First Impressions: A Little Disquisition on Album Openings in Local Hip-Hop

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The opener for The Stimulus Package, Jake One's collaboration with Freeway, sets the tone for the rest of the disc.
Beginnings matter because they establish the rules of the game. They set the tone and define the scope of the artist's ambition, and it is because of these functions that we pay such close attention to the first sentence in a novel or the initial scene in a movie or the opening song on an album. As in personal relations, first impressions matter. All critical judgment springs forth from introductions.

Recently, there have been some pretty great openings on local hip-hop albums. Seattle-based super-producer Jake One's collaboration with Freeway, The Stimulus Package, rumbles to life with the "Stimulus Intro," a rugged little street banger that combines all of the most prevalent elements on that remarkable disc: raw 90s-era rap cut with pure soul.

Perhaps the most memorable comes on Grayskul's latest full-length, Graymaker. On "Mars Voltage," a static-laced horn slowly blasts notes, as if being played by an etherized jazzman, before rapidly ascending only to float back into silence, leaving JFK's uncharacteristically subdued delivery, the ominous bass-line, and the click-clacking drums. On the one hand, it's typical Grayskul--twisted and eerie. But on the other it's something new--something with a little more levity. The rest of Graymaker takes its cue from this cut.

And then there's the first shot fired on RA Scion's and producer MTK's side project, Victor Shade.The yet-to-be-fully-released album opens with "Pym Strut," whose Southern-fried guitar riff and full-throated singing lend it a stirring, epic quality that make it sound like a cross between the theme song for a 70s-era cartoon and a classic gospel remake. MTK won't divulge the sample (and consultations with the Google Oracle yield zilch), but whatever it is, the song strikes the right--wait for it--note. This is not Common Market, it seems to say, and now that that's established, let's get on with the show.

Notice it's not so much the MCs and their words that do the trick but rather the producers and their beats. Just as actors need guidance from directors on how to say a line, lyricists need their producers to help them determine what pace to run their delivery, what words to conjure, and, ultimately, what identity they should assume. We the listeners take it from there.

 
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