In 2013, two roads diverged in the rap industry. Hip-hop veteran Jay Z turned the path toward heavy corporate sponsorship, selling one million copies of his record Magna Carta … Holy Grail directly through a Samsung mobile app. While the album was interestingly promoted, however, there was nothing unique in the album’s anthemic sound. Kanye West-former producer to Jay Z-took the road less traveled by. His 2013 record Yeezus was an unusual amalgamation of EDM and the electro-pop vibes he first explored in 2008 with 808s and Heartbreaks.
Memphis rapper Cities Aviv is among the first in generation of younger artists to enter popular airwaves down the path paved by Yeezus.Aviv’s debut LP Come To Life is an exploratory record, seemingly recorded in the context of Yeezus‘ success, but developing with it some exciting prospects for the rap genre.
Aviv is hardly a conventional rap lyricist, or at least not a good one. If Kendrick Lamar is the lyrical king of the east and west coasts (a claim he made this summer in a verse of Big Sean’s “Control”), Aviv is hardly even a prince of Middle America. Come To Life is arguably more of a dance than a rap album, with the verses themselves blending well into, and often being overshadowed by, the record’s extensively layered samples and bouncy synth beats.
Aviv’s verses simply aren’t gratifying in the way of popular rap. Aviv’s thoughts often feel disconnected, incomplete, and somewhat irrelevant to the musical narrative of the album. These fleeting passages of verse are drowned in the soundscape. They feel rare-and rare is a dangerous adjective for any artist to hold onto. It’s an adjective used by critics that can mean anything from genius to misguided. “Rare” and “experimental” are words too often used to describe a work that doesn’t clearly mean anything.
Come To Life is produced by Brooklyn label Young One Records, and indeed, it’s difficult imagining this type record happening anywhere other than Brooklyn. (For those unsure as to what makes Brooklyn such a special place in music, feel free to run a search on Macaulay Culkin’s “Pizza Underground.”) The charm of Come To Life is, well, more or less missing. It’s an unpleasant, abrasive record that seldom shows any polish. For extended periods, Aviv will keep the listener into mindless stream of looping samples and unintelligible verses.
The first true rap lyric of the album-following a buzz saw synth introductions with a cryptic mix of phrase-comes on the second track “Fool” (“Come to terms with this image you decide to burn”). Destruction is a unifying theme of the album, and in “Dissolve,” Aviv builds it into post-apocalyptic terms, exploding into a sweeping chorus that’s one of the most powerful moments on the record (“We turn into dust / We turn back to dust / Wake up and the world is yours / Wake up and the world is gone.”)
Aviv comes from the former Memphis band COPWATCH, with his roots in hardcore rock and punk rather than hip-hop. While Come To Life isn’t entirely removed from hip-hop culture, it’s reasonably distant from it. The marriage of hip-hop and rap, built around the predominate role of the emcee in hip-hop performance, has become an exacerbated relationship, with many rap acts now growing out of alternative venues. Projects like Come To Life represent a willingness of younger artists to interbreed rap with other genres, and with this, there’s a notion that genre is becoming a misleading parameter in music.
Come To Life brings music’s great many into one, and it’s not exactly the compelling cocktail one might expect. Aviv works with this very raw, unruly sound, creating a record that’s more a rambling of the imagination than a coherent, musical vision, and while it’s a tempting avenue for the artist, it’s a wasteland for the listener, albeit a beautiful one. Veteran producer Rick Rubin made Yeezus an instructive walk through the bizarre, and when taking the road less traveled in music, it’s comforting to know the artist isn’t mindlessly headed toward an oblivion of mixed samples and sounds. With Aviv, this isn’t so clear-and there’s a rare accomplishment in that.