Hip-hop’s ire and puissance have always come from the genre’s birthplace, one that bound its representatives to a punishing, often dispiriting environment. Surprisingly, however, rappers usually have a rather underdeveloped panoptic appreciation for and application of the music. For while artists like Talib Kweli, Common, and Mos Def can articulate the strife of inner city life with impressive ease, world events do not hold the same weight and aren’t explicated with the same nuance. This is in addition to the use of inner city ethos for street cred by more mainstream rappers, even when their current, prodigal lifestyles do not entertain such hard declarations.
“Broke stride as last of men realized their deep deceit/ This troubling advance of half-assed crews crowd these streets/ Nevermind the who I am son, just listen when I speak/ Broken paragraphs hold wrath of a hundred million deep.”
Some have even questioned whether or not the genre still possesses the ability to represent anger, its passion dulled from years of commercialization and consumerist taint. But it does no good to resurrect the agendas of the genre’s birth; that will only make the topics archaic and abstract. That global application existed on the street corner of racism, drug use, and violence; the problem was that very few had the unique vision to see that the street corner itself was an entirely contingent phenomenon. This is what makes Dalek’s ‘Absence’ particularly searing and forceful: the group sees the bigger picture.
They separate themselves in the genre first by being a tightly-knit trio of musicians, not a member of any particular guild or network (a la Native Tongues), and their tours with bands like Isis and The Melvins sets them apart entirely from even the most abstract in the genre. ‘Absence’—like both ‘Negro, Necro, Nekros’ and ‘From Filthy Tongue of Gods and Griots’—seeks to establish the group as musicians, not hip-hop artists. The topics they choose to discuss are not based on any particular artistic space and instead investigate the immense, underlying elements fueling the topical infatuations of other artists.
The beats throughout the band’s career have been some of the most jagged, claustrophobic, and unforgiving ever witnessed. Distortion abounds on each song: buzz saw pitches, broken ambient fixtures, and black screeches. Still and Oktopus—the producers behind all of their discography—craft a mechanized landscape built on paranoia and steel, but never at the expense of actually providing music. In every song a basic hip-hop beat exists and even though the distortions abound, that beat is central to all of them. It’s as though they manipulate the hulking sonic mammoth, metallic and dreadnought, with the old drum machines and turntables of the genre itself.
Dalek’s flow and rhythm are both controlled and unambiguous, never speeding up and never showing off. His strength lies in neither and in his amazingly literate lines and intelligent rhyming style, once again recalling the genre’s strengths. Upon first blush it seems that he hammers repeatedly just a few overwhelming agendas—religion, race, class—but each song displays a different angle on each. Though “Distorted Prose” and “Opiate The Masses” both discuss religion as a means of subjugating those declared lesser in intellect, the former filters it through the lens of White supremacy and the latter through organized religion as a whole, a subtle distinction identified only through repeated listens. And while “Asylum (Permanent Underclass)” and “A Beast Caged” may seem to focus on two separate subjects—class and incarceration respectively—both are similar in that they speak of an identifiable rage running through both and, indeed, most songs of the album.
Lingering within the scalding condemnation typifying ‘Absence’ is a sense of rejection, only explicitly summoned on “A Beast Caged.” The finely written and densely constructed music elicits anger first, but I doubt that is the group’s telos. With any great written work first describing the ills which befall a society (The Declaration of Independence, most of The Communist Manifesto) the second facet is almost always a call to action. What Dalek have done is put current ailments on the table with meticulousness and far more of an ontic weight—something a lot of hip-hop musicians who claim to represent the genre’s “consciousness” have not—and I hope their next album reveals what they seek done about them.
Release date: February 8, 2005
Label: Ipecac Recordings
Rating: 9.7 / 10
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