Has there ever been a time when musical genres matter less? Once a valuable tool to sort your music library, forcing music through pre-determined genres now feels as antiquated as a Walkman. Take Ghostpoet, for instance. Sure, you could siphon his melancholy cyphers into hip-hop, but the skittering beats and eclectic production certainly skews more towards electronic. His descriptive vocals and stark scenes, delivered in a low-slung British accent, are not unwelcome signs of a talented singer-songwriter. In many ways, you could even call this “soul music.” As in, showing his soul music, pouring his heart, mind and body into the engaging lyrics and visceral vignettes.
So instead of trying to reverse-engineer Ghostpoet (real name Obaro Emjimiwe) to appreciate his complexity, it’s better to celebrate his post-genre, loosely-definable diversity and note his unique artistry amid a sea of soundalike singers. The London artist’s sophomore record Some Say I So I Say Light stands out as a crowning achievement – even if Emjimiwe’s somber subjects and stories strike a distinctly dour chord.
Despite earning a Mercury prize nomination with 2010’s Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam, Ghostpoet still operates on the fringes like an outsider. Try and name some other rappers who could flow on some minimum wage swag on album opener “Cold Win”: “Saving up the pennies, ‘cause the city too gritty / And cooking French fries ain’t pretty.” He starts the second verse lamenting all his clothes smell of grease. It’s a downer of a tone to start, and frankly foreshadows the rest of the record’s dirty realism.
On the next track, “Them Waters,” Ghostpoet’s posting up at a dark train station behind some neon synths, waiting for deliverance that was derailed long ago. He’s looking down an empty tunnel and seeing emptiness stare right back. The chorus calls for someone to set him up in flames and send him down the River Thames.
Thankfully, there’s often a lilt to his cadence and light-footedness in his wordplay that allows the timbre to stay at ‘interesting’ and ‘ultimately inspiring’ instead of ‘insipid’ or ‘criminally depressing’. Sonically, “Plastic Bag Brain” features a riffy guitar and wavy synths in a welcome change of texture. “MSI musmiD” depicts a spacy plate of dim sum noodles clashing atop a repetitive, Radiohead-esque piano.
He also shows proclivity of playing well with others. “Dial Tones” and “Meltdown” feature respective spots from vocalists Lucy Rose and Woodpecker Williams. Not to say they are interchangeable, but both similarly bring airy counterpoints to Emjimiwe’s heavy tone.
In fact, Ghostpoet’s sound is so unique and well-formed, it occasionally sounds like he’s coasting. For instance, the echo on the vocals on “Meltdown” sound eerily similar to Peanut Butter standout “Liiines.” But for the most part, mining the same well isn’t a dealbreaker when it’s as deep as his, no matter how dark it sometimes gets.
As his name implies, Ghostpoet can be vague, mystifying, and a little bit of a downer – but ultimately the best art is the kind that makes you think and broadens your perspective, which this record does in spades. He’s channeling a gritty city through thoughtful lyrics over beats that aren’t beholden to any genre. The fact that Ghostpoet is able to do so with such polished poise should be celebrated, even if its still unclear – and ultimately meaningless – what genre he gets labeled on your iPod.
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