extensive collaborations including Mickey Free (Bow N’ Arrow), Shields, King Rhythm, PT Burnem, Jones and even Wye Oak.
“Jackson Whites” is a great re-purposing of its reclusive namesake, detailing Height and Mickey Free’s retreat to wilderness. The track is pure gold with its persistent, stammering beat, anchored by downbeat claps and pulsing bass sprinkled with all sorts of synth runs, samples of horns and a monotone stream of sixteenth-notes from keys. A great showcase of Height’s approach, his lyrics rely more on crafting vivid images and story as opposed to constructing cunning wordplay: “Nighttime and the switch is stark//fuck the wolves don’t be afraid of the dark//we still got a backpack full of bark//so it’s no thing to get a damn fire to spark.”
“The World” samples a slow-burning early psych-garage track (courtesy of Shields) that provides near-perfect contrast for Height’s lingering vocal style. ”Code of Love” is a classic hip-hop track with a dark twist. It has one of the best beats on the album, along with effectively used samples of muted trumpet and backing vocals.
“Baltimore Highlands” is superb, with its eerie sampling of an ascending whistle-tone that sounds like some sort of ethereal air strike horn. Listening closely, your mind settles on images of the bombed-out rowhouses dotting blighted, decaying areas of the city and the cut becomes a tragic ode to escaping urban decay. The first single off the album, “The Woods,” with its choppy, beat-box-driven collage of sounds is pure magic. “Woods Reprise” follows later in the album with a meatier, deliciously electro post-script.
The highlights of the album are undoubtedly the two closing tracks “Standing Up Asleep” and “Cold and Shaken.” The former’s warm crackle is hazily nostalgic, recalling at once an antique gramophone and a blazing, wood-fueled fire, both accompanying late night reflection and poetics. The latter is a rich tapestry of samples, a foreboding torment, peppered with punchy horns, synths, guitars, the works (even crediting “orchestra stabs” in the liner notes).
But not every track is gold. ”Escape Tune” just doesn’t work. While the setting of the track is undoubtedly a frenzied scene, the chaotic clash of sounds is over the top and makes things feel far too muddy. “Twelve Strings” is the closest any track comes to filler. ”Travel Rap” feels like an promising concept executed poorly, lacking any real sort of dynamism; this same problem drags down the vaguely abrasive “Mike Stone.”
While a few tracks tend to drag on the album, as a whole, it is a great testament to the talented Height and his collaborators. He complements his lethargic stammer with some fantastic music. The beats linger, each falling and toppling over the next, like a clumps of wax turning in a lava lamp. Samples, loops and beats whip up a whirlwind of aural immersion, giving each track a distinct flavor accompanied by vivid images. A solid release from Height and debut for the fledgling Wham City Records vinyl division.
Height with Friends – Baltimore Highlands LP 12″ vinyl (WHAM005)
Release Date: Jan 13 2009
Limited to 300 copy pressing.
Order from whamcityrecords.com
- Mike Stone
- Jackson Whites
- The World
- Escape Tune
- Baltimore Highlands
- The Woods
- Code of Love
- Twelve Strings
- Travel Rap
- Woods Reprise
- Standing Up Asleep
- Cold and Shaken
Don’t miss the album release party @ the Zodiac next Fri Jan 16th, featuring Height with surprise guests, Nuclear Power Pants and Gavin Riley.
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