Listens for the Week #55-57: Klwn Cat, Jockstrap, Blank Thought, Czarface, Herbie Hancock & More
With each passing week, the music landscape seems to grow quieter. With most of the big names having already dropped projects this year, the final quarter of 2023 has been predictably uneventful for the mainstream. In contrast, the alternative and underground scenes are thriving. Whether it be rappers like Danny Brown, producers like Klwn Cat, or pop groups like Jockstrap, the alternative scene is always packed with exciting releases, and the past fortnight has been no different.
My Favourite Albums This Week
1. Klwn Cat – PRELUDE (2023) [Abstract Hip Hop]
One of the most consistent producers in the modern rap underground, Klwn Cat did not disappoint with PRELUDE. Bringing on MCs from Mourning Run to Unruly, the latest LP is an all-star showcase of the best the underground scene has to offer. On the production side, PRELUDE is as harsh and textured as Klwn Cat gets. Capturing the ominous atmosphere of Don’t Go Outside and the dense instrumental flair of GREYMATTER, the album flows like a mashup of every style Klwn has tackled in 2023, but the reliable features and smooth transitions weave the tracks together seamlessly. Whether it be Patty Honcho’s effortless wordplay on “CAUTERIZED WOUNDS” or the densely-packed rhyme schemes from Figerson on “BENT RIBS”, there is not a lacklustre performance to be found.
2. Jockstrap – I<UQTINVU (2023) [Glitch Pop]
The latest release from Jockstrap is an explosive remix of I Love You Jennifer B, the incredible debut album the duo put out last year. Handled primarily by group producer Taylor Skye, the remix record is brimming with ambitious ideas, but unfortunately, not every track hits the mark. Highlights like “Sexy” and “Good Girl” are incredible, perfectly capturing the bizarre energy of the original album with a punching dance twist. However, others songs don’t benefit so much from the electronic makeover. A prime example is “I Touch”, a dance-focussed revision of “Glasgow”, one of the strongest cuts off the original record. The remix had potential to be amazing – adding some danceable rhythm to a previously soft and melancholic song – but the frequent vocal chops make it feel messy in all the wrong ways. While it has its moments, I<UQTINVU is no replacement for Jennifer B. Aside from “Good Girl”, I’m uncertain I would return to the LP anytime soon.
3. Blank Thought – Shifting Shadows (2023) [Abstract Hip Hop]
Yet another 2023 release from producer Blank Thought, Shifting Shadows is one of the beatmaker’s strongest efforts yet. Taking a more minimalistic approach on the production, the soundscape consists of dreamy samples and meandering basslines, with tight drum-work to give the ambient beats a hypnotic rhythm. The album starts off strong with “Falling!”, a minute-long exercise in rhyme from The Thought, whose performance is so compelling I wish the track had not been so brief. “Nomad” is yet another standout: an unsettling stutter of piano acts as the backdrop, over which Sko delivers the fieriest verses on the whole LP, rapping until he’s breathless for four straight minutes. Not every guest on Shifting Shadows captivated me, but given the variety of talents involved, such an outcome was inevitable. Although I prefer Thought’s production from On Death’s Door earlier this year, Shifting Shadows displays his curatorial talent at its finest, gathering a host of MCs who all thrive in the ambience.
1. Czarface – Every Hero Needs a Villain (2015) [Abstract Hip Hop]
When it comes to the abstract scene, few groups are as overlooked as Czarface. With a vibrant comic-book aesthetic akin to MF DOOM, a genre-bending beatmaker in the form of 7L, and Wu-Tang’s own Inspectah Deck trading rhymes with Esoteric, the trio are one of the sharpest in modern rap. Every Hero Needs a Villain shows off the group’s style at its most cinematic and enthralling, full of finely-diced samples, sudden beat switches, and villainous lyrics from both MCs. A variety of guests add even more to the experience. GZA dominates on the back end of “When the Gods Go Mad”; Method Man’s slick flows are as irresistible as ever on “Nightcrawler”; and MF DOOM offers one of his finest features ever on the iconic “Ka-Bang!”. Fusing the grit of the East Coast with the colour of the abstract scene, Every Hero Needs a Villain is an essential in 2010s hip hop.
2. Herbie Hancock – Sextant (1973) [Avant-Garde Jazz]
Before Herbie Hancock transitioned into funk music and redefined his career with Head Hunters, he decided to drop one last avant-garde masterpiece. Sextant is the apex of Hancock’s creativity, embodying such an otherworldly sound that it hardly feels right to call it jazz. The album opens up with “Rain Dance”, an ever-flowing stream of synths, keys, and bass, creating a spacious, alien atmosphere like the Martian equivalent to jazz music. “Hidden Shadows” strips back the avant-garde strangeness, with a funky rhythm section, cinematic horn-work, and a showstopping piano solo from Hancock. Sextant ends with “Hornets”, a 20 minute epic as wild and messy as something from Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew. In just three tracks, the classic album summarises everything that makes Herbie Hancock a jazz legend – mesmerising solos, absorbing atmospheres, and uncompromising creativity.
Something I Love
1. Jungle – Volcano (2023) [Synth-Funk]
Addictively catchy and immersive, Volcano has all the components to be a masterpiece, but after a while, I’m left wanting more from the band. Fusing elements of electronica, pop, and occasionally hip hop, the record tackles a range of sounds, while maintaining a summery core of funk. “Back On 74” is an instant highlight, whose mesmerising group vocals showcase the natural chemistry between Jungle’s members. The rippling bassline and shimmering percussion on “Every Night” make it another danceable standout, with hits like “Dominoes” and “Candle Flame” reaching similar heights. The amount of talent involved on Volcano is extraordinary, but I wish there had been more risks taken with its direction. Transitioning into the second half of the record, there are still notable songs to be found, but almost every track shares the same distorted vocals and heavy bass, thus they blend together, lacking their own identity. While this works in the band’s favour to make the LP more cohesive, I cannot help but wish they had deviated more from their signature sound.
2. David Bowie – The Next Day (2013) [Alternative Rock]
Perhaps the most overshadowed release in David Bowie’s catalogue, The Next Day is worth a listen for any fan of rock music. Returning to the studio after a 10 year hiatus, Bowie performs as if he had never taken time away from the microphone. His vocals are fierce and emotive; his writing is vivid, and deeply vulnerable. In terms of instrumentation, The Next Day might be the most conventional rock record in his catalogue, with roaring guitar and punching drums that would not sound out of place on a White Stripes album. At times, the safe sound of the LP comes off as underwhelming, but with highlights like “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” and “How Does the Grass Grow?”, the highs of The Next Day more than make up for its lows.
My Favourite Songs This Week
1. King Shampz – “Like That” (2023) [Underground Hip Hop]
Hard-hitting, grimy, and full of charisma, “Like That” perfectly encapsulates the style of King Shampz. Rapping with a fast-paced, ferocious delivery, his bars cut through the instrumental with a deadly impact, making every line stand out with his relentless presence.
2. Jessie Ware – “Beautiful People” (2023) [Dance-Pop]
Like every track off That! Feels Good!, “Beautiful People” is among my favourite songs of the year. From the smooth bassline to the bubbling percussion to the tongue-in-cheek lyrics, it’s vintage Jessie Ware, capturing all the charm and beauty that makes her brand of dance-pop so mystifying.
3. Jockstrap – “Concrete Over Water” (2023) [Indie Pop]
Possibly my favourite song from Jennifer B, “Concrete Over Water” is a must-listen for any pop fan. The verses are cold, quiet, and spacious, juxtaposing the bombastic chorus, where a wave of synths flood over Georgia’s voice and add power to her impassioned vocals.