Words About Music
Teenage NY rapper MIKE is an up-and-comer I had not heard of before this year, even though he’s been putting out projects since he was 15 or 16. Now, at 18, he’s practically a hardened vet in a world of so-called “mumble rap,” lo-fi SoundCloud trap, and the mainstream’s hostile takeover of black culture. MIKE is a decided outsider in the game, putting together beyond-his-years boom-bap that hasn’t made New York rap sound so revitalized and weird since Joey Bada$$ crawled onto the Internet with his career-making 2012 mixtape, “1999.”
With his latest proper release, MIKE puts together some loosely crafted, yet tightly woven wordsmith raps atop sample-heavy production that brings to mind some of his region’s most legendary producers and artists. Time will tell whether MIKE is an artist worth listening to, and I hope he changes his mononymous name for something a bit more creative (and less easy to confuse with Open Mike Eagle, Michael Christmas, Sir Michael Rocks, etc.), but for now, whether you like it or not, “May God Bless Your Hustle” is a hip-hop project worth paying some serious attention to.
“May God Bless Your Hustle” begins with “Somebody Please,” which immediately sets the weird tone that this album will take. MIKE comes through right away with some depressing, real-ass-shit bars about anxiety and death, as the elongated, experimental intro turns into lo-fi, Knxwledge-esque beat. MIKE raps with serious conviction with a consistent, looping flow that doesn’t let up, engaging with the listener at a slow enough speed to ensure that they hear everything he says. This is like hip-hop for late-night-TV addicts on psychedelic drugs. This is for the heads who fuck with Tobacco and Ariel Pink with their Nas and Notorious B.I.G.
The next track is the all-too-short “Hunger,” which deserves comparisons to young contemporary Earl Sweatshirt, with its vapored-out beat and lack of a hook. It ends just as quickly as it begins, going into the just-as-short “armour.” I love the way MIKE plays around with his flow here, sometimes fitting many words into a bar, and other times going for a minimalistic approach that sort of reminds me of Ka. I love the set of lines: “Foot first/I last/Books burn/Time pass/Cook, work/Dodge class/Took purse/Got back.”
We get a more complete track with “Pigeonfeet,” a self-produced song. MIKE hits us with the heavy first line: “Death always win the race, n—a/Depression isn’t just a phase.” He also flexes his ability to craft a catchy hook on this track, even if his cadence lacks melody. MIKE’s bars have a spoken-word quality to them, striking an emotional balance somewhere between Milo and Open Mike Eagle. After he finishes his second verse, the track transitions into some bizarre take on elevator music, taking a polyrhythmic approach to the hip-hop instrumental and throwing in drums seemingly at random. The vibe which MIKE caters is weird, yet palpable. It’s like a more personal version of Flying Lotus’ Captain Murphy alias.
We get another vaporwave-esque bit of interlude music with the track, “GREED,” which features some artist called Standing on the Corner. It’s a bizarre, wavy track that cements MIKE’s experimental vibe and his knack for taking preconceived sounds and turning them into something unrecognizable. The melody for this instrumental, pops up in the next track, “GREEDY,” which features some more personal, dreamlike imagery. He addresses his fears and anxieties in a more visceral way than a literal way, especially with the lines: “And I don’t need your bugs/And I don’t mean to cry/I’m just feelin’ numb/I know sensation’s near/And I can hear a car/I know the pressure here/And I’m scared to jog.” The track ends with a stoned, spoken word phone message from featured artist Jesse Brotter atop some expertly sequenced production. Part of me thinks that this (and some similar points in other songs) goes on too long, but I also feel like it helps solidify the aesthetic. It’s well-crafted, but maybe not the most pleasant sounding record out there. In some ways, it reminds me of Babyfather’s deconstructive “BBF” album they put out last year.
I really enjoy MIKE’s verse on “100%” as well as the production. There’s some quality about his music that is difficult to place, but the spacey, nearly postmodern effect it takes the form of is a unique take on the form. It is by no means accessible, but it builds on the J Dilla/Madlib/Knxwledge school of production/rapping in really dope ways.
The album’s longest and most energetic song is its centerpiece, “FOREVER FIND FLIGHT,” and it’s one of my absolute favorite tracks here. It doesn’t sound like something that an 18-year-old person could make, considering how much it sounds like the product of someone who’s been around the block a few times. It almost sounds like a warped remix of an Oddisee song with its lively, jazzy instrumentation. MIKE’s music is like a depressed vision of jazz-rap from a dystopian future, where daring art can only be created in secret on low-cost instrumentation due to the fascist government’s oppressive rule. This three-part, six-minute masterpiece of a hip-hop song is somewhat disjointed and could have been written to be more sequential, it’s an ambitious track with consistently good production and lyricism.
The album’s second half kicks right off with “Brick Blues,” which is another highlight. MIKE’s verses are wickedly intelligent and sardonic, with bitterness and anger coming through the calm cool as well as the depressed melancholy. Despite his youth and perhaps because of it, MIKE establishes himself as a voice worth listening to, even if he only delivers in 90 second chunks.
“Rainforest” is another short track that operates on a mechanical, slow beat. It’s got some heavy reverb to go along with its ambient fade as it comes in and out of focus. I can’t stress how dreamlike this album feels, especially with its off-kilter, sudden switches from one beat/sound to the next.
This is the case for “STANDOUT,” which features a verse from fellow New York youngster Wiki, who came up as a member of broken experimental hip-hop trio Ratking and is finding his own voice on solo projects like “Lil Me” and “No Mountains in Manhattan.” This track also features vocal contributions from New York rapper/singer Chip Skylark, who has famously worked with Show Me the Body and sourced his stage name from a Fairly OddParents throwaway character. I love the bizarro beat on this track, which features Wiki’s flow nicely, although it must be noted that Wiki is probably used to rapping to a faster beat than this, as he does sound somewhat out-of-place. It’s a track that gives me a drugged-out-haze kind of feeling, with its washed out, yet bright synth chords and trippy drum skips.
Some more saccharine ambience kicks off the next track, “Paul,” which features Johnny U. This song has an impeccable groove to it, and I absolutely love the way the instrumentation builds with each couple of lines. The bass on this is hardly detectable, but it’s filthy as hell when you do manage to catch a whiff. I’m not sure who Johnny U is, but he also puts together a coherent verse on this track, sounding quite comfortable atop this grimy, minimal beat.
Some snappy grooves pop in on “awalkingharlem,” which also features King Carter, this time rapping instead of delivering a pitched-up intro like he does on “100%.” It’s a gritty, spacious track that subtly builds up some strange sounding noise in the background. I do wish there was a bit more to this track, as it doesn’t quite go anywhere, but it’s still a perfectly solid song that doesn’t detract from the overall album itself.
Things get quite dark once again with the aptly titled “Years/Alone,” which retains the bitter anger that has popped up in previous songs. MIKE sounds like a guy who’s had a troubled upbringing, as this type of musical darkness isn’t cultivated in a vacuum. In his youth, he’s encountered experiences that have aged him, even if he doesn’t mention them outright in his lyrics. It’s there in the twisted, jagged nature of this album, which has no time to put any kind of professional veneer over itself for the benefit of wide reception. This is a personal album that is messy because MIKE is a messy dude who’s lived a messy life.
Up next is the comparatively uplifting “VICTORY LAB,” which features Mal Devisa and King Carter. Victory is exactly the sort of feel I get from this track, with the high-energy, motivated verses that Carter and MIKE exchange in between Mal Devisa’s out-of-place hook, which I sort of wish wasn’t a part of this track at all. It sort of messes with the track’s mix, coming in loud and clear while Carter and MIKE’s verses filter through the beat, almost encompassing it. Mal’s hook, by comparison, almost becomes annoying.
In typical MIKE fashion, the last track is less than two minutes, yet takes the form of a two-part song. “ROCKBOTTOM/PEACE TO COME” indulges another darkly jazzy beat, with MIKE’s pitch-shifted voice bearing a resemblance to the previously mentioned Earl Sweatshirt’s most recent full-length album, 2015’s “I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside.” This isn’t the most captivating or obvious closing track, but then again, nothing about this album makes conventional sense. It’s intentionally a mixed bag of tricks, and most of these tricks are impressive, even if some aren’t quite so.
Overall, “May God Bless Your Hustle” is indicative of quite a bit of potential. MIKE has room for improvement, but he’s also got a unique, singular voice, in his production, lyrics, flow, and curatorial attitude toward the vibe he creates with his music. He is well on his way to cornering this market which sits at the four-way intersection of cloud rap, jazz rap, vaporwave, and Dilla-hop. While this isn’t the most pleasant listening experience I’ve had this year, it’s certainly a memorable one. “May God Bless Your Hustle” is a slow-burner that not everyone will agree with, but it has me excited to hear what MIKE’s got planned next.
SCORE — 7.75 out of 10
FAVORITE TRACKS — Somebody Please, armour, Pigeonfeet, GREEDY, FOREVER FIND FLIGHT, Brick Blues, Rainforest, STANDOUT, Paul, Years/Alone