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  • Writer's pictureEvan


Following up 2022’s EXTENSION OF THE HAND, TERMINAL : TERMINAL is the latest solo project from New Jersey rapper Xhef. The new album is his first full collaboration with Filip Neuf, an underground producer known for his abstract, jazz-inspired style showcased in projects like last year’s Riviera Arkestra and Pearls Before Swine. With Xhef behind the bars and Filip behind the beats, TERMINAL : TERMINAL is the most ambitious release yet from either artist.

TERMINAL: TERMINAL is a concept record brimming with ambiguities and cryptic symbolism, but at its heart is a simple narrative. The album follows Xhef through his apparent death, spiralling into the next realm (or perhaps into no realm at all) as feelings of regret, paranoia, and fear drown him. Thematically, the album focusses on ideas of legacy, death, and the afterlife, made apparent by the title, TERMINAL : TERMINAL. The name itself is a double entendre, with the word “terminal” connoting ideas of death and illness, but also of finality and completion. In fact, peeling back even more layers, a third meaning is revealed, with the noun “terminal” referring to a destination or checkpoint on a journey, feeding into the concept of being transported to the afterlife.

Diving into the music itself, TERMINAL : TERMINAL has a strong start with the title track. The production offers a taste of what the whole project has to offer, split into two beats with a stark transition in the middle. In the first half, Filip samples these dramatic, sombre horns which create a sense of triumph, and equally, of despair. The second half drops the jazz in favour of a futuristic instrumental led by a shimmer of organs and synths. Despite the busy soundscape, Xhef never sounds drowned out, summing up the album’s macabre themes with his signature breathy, fast-paced delivery.

After the intro, the momentum picks up with “FOR TODAY PEOPLE”, a five-minute posse cut where Xhef is joined by underground affiliates Brent Bronze, KnowItAll, and Mourning Run. Each rapper brings a fantastic verse, and the song is made twice as engaging thanks to Neuf’s production. A hypnotic vocal sample loops over some intricate drum-work, glazed over in layers of guitar. The density of the instrumental keeps it engaging for the full five minutes, with new details ebbing and flowing out of earshot as each MC dominates the microphone.

“STILL ALIVE” may not be as hard-hitting, but its emotional core leaves a similar impact as Xhef asks anxious question after question about his fate. The production matches his despairing tone, with a swirl of foreboding piano, strings, and horns swelling into a suffocating wall of noise. While Xhef’s disturbing lyrics fit well with the soundscape, at times, his vocals feel lost in the production, leaving some lines unintelligible. This could have been a stylistic choice, as if to mimic the overpowering anxiety of death, but even so, I’m left wishing I could have heard each bar clearly, since the MC’s vivid imagery on “STILL ALIVE” is some of the finest on the whole record.

My issues with “never” are similar, with the droning vocal sample occasionally drowning out Xhef’s bars. However, the song still has its merits, with the hopeless lyrics from the MC pulling the album into an even darker realm of despair.

I’ll never know if these kids I teach will remember me

Fondly, or lamenting the time they spent with me

Or worse, if I was forgettable

If I wasted formative years on being mediocre

The song “LOST TIME” focusses on the theme of regret, where Xhef dwells on his lack of accomplishments and unfinished tasks as he spirals into nothing. This idea of falling into death is supported by the instrumentation, where Filip inserts a descending piano melody to sonically parallel the feeling of descent. Coupled with some haunting vocals, the harrowing production acts as the perfect backdrop to Xhef’s careworn presence, yelling on the verge of tears as his power slowly wanes.

Don’t release my demos and don’t publish my notes

Don’t remember who I was but how I lived and what I wrote

No, I’m not ready to go

Though in a far less dramatic fashion, “PART OF THE DEAL” continues the previous cut’s themes of misery and eternal anguish. The beat from Filip is tame compared to the previous tracks, with chopped up vocals laced into a frigid instrumental. Xhef’s performance is the main focus, narrating his descent into distress as his confident belief in the afterlife slowly devolves into doubt. The cold, spacious production mirrors the harrowing isolation and loneliness felt by Xhef as the concept of death breeds more and more questions to fuel his paranoia. Xhef questions whose eyes are judging him – those of God or of something far more sinister.

In my interpretation, the following interlude answers this question. “EYES OF GOD” is a minute-long instrumental where a moody piano sample loops while a mumbled spoken word passage plays out. The passage plays in reverse and then normally, evoking images of decay and death in line with Xhef’s despairing lyricism. Although the interlude marks another disturbing moment in the tracklist, the upbeat run of songs which follow it and the ambiguous title lead me to believe this is the narrative turning point, perhaps where the titular eyes of God decide Xhef’s fate and welcome him into the heavens.

“the tree” and “continue!” are strangely optimistic songs after the darkness of the album’s first half. The bright, inviting imagery of “the tree” coupled with the ethereal, almost angelic production of “continue!” act as an uplifting one-two punch that yank TERMINAL : TERMINAL into a far more hopeful direction. While “the tree” was more captivating lyrically, the vivid, harmonious sample-work from Neuf on “continue!” makes it one of the sharpest tracks on the project.

The album concludes with “The Flip Side”, an ambitious song in concept that somewhat misses the mark in execution. Bringing on an army of producers, the eight-minute closer unfolds like a series of vignettes where Xhef hops across a dozen styles. None of the beats are lacklustre, but what leaves me dissatisfied are the transitions. There are awkward silences between some beats and jarring changes between others. Instead of a smooth showcase of Xhef’s versatility, the song sounds disjointed.

Overall, TERMINAL : TERMINAL is Xhef’s greatest project yet, with the ambitious concept allowing his pen game to thrive. Full of vivid imagery, brutal emotional moments and compelling concepts, his creativity as a lyricist comes into full bloom. Similarly, Filip Neuf’s production is incredible, providing stellar jazz rap beats as usual but also stepping out of his comfort zone with high-energy highlights like “FOR TODAY PEOPLE” and “PART OF THE DEAL”. Despite a few mixing issues and a weaker back end, the strengths of TERMINAL : TERMINAL far outweigh its weaknesses. With some of Xhef’s sharpest verses and Filip’s most ambitious production, the duo complement each other perfectly.

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