[Self-released/Big Scary Monsters; 2020]

This is not an Illuminati Hotties album. This isn’t an Illuminati Hotties review, even. This is about Sarah Tudzin, the woman behind the band. This is the story of how a beloved indie label royally screwed their talented roster. This mixtape represents everything wrong with the music industry, and it’s laid out here for everyone to absorb – and for most to likely ignore. It should surprise no one that the music industry is completely unfair to a majority of artists. It’s been like that for decades.

But the situation surrounding Tudzin’s release of this mixtape, FREE I.H: This Is Not the One You’ve Been Waiting For, and the eventual release of the actual sophomore album somewhere down the line, is an underdog story where the underdog doesn’t necessarily win – but puts up a hell of a fight. This tale of unpaid royalties, ransom demands, contract breaches, and poor bookkeeping seems ripped right out of a made-for-TV-movie.

FREE I.H is what Tudzin has created and purposely put out as a way to get around that label, Tiny Engines, receiving anything from Illuminati Hotties’ LP2 proper. At first, it comes off as being just a giant mess. Without the context, this sounds like a random Soundcloud stream uploaded by an unknown artist that requires no thought. But, buried underneath the ungodly amount of stylistic changes, there is an “album” born out of vitriol, and it plays like a long stream-of-consciousness missive that touches on just about every emotion one could fathom from this situation.

Within these 23 minutes, Tudzin visits many corners of the genre palettes of the modern music era. It’s one moment a garage rock anthem a la Jay Reatard on “freequent letdown,” the next minute it slows it down to a quasi-Oneohtrix Point Never thunderclap on instrumental oddity “free4all”. The most intense track is the lead single and mixtape opener “will I get cancelled if I write a song called, “if you were a man you’d be so cancelled””, a track that needs no introduction, honestly. It’s the major hint that this is not the second Illuminati Hotties record and sounds like a time capsule unearthed from the early 2000s emo scene, as Tudzin screeches through the finish before thrusting us into the pummelling “free ppls”.

“I’m always letting everyone down / I’m always letting everyone know I’m down,” Tudzin repeats on “freequent letdown”, just to hammer it in that this is a woman who has built her own band, played all of the instruments, and did all of the engineering at one point. And yet, she still can’t get a label to treat her with respect. She puts Tiny Engines on blast directly in the tropically-tinged “melatonezone”, which is a double-dip serving of ice cream filled with dog shit launched into the eyes of those who crossed her: “Kidding myself that I’m still alive / I’m taking a bite of commercial pie / You’re living it up while I ask politely.” It’s gloriously uncomfortable and liberating at the same time. This isn’t Eminem making skits about Steve Berman for humor; this is true animosity. This is Tudzin riding a flaming skateboard buck naked down a slide into a swimming pool of douchebags, tearing through them and coming out unscathed on the other side.

Very little of Free I.H. could be considered conventional, but don’t mistake this as a declaration that it’s unlistenable. It’s ridiculously catchy; “b yr own b” is a pop-punk gem that feels like a sister to The Descendants; closer “reasons 2 live” is a perfect conclusion, bringing everything down to a Velvet Underground-level folk diary entry; and the four minute centrepiece “content//bedtime” is a call-and-repeat work-out, with Tudzin gleefully leading the charge. This is Tudzin displaying complete control over her art, and if it sounds like Lou Reed or Death Grips or Johnny Cash then so be it.

It’s not the greatest moment of Tudzin’s career – that moment is still to come. But, even at just 23 minutes, Free I.H is certainly her grandest statement to date, and one that she hopes every industry stooge covers in lemon juice and shoves up their ass. She may not feel completely vindicated by the end of the tape, but her following will grow, and anticipation for the next Illuminati Hotties record will skyrocket. The risk was worth it.

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