the week in rap

This Week in Rap: Sameflannel’s Warped Songs, a Star-Studded Album From Ketchy the Great, and More

Photo: Courtesy of Stinc Team

Sameflannel, Heart Piece One

Our horror stories about artificial intelligence — at least for now — usually go like this: some smart but hubristic engineers cook up a program and let it run for a while, jot impressed notes, apply for more grants, then shut the whole thing down when the A.I. begins to act in unexpected ways. The idea, we’re told, is that machines will learn how to help us optimize shipping routes and diabetes medications, how to build Impalas and analyze markets and generally Maximize Shareholder Value. But when the computer starts talking to itself in a shorthand only it can understand, the lab coats understandably lose their nerve. It doesn’t take much of a wandering mind to imagine the worst-case scenario: an incredibly powerful machine that wants us dead.

The counterpoint, so to speak, is Heart Piece One. The mixtape, which is appropriately available only on Soundcloud, is what you would get if you set a machine to ingest and internalize the digital-native rap from the beginning of this decade, the Cash Money and Roc-a-Fella catalogues from the end of the ’90s, Lil B’s tweets that aren’t about feet, and the crippling weight of the pharmaceutical industry, then forgot about that machine for five years too long. Its tagged genre is “cloud rap,” which is fair but reductive. It fuses onto those hazy, airy beats raps that are a little bit more linear and tightly wound, and in doing so walks a very difficult line — making an archly underground genre more parsable to unfamiliar audiences without sanding down its musical tics.

Sameflannel is a rapper from the Twin Cities; he’s white and in his early 20s and works out of Northeast Minneapolis, which has become a creative hub. His writing is personal, but doesn’t work in many shards of what you might call hard autobiography: you don’t feel as if you know the real him, but you can see him bathed in the glow of a television, playing Zelda in the middle of the night and wishing he was in D-Block with Jadakiss, nervous and Googling “is liver damage reversible.” He stretches the “Ha” hook into free-form poetry, raps over camera flashes on a song called “Keep Watch!”, and grafts climate panic onto ’90s R&B. And he does all this without Heart Piece ever seeming like pastiche, or coming off as too beholden to its influences; all the things Sameflannel interpolates and calls back to are warped on their way into his strange, tight orbit.

The record is haunted by the memory of Widikus, a very talented rapper from the Twin Cities who died in early 2016. (He and Sameflannel, who was then rapping under the name John Daniel, formed a duo called LEFTGODS.) There are stray mentions of both Widikus’s stage and given names, and a gnawing aside about his funeral. It grounds the tape in grief, a collage stuck in mud.

Ketchy the Great, Free Sauce

The best rap album of 2017 was Drakeo the Ruler’s Cold Devil, which came out that Christmas and became an honest-to-God phenomenon in Los Angeles last year — if you were out and about enough, you could hear every single cut from that record in DJ sets. And that’s good, because it was the only way Drakeo could maintain a presence in the city in 2018: he spent most of the year in jail, awaiting trial on charges of first-degree murder, attempted murder, and conspiracy to commit murder. (He’s still there, having been denied bail multiple times.) And it’s not just Drakeo. His fellow Stinc Team members Ketchy the Great, SaysoTheMac, Bambino, and his brother, Ralfy the Plug, also spent almost the entire year locked up on a variety of charges. Almost all of them are still inside.

As a vocalist, Ketchy is an ideal group member — that’s not a slight, it’s a testament to how his delivery, growling and unhinged, adds a jolt of energy to songs and draws out different elements of a beat. Free Sauce, which he just dropped from behind bars, presents Ketchy in widescreen: a solo artist who’s able to ratchet his intensity up and down enough to make the record feel balanced and whole. (See his verse on “Something I Did,” where he rubber bands back and forth from quiet poise to raw, raspy shouts.) There are careening virtuoso performances (“Act a Fool”), mission statements for his group’s subgenre (“Nervous Music”), and surefire L.A. hits (“Ling Ling Bop Same Thing”). In an increasingly crowded scene, Free Sauce argues for Ketchy as a magnetic artist who can stand on his own.

That said, it helps that the record is, in L.A. terms, star-studded. There are collaborations with guys Bambino and Ralfy as well as the beloved weirdo Desto Dubb and the red-hot Shoreline Mafia. Then there’s that trio(!) of duets with the now-incarcerated 03 Greedo, whose warbled verses play cat-and-mouse with Ketchy’s growl to remarkable effect.

Serengeti, Kaleidoscope 2 & 6e Features from Berlin

Serengeti is a nightmare for completists. There are cassette-only one-offs and essential albums that have fallen out of print — which is to say nothing of the albums under different stage names, or the ones conceived to round out the fictional worlds he created on other LPs. A pair of short, obscure dispatches from the subversive Chicagoan are now online.

Kaleidoscope 2 is a suite of four songs that lean heavily into bubblegum pop and, at some points (like in the first rapped verse of “Plastic Pearls”) even interpolate the swing of some contemporary rap radio cadences. The EP works for the same reason Geti’s experiments in character and genre have always worked: he commits fully. There are no jokes about the form and he never winks at the camera. These are shimmering pop songs that, yes, include his idiosyncratic writing and sad hotel-room tableaus, but are believable as earnest plays for Top 40.

6e Features From Berlin ropes in guest vocalists (Jenny Lewis, Christian Lee Hutson) to reimagine two songs from last fall’s Dennis 6e, the climactic record in Geti’s years-long Kenny Dennis saga, which focuses on a middle-aged white rapper from Chicago fallen on hard, or at least humble times. The original LP is one of his darkest, most harrowing releases. The new, dreamlike vocal takes here make its central story — that of a man who has broken from reality to preserve whatever scraps of sanity he has left — all the more jarring.

Best Rap This Week: Ketchy the Great, Serengeti, Sameflannel