It takes a special brand of self-confidence for a local artist to drop their debut in this 3rd quarter of 2021.
A more cynical writer could in fact invoke words like “arrogant” or “hubris” in describing the mind-state of a heretofore unknown group willfully competing for ears with established underground juggernauts like Aesop Rock, Brother Ali, and Apathy; all of whom dropped extremely highly anticipated releases within recent weeks.
He might describe the market as saturated with similarly timed releases from fan favorites such as Typical Cats and Chino XL.
That same writer might even condemn the groups project as doomed to being lost in the shuffle after factoring in the 800lb gorilla-in-the-room, multi-Grammy nominated, platinum selling, universally loved powerhouse Lupe Fiasco and his impending new release; the universally acknowledged odds-on favorite for “Record of the Year”.
Well, that writer is a jerk! Which isn’t to say he’s exactly wrong either; in fact, it would be a pretty understandable conclusion all things considered when reviewing the facts on paper.
However, in much the same way professional boxers will often say “That’s why we actually fight the fights” when describing how they pulled off an upset, it is important to remember that what music might look like on paper, or in our minds, is the least important measure of its value.
After all, we listen to music; we don’t add it up. To put a twist on a phrase, “The play button will out!” and it’s clear within the first 30 seconds of the album that MC3PO & Venson Dix, collectively “PUNKSUHATE” were counting on it to do exactly that.
“Draft Two” opens with a brief intro by none other than the 80’s era Macintosh British synth-o-voice that so many of us abused for hours on end as children; forcing it to badly pronounce the most vulgar and graphic things we could dream up while we laughed hysterically. And while it’s good to see she’s still getting work, this subtly funny starting point sets an important tone for the record and winds up making an important point about Hip Hop by the time the album is over. “Fall Back” is a perfect (if perhaps predictable) first track for a record like this and showcases the complimentary but contrasting styles of MC3PO & Venson Dix, and the many different levels on which they work together.
This is not an "Odd Couple" pairing of MC’s where the novelty in how different they are can carry listener interest, but they’re also definitely not Red & Meth either.
Think closer along the lines of Blackalicious, EPMD, Das EFX or Black Star; where they neither prop each other up or fall into the trap of competing with each other mid-song. It is immediately clear that as an MC, 3PO has an exceptional eye for detail, craft and the perfect technical execution of each line he spits.
Every word is important, is placed in the line purposefully & very little is wasted. There are very brief moments where this obsessively high standard does become a touch distracting and he could be accused of trying to be “too clever”, but considering the nearly universal alternative offered by most MC’s these days it’s a refreshingly pleasant criticism to levy.
Conversely Venson seems to enjoy exploiting the unorthodox and unexpected. Not only lyrically, but also in format and structure.
While this serves as an exhibition of his insanely high level of creativity and as a perfect balance to 3PO, it also means listeners are going to often miss how dope he is lyrically on first (and maybe second) listens as their brains play ‘catch-up’ with the format.
If the album has a misstep, it’s a pretty minor one and it’s the second track “Get It Get It”. It’s probably exactly what you’d expect given the title, but in all fairness done really, really well.
Relentlessly braggadocios, packed to the gills with quotable laden verses interrupted by a catchy, ultra simple throwaway hook ; this is self-indulgent Hip Hop boilerplate.
Having said that, standards do exist for a reason and there’s no denying the requisite “OH SNAP!” moments when 3PO spits: “I’m John Q. but only half as heartless / sad black & white, with the phattest appetitie: Panda Problems” or Venson follows with: “I’m a grandstand winner flow, handstands in the snow / with fire on my mind like I’m Bam Bam Bigelow”.
It’s on the next track however, “Trollface” where what’s special about PUNKUHATE begins to really ramp up and assert itself.
Channeling everyone’s favorite internet MEME to reinvent/reformat the classic (and, cliché) “We’re much doper than you” brag-track and swapping out the usual chest thumping bravado for trap laying confidence, everything about it comes off fresh and genuinely funny. This is truly creative, contemporary & compelling song craft, something sorely missing in most Hip Hop today.
This isn’t a stack of clever punchlines being clever for cleverness’ sake with no continuity or context; this is conceptual, relatable songwriting.
More importantly its evidence of an “extra gear” or level they can operate on that most MC’s today can’t, and serves to really begin to set this project apart from the standard fare.
This energy is carried over perfectly and crystalized by the albums next song, “Fools Gold”, the standout track on an EP of standout tracks. 3PO, showcasing another tool in his arsenal lends a surprisingly powerful tenor vocal to an infectious chorus layered over a driving “PM-Dawn meets Phil Collins dirty south synth beat” that all but guarantee’s you’ll be walking around singing this hook to yourself for days.
It’s also maybe the poster child for what’s great about this record, which isn’t actually “what” at all, but rather “what isn’t”.
What this isn’t, is the 5 or 6 best tracks an underground group could slap together in a few months, decide to call an EP and release to the adoring (and unquestioning) niche of fans they’ve established in an act of masturbatory self-aggrandizement.
What this isn’t, is formulaic, hipster styled, “just-conscious-enough-to-tap-the-demo”, single-driven gimmick rap over infectious dance beats.
What this isn’t, is posturing arrogance chained to an image dictated by a focus-grouped marketing plan.
What this is, is a record full of exceptionally creative, intelligent, honest, and remarkably well written songs made by 2 very talented guys who clearly love what they’re doing and wanted to make the best record they were capable of.
This is renaissance lyricism with contemporary sensibilities and a sense of humor without ever being in danger of making a joke of itself.
It’s journalistic and unblinking, unshaped by assumptions of what the listener might want but without being dismissive or accusatory.
It’s brazenly “backpack-battle-rap-dope” without chaining itself to a park bench.
It’s socially conscious without the preachy watered-down nostalgiac arrogance, and intellectually provocative without the bullying intimidation of the insecure self-appointed brilliant.
In short: It’s a really good record.
Startlingly good in fact at times and will leave even the most jaded, unimpressed-by-everything Hip Hop know-it-alls at a loss for how to wittily deride it and justify their annoying smugness.
That statement isn’t conjecture by the way but rather personal testimony as I’m forced to admit I am all too often that elitest prick myself.
This is infectious, authentic, dynamic Hip Hop music done at some of its highest levels with a message, ambition, and its own endearing style all the while managing to still be dope enough to make you reach for the repeat button. Is it flawless? Groundbreaking? Genre Defining? … No. It has its own missteps and mistakes like any record but it succeeds with them rather than in spite of them because they’re clearly an organic part of the process rather than mistakes in judgment while trying to manufacture likability.
On the contrary, “Draft Two” is an example of what Hip Hop can be at its very best; it’s undeniable.
One can only assume they’re saving groundbreaking, flawless and genre defining for “Draft Three”.