EarthGang Encapsulates the Edgier End of Atlanta Hip-Hop With ‘Mirrorland’
Atlanta, Georgia is a city so integral to contemporary hip-hop that the music and culture have essentially consumed the landscape. ATL has been readily turning out rappers to a capacity that makes the South Bronx origins of rap a distant, esoteric history. What rarely makes its way into the greater public eye, however, is the vanguard ingenuity and unique spurts of evolution that exist within the broad regional scene. EarthGang, the collaborative effort of rappers Olu, aka Johnny Venus, and WowGr8, aka Doctur Dot, are part of the greater musical collective Spillage Village, featuring artists like 6lack, and Mereba among their ranks, and following in the tradition of such regional conglomerates as the Dungeon Family, to which we owe the likes of Outkast and Cee-lo Green. The pair drew a steady buzz with their early EPs and mixtapes, but especially demanded attention with their 2013 debut album “Shallow Graves For Toys.” Since then, they’ve garnered long-overdue acclaim, attracting none other than J. Cole, and signing to his Dreamville Records. Their first major label album “Mirrorland” is a refreshing, and endlessly engaging indulgence of hip-hop’s more playful and edgy aspects.
From the first few seconds of opener “Lala Challenge,” it’s striking how unabashedly Southern the sound is. Hip-hop is split into more distinct, disparate sensibilities than a usual glance at the mainstream would even come close to representing. In recent years, the southern strain has become somewhat a predominant force, overtaking the comparatively mechanical and rigid boom-bap stylings associated with the broad genre’s East Coast beginnings. Trap is essentially an update on what used to be called “crunk,” and was exclusive to the “Dirty South.” The sound that EarthGang tap into, however, is something that has remained much more insular, only familiar to small pockets of the country, and with only a handful of proper representatives. In the case of EarthGang, the particular turf is Atlanta, which has spawned innumerable hip-hop superstars, but few with the aesthetic that this particular group heralds. The most natural, immediate comparison would be Outkast, and the similarity is a little uncanny, with EarthGang’s music a testament to the unspoken shared proclivities that float about in highly specialized microcultures. “Lala Challenge” fits crisp snares to funky keys, and exudes a certain swagger that’s light years beyond the tepid stylings that typically make their way into the top of the charts. Halfway through, there’s a dramatic tempo change, and the song starts to recall some of Outkast’s faster-paced tracks, such as “Bombs Over Baghdad,” and “Ghetto Music,” in its eccentricity, boldness, and flamboyance.
It gets steadily stranger, and delightfully so, with “UP” sounding like a finely detuned, deranged and warped, urban gothic expression, tortured but funky, charmingly goofy, with the adventurous impulsivity of the Pharcyde, at times evoking the feeling of a block party, as many of EarthGang’s songs do, and demanding attention from how unhinged it is. Moments echo certain works of Blood Orange, as well as TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe’s solo work under the moniker Rain Machine. “Top Down” is on the cheerier side, channeling the same fluidity and confidence of the last couple tracks into an avenue more festive and celebratory than darkly edgy. There’s an elusive rhythm to both Olu and WowGr8’s phrasings, and a certain cool composure that stands out sharply.
Sounds suddenly grow strikingly more raw and gritty on “Bank,” essentially a trap track There’s a minimalism and particular idiosyncrasy to the rapping that recall Mystikal’s 1995 debut album, “Mind of Mystikal,” a throwback to when priorities centered on basic, but hard-hitting beats, and nifty rhyming in excessive displays. Lead single “Proud of U” features the illustrious Young Thug, which seems just about right, because while Young Thug has somehow become a regular fixture of contemporary hip-hop, he really represents the weirder side of it, and as such, comes as a natural advocate of Earthgang’s offbeat stylings. As usual, Thug exudes a very specific strain of positive energy, making due on the promise of the title. Yet, the song doesn’t quite match up to the jolting immediacy of other tracks, and seems to have been chosen as a single merely because of Thug’s inclusion, although that’s understandable enough.
“This Side” falls firmly in the tradition of groups like Slum Village, in its free meanderings, unconcern with conventional dictates, and general Bohemian spirit. In the last third, the pace suddenly picks up, as in the opening track, although not quite as off the wall. Lyrics like “Pick a pill, blue or red” are profound and timely, although they come already outshined by Hannibal Buress’ “Morpheus Rap” on the Eric Andre Show. Come “Swivel,” the similarities to Outkast are getting a bit much, with the beat of this track eerily recalling that of their 2000 single “Ms. Jackson.” The choice seems a strange move, considering that Johnny Venus already often sounds like Andre 3000’s sonic doppelganger. Still, the similarity to Outkast is hardly cause for complaint, more like a call for celebration. Having already softened the listener up to their madcap antics, the duo venture further left-field on “Avenue,” with an arrangement that begins especially distressed and deconstructed, but shifts back center, with half-sung melodic intimations that recall the tune of Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name.”
One of Earthgang’s most fetching attributes is how their music flaunts sensibilities common to musical genres far removed temporally, expressing those sensibilities with nods to their divergent ends that ring like a eureka alert to the often unrecognized consistency of artistic spirit through the ages. The T-Pain-featuring “Tequila” is a particularly resplendent example of this, with an original New Orleans-style jazz band jamming in a way that parallels the free fluidity of the rapping stylings, matching together instincts of different eras. T-Pain’s contribution is a minor aspect of the song, coming across as a rather shameless reach for star power, but it’s brief duration is enough to add plenty of additional personality to a track that already offers plenty of its own. “Blue Moon,” unrelated to the old standard of that name, builds on the momentum accrued by the preceding track’s horn section, taking on emergent indulgences, with hoots and hollers, liberal syncopation, and provincially stylized doo wop ghosting.”Trippin” descends further into bona fide chaos of sorts, with jaggedly clipped vocal samples, midsong frameshifts, and segments of female vocals, again recalling Outkast, in their common features of ethereal but earthly, soulful divas featured on quirky interludes.
“Stuck” slaps you in the face with its prominent funk bass. The Outkast references keep coming, with Johnny’s phrasing and timbre, at moments, recalling Andre 3000’s on “Spread” from 2003’s “The Love Below,” There are also echoes of D’angelo, and a general, psychedelic church vibe, validated by lyrical snippets like “Frank Ocean and shrooms.” As in most of the songs, there are various different phases and sections that shift gears without ever seeming forced. “Fields” featuring singer Brian Malik Baptiste, is an impactful demonstration of Earthgang’s perfect imperfections, with designedly lazy harmonies, vague Tribe Called Quest reincarnations, and launches into melodic phrase mid-rap verse, more in the creative spirit of jazz than the often rhythmless and unmusical, warring rhymers that have ironically become ambassadors of hip-hop’s improvisatory side. At moments, the Southern qualifiers are flashed with such uninhibited brashness that they can come off as real boondocks, towney stuff. By the point of the final track, “Wings,” it has perhaps become a bit buffoonish, but that’s an inevitable result of the double-sided angle to which Earthgang owe much of their special charm. Novel, artistic brilliance, and disregard for the dictates of conventional taste generally come hand in hand.
“Mirrorland” is easily one of the most exciting and satisfying hip-hop releases of the year. And it’s significance goes well beyond this. Earthgang demonstrate a sonic adventuresomeness that is easily spotted in the general rock ‘n’ roll cannon, and somewhat even in the pop stratosphere, but a comparatively whispy entity in rap, with only occasional flashes illuminating the latent genius of a scene that too often plays dumb. Moreover, Earthgang showcase a style specific to not only Atlanta, but a specific side of Atlanta, not geographically but culturally. The new album reveals an impressive development in the group’s evolution, quite indisputably their most colorful and ambitious work to date. The new songs will appeal to both well-versed hip-hop heads and general fans of inventive and spirited music.
“Mirrorland” is available Sept. 6 on Apple Music.