Stream: Skip Coon and Mr. Nick “It Is What It Is”
Sophomore Slump Vol 1. – Independents Day EP1 is a haunting and haunted recording. It is haunting because producer Mr. Nick assembles his drums, basslines, and samples into soundscapes that feel spare and ghostly at first, as if he pared down the menace and alarm of an old Public Enemy b-side. Rapper Skipp Coon’s delivery is confident and passionate, at times verging on cracking, but it is always straightforward and dead center even when his voice is augmented by eerie effects. There is nowhere else for your attention to wander; emcee and producer blend into one resonant sonic entity, too insistent to serve as background noise and too minimal to be received as chaotic or directly threatening. It is in the blank spaces, sonically and ideologically, where the EP is haunted.
The ghosts of Chuck D and The Bomb Squad, Paris, Ice Cube circa Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, and the Goodie Mob zip around, knock over vases, and shriek in the background. Skipp Coon is indebted to all of these muses but he deliberately assigns a limit to his borrowing, as if trying to avoid being pigeonholed as a derivative anachronism or written off as anti-social or inaccessible. His rhymes jump from topic to topic every bar or so, sizing up targets as diverse as the apathetic public, corrupt politicians, and a music industry that crushes creativity with commerce. But his rants are not nearly as frenetic or abstract as Chuck D’s stream of consciousness on “Welcome To The Terrordome,” nor do they much resemble the nutty if prescient ramblings of Howard Beale, the “mad prophet of the airwaves” from the 1976 film Network, which are sampled prominently on the EP. Skipp’s version of lyrical radicalism is uncommon these days but it is hardly fringe.
The fact of the matter is that Skipp Coon’s biggest beef is not with the powers that be or with “industry rule number 4,080.” Skipp Coon’s dragon is far more vexing: he is engaged in intense battle with that peculiar rising tide of American cynicism that views any attempt to engage the public in a serious discussion of political or social issues as hopelessly, even childishly idealistic. Within the rap genre, this cynicism manifests itself in crude dismissals of “conscious rap” that read the outward signifiers of a bohemian or politicized sensibility as indicators of inherent wackness or commercial failure. In the larger society, such cynicism sometimes rears its head among upwardly mobile minorities who wonder whether or not their desire to assist their less fortunate brethren will be worth the trouble. Much of the EP involves Skipp Coon wondering aloud whether or not his vitriol will matter.
One gets the sense that Skipp Coon envies Howard Beale and Chuck D, because those men lived and raved during eras in which the stakes were clear and the enemies were obvious, when it was still possible for at least one concerned maniac to commandeer the spotlight and deliver useful truth-telling to a large audience. In 2011, artists like Skipp Coon must trudge through the motions knowing full well that a song like “Welcome To The Terrordome” will never again be blessed with platinum sales or good-bad publicity. The mere act of recording a politically-charged EP is practically an act of insanity considering the microscopic ROI, but not the kind of insane act that will attract enough to attention to change culture in the ways we used to think culture was changed. Who can a rapper rail against with the support of the people? Who are the people, exactly? Remember when journalists made unironic references to a hip-hop “nation”?
This uncertainty haunts the album with as much insistence as the ghosts of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements and hip hop’s late 80s/early 90s “conscious” era. Having thrown his hat into the ring, Skipp Coon evokes these times with a sense of poignant longing similar to Nas’s rhapsodic take on the flagrant criminality of the late 80s crack era on “Memory Lane.” In doing so, Skipp Coon provides us a glimpse into the socially fragmented, scarily atomistic, morally ambiguous landscape of the present. The lack of a shared culture, even within a particular musical genre, is unsettling for some who remember a different arrangement. His glimpse is at times conflicted, almost to the point of ideological paralysis, and it is haunted by probably false Romantic memories of simpler battles. This does not make the EP any less compelling, however, check “It Is What It Is,” which sees Skipp Coon plainly address these issues and assert the titular catch phrase not as a surrender to the temptation of indifference but as a mantra to keep on keeping on. — Thun