Smile Politely

AMS’s Natural (Self) shines

My personal love affair with hip-hop, still very much, admittedly, in its nascent phases, probably began, of all places, at Lollapalooza, Christ, five years ago now in the summer of 2005. But pretty much since I came to U of I, I’ve been stalking Edward Moses (A.K.A. AMS and formerly Agent Mos) via his Myspace Music page.  While living in C-U, I (let’s lay it out on the table) have made it out to very little hip-hop outside a handful of Organic Flow shows.  Oh, and some impromptu free-styling from Liam Bird (ESHR/Concept) on the front porch of Allen Hall from time to time.

Lest I seem unqualified to critique AMS’s latest release given the above credentials, I would like to cite the emcee himself, from his 2006 release ILLuminate, on the intro track: after “four years of punk only, found hip-hop as my joy; script progresses as it should.”

Okay, okay.  I can get get in line with that.  Also throwing it out on the table in the interest of full disclosure, AMS, the self-dubbed Nerd King, has been a fabulous SP contributor

AMS recently released Natural (Self): Where Hip-Hop Found Me in 2010.  You can stream it, for free, from the artist’s bandcamp page.  Or you can help the artist out by buying the thing.  I guess it’s up to you.  Seriously.

The name of the game on this record is stripping away the affectation and laying out the place of the person.  On “Intro (Good Morning)” Moses poses the rhetorical, “What exactly is this about?  Well/that’s kinda hard to describe/The relationship of music to listener and how we both occupy those roles/About you and me: I and we./The concrete, the solid, the tangible.”

This album comes across like an optimistically plaintive whisper from the interstices of everyday urban life.  It’s the recent hip-hop memoir of an over-worked, self-conscious (mostly, that is to say, self-aware) writer.  If we can take 2006’s ILLuminate as something of a moment of midnight revelation, then 2010’s Natural may be the mid-twenties sidelines frustration from the L tracks that meanders from the Loop to California and back to Chambana, the rail winding from alleyways of childhood memories to heartache and the greater heartache of contemporary consumer/raci-capital-ist America.  ILLuminate: sort of a one-act drama.  Natural: sort of a contemporary, autobiographical snapshot.

That picture develops into a mural of challenging conceptions; here is the artist with his pen and notebook, searching for the words; he comes to memories, sometimes painful and sometimes purely the stuff of bio; the artist escapes in recent reminiscences; we see him scribbling on the commute under harsh fluorescence; we wake up in that American empire worrying about being the “rat race jockeys” and trying to escape overworked neuroses until; we erupt into funky defiance. And then fall back down to earth.  It’s almost like the album invites listeners to hear it as Moses figures out how to break through into composing it.  Calvino with rhymes.  Well, kinda.

The album’s instrumentation predominantly features a cool, jazzy backdrop of piano, strings, horns, driving-drum beats and what I can only describe as muddy ocean-immersive bass-with-effects like well-chosen static screens/tape hiss and inventive samples, frequently evocative of blood-chilling film noir or, in the case of “Transit (City Life pt. 2),” 1950s educational film strips.  Some interludes from DJs Spinnerty and Limbs showcase tight sampling, beats, and scratching, that provide some wonderful connective tissue to the album as a whole.

From the driving rhythms of laid-back, trance-y jazz, we find some soulful party vibes on “The Wire,” and nearly psych-infused, funkier backbeats on album closer “Dusted Son (Daddy).”  This track shuts the door with a seamless transition to folky acoustic guitar and an uncompleted, dangling chord progression.  There’s so much more to being natural than what’s been said, and whatever’s on the record is always incomplete.

The instrumentation (and lyrical content/flow) on some tracks, veers into the near-gothic, evocative of Immortal Technique, Geto Boys, or the more melancholy stuff from Handsome Boy Modeling School.  This is especially evident on “The NOW,” and what seems the most disturbing about these sections is, generally, they show the artist veering away from the personal and into that larger window that points toward a place called society; overtly political lyricism.  These are not congenital demons; these are inner demons ingested as a side dish to contemporary culture.

The album meanders like a plume of smoke to the ceiling, sometimes image-driven, sometimes playfully defiant, and occasionally the gasp of clarity that, by a stroke of some kind of miracle, avoids a nervous breakdown.

The record turns into a smoothly mixed and well-executed work of self-story from the overworked soul that refuses to be beat into the pavement.  In a smooth voice, and near-breathless, quasi spoken delivery, Moses’ tight, heartfelt lyricism is self-contained and self-offering. It’s hardly ever allusive, although references do range from Rosa Parks to Atmosphere, Star Wars, and even, I’m pretty sure, The Merchant of Venice.

Of course, there’s also the requisite potshots at a former president and a well-known pundit/pinhead.

Oh, and some serious homage to C-U and its hip-hop scene on “Travel.”

Mostly, though, Edward Moses sticks with what he knows best: himself.  Self.  Naturally.  And he uses his own soul as a way to break brick walls into a rewarding glimpse at the world through an inventive perspective.

Dope.  Props to AMS and the production contributions of Spinnerty, Zirafa, DJ Limbs, Damu the Fudgemunk, and Rice the Sound Transmitter.  Excellent record.


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