Album Review: Grayskul – Zenith

[Fake Four Inc.; 2013]

If the color-by-numbers liberalism of “Thrift Shop” and “Same Love” were an accurate indicator, the rap music coming out of Seattle deals only in ham-fisted treacles that appeal to folks who already know where they stand on such issues as “materialism” and “marriage equality.” (Still, more power to the pop culture zeitgeist machine if it encourages greater tolerance.) But while those aforementioned hits might be rare pieces of progressive cultural footage — especially when riding high on a milquetoast pop music landscape — they’re certainly not very weird songs. The Seattle-based hip hop duo, Grayskul, on the other hand, makes songs that are very much so.

Rappers Onry Ozzborn and JFK found moderate underground success in the mid-aughts, appealing to the Aesop Rock and Busdriver fans of the world, a fanatical base made more fervent by the lack of efficient music delivery vehicles pre-microblogging and Bandcamp. (Being able to have in-depth conversations about shit no one else has ever heard is an efficient way to claim authority, after all.) Grayskul’s label home at the time, Rhymesayers, was the ideal place for the niche rap of Deadlivers and Bloody Radio released in 2005 and 2007, respectively. Allusions to vampirism and robot invasion over moody, gothic boom-bap blended well with the crew’s fundamental roots in traditional Golden Era-style lyricism.

The duo’s new album, Zenith, released on indie boutique Fake Four Inc., forgoes the darkness of their previous material in favor of a wide-range of sounds oblique enough to maintain the group’s left-of-centeredness but also allowing for brief excursions into popular rap and electronic music styles of the moment. Production credits start with indie favorite Aesop Rock and trend further subterranean with names like Smoke, Void Pedal and Moodie Black. Album opener “Zenith” (featuring a brief Raekwon endorsement) is a salvo launched at the radio rap status quo over tense 4/4 drums; “Come On” is a lyrical workout with laser-guided synth and forward-marching boom-bap; and “The Gift” (featuring singer Reva DeVito) is melancholy neo-soul with a futurist hippy bent. This all happens in the span of the album’s first three tracks and it does much to keep your ears at full attention.

Elsewhere, some of the sonic experiments fall flat. “We Vanish” is rap-rock fusion (what a dreaded term) that I’m sure appeals to a very minor segment of those Vans Warped Tour-going heads who didn’t find the genre mash-up trend of the mid ‘90s regrettable. “Wide Awake” is a head-scratcher, too, with its lush synth and pristine, dreamy chorus by Themes. It sounds like a re-purposed Washed Out instrumental, which isn’t inherently offensive, but inside the context of what surrounds it the track falls too far out of bounds.

Seattle — and the greater Pacific Northwest area in general — is still a region finding its hip hop identity. Artists currently bubbling there run the gamut from the light pop fare of Macklemore to the bleak, medieval trap of Nacho Picasso. If you were to distill the city’s essential rap components to their base elements, however, you might find Grayskul left in the petri dish. Onry Ozzborn’s style settles in like the region’s perpetual cloud cover; he’s of the idiosyncratic school of lyricism with peers like El-P and Slug, whipping off sharp but askance science drops concerning a society in decline in one instance (“There Is No Edge”) and sending up the degrading nature of club culture the next (“Clubs”). JFK raps with a dexterous, perfectly in-the-pocket nasal scratch, the ideal foil to his partner’s droll wit. If Onry is the straight man, then JFK plays the court jester, like on the trap-inspired “Maggot” where he fires shots at radio rap convention over an otherwise conventional beat.

Grayskul’s home region is in no danger of reaching a hip hop equilibrium; there’s a massive range of sound worth exploring to anyone who has the time. This group, though, has always been ahead of the curve: they were acting like vampires way before the Twilight series found brooding life in gloomy Forks, Washington, for example. The main thing that sets them apart from what national audiences are now becoming acclimated to, is a piercing wit and penchant for finding artistic nuance in day-to-day topics, similar to how the best science fiction has always emblemized contemporary human existence. Depending on where you’re standing, Zenith’s best track, “I Adapt” (featuring Soliloquists of Sound and NyQwil), is either a treatise on the pratfalls of romantic unions, or obtuse commentary on the tendency for hip hop artists to fall into segmented musical “tribes.” Either way, with Zenith Grayskul has done its part in keeping Seattle hip hop weird and unpredictable.