Album Review/Matt Oliver




The Four Owls   ‘Nocturnal Instinct’
(High Focus)   LP/17th April 2020


Even in today’s ease of hip-hop connectivity, a crew from little old England who can call on guests of the calibre of DJ Premier, Masta Killa, Kool G Rap, Roc Marciano and RA the Rugged Man, must be pointing their mic the right way. The Four Owls have taken their time to become arguably the premier UK crew of the utmost reliability; on their current share of the spoils, its testament to their own grind that on fourth album Nocturnal Instinct, you’re here for them and not the draw of their impressive imports.

That said, those that know will probably find that intro a cliché. They’ll further wince at those assuming that these are fourteen gobby posse cuts as well: this is shift work involving hard labour 16s and 32s, up to the mic with a hobnailed step, then retreating with the smoothness and intuition of a relay team where routine, practice hours and making every syllable count are absolute. This is not particularly a discourse in show and prove either – though you’re brave/idiotic should you step to them; it’s a masterclass of self expression – wellbeing, learning from personal pasts, to trust/tame your impulses (and yes, owl-like wisdom) – through four contrasting conduits whose familiarity through a mountain of past solo material and the group’s previous albums (Natural Order and Nature’s Greatest Mystery now stretching the saga nearly a decade) means the Owls ever faltering in full flight is unimaginable.

The dynamic vies for your affection like box fresh collectables, yet where you have to the whole collection rather than one lone shelf dweller. Leaf Dog, slightly highly strung and seemingly always on the brink of talking his way into/out of trouble, actually holds a steady head keeping wits about him. Verb T, his telling, elder statesman cadence always one step in advance, has seen it all before and is currently winning at wearing the T-shirt, remaining utterly withering on ‘Dark Days’. Fliptrix, the hydro-powered livewire, excels in street spirituality – case in point, ‘Be Free’, where he shows vulnerability dressed as a normal 9-to-5er. And BVA is just pure no nonsense, acting as the crew’s geezer-ish, collar up, first line of watertight defence. Grab the mic, respect it, rock it, done.

Made for sweaty, beer from a bucket boltholes not knowing the existence of social distancing, Leaf Dog’s beats rock, jump on shoulders, shove their way to the front row and harness one communal head nod as MPC pads bear heavy fingerprints and undercuts of bass test the law of 90s Queensbridge. Then subtly pulling back into reflective, soul-lined ruminations to chew on, full of weathered pianos and reticent woodwinds, strings and rhythms, Nocturnal Instinct is always of a stocky constant. As unofficial Fifth Owl, DJ Premier’s solitary ‘100%’ is by the book Gang Starr-ism – certainly not hired as a showstopper, and whose introducing of the group akin to a big top/prize fight ringmaster will probably be more revered than the actual beat he lays down. In any case, Leaf Dog’s ‘All My Life part 2’ sounds more Premo than Premo himself.

As for the other much-vaunted guests (shout also to Smellington Piff for dovetailing nicely on the opening biff ‘Sound the Alarm’), Masta Killa is pretty much overshadowed on ‘Deadly Movements’. Kool G Rap remains a scoop, and is someone through passing rhyme references on ‘Pioneer’ who has the Owls utmost respect. Roc Marciano is ideally cast as the safe breaker on ‘Dark Days’, ushering in the Owls as unlikely thieves in the night (a tribute to Leaf Dog switching it up on the boards); and RA the Rugged Man shows the sort of elastic circus of rhymes that dominated his own recent All My Heroes Are Dead LP on the uptempo free-for-all ‘Air Strike’. Nonetheless, none of the trump cards bring the house down in a way that shoves the Owls to the side; no being owned on your own shit going on here. It’s not showboating, but there’s a degree of the foursome showing off by telling their guests to wait their turn and play the game their way without feeling they have to go pound for pound with them: there’s the crew’s respect for you.

By rule of thumb, The Four Owls should be back by about 2025, venerable UK hall of famers and distinguished models of quality control and trusting their instincts, day and night.





THE ESSENTIAL HIP-HOP REVIEW
WORDS: MATT OLIVER





Singles/EPs

Another day, another dollar – or if you’re Ghostface, a denomination of your own cryptocurrency – and Rapture & Verse starts October by blowing its pumpkin fund on black magic to make featherweight crews levitate. ‘Rhymes to the East’ by Sampa the Great is a great slice of mystical hip-hop forcing you to use your illusion. ‘Heads Up Eyes Open’ is the posture adopted by Talib Kweli, telling the truth with trademark conviction, bringing the “facts versus the facsimile” to a jazzy room-filling mood boost, cross referenced by Rick Ross.

 





Cloudy slickness from Young RJ goes through the ‘Motion’, drowse drawing from Jay Dee and shaken up with nimble lyrics as his album approaches the throne. ChanHays’ bounce and bubble nibbles at the stone faced Cool Kids on ‘New Bag’, acting as if they’re too cool to be related to the quirky soul chops. Draped in what can only be described as crime strings, Rediculus remixes Recognize Ali’s ‘Season of the Rebel’ and regulates music to watch your step by. Prince Po and Pawz1 bottle ‘The Raw Essence’ and saturate the streets like they’re pouring a lil liquor, and Rez4Real and Skyzoo ride such waves with gusto, boom bap wailer ‘Stick N Move’ defined by Cookin’ Soul’s central spectre tricking and treating the hairs on the backs of necks. Showing off undefeatable finishing moves, Yinka Diz takes the belt of ‘Mr Perfect’ with trap scissoring through the club like a peacocking wrestler asking ‘who do you love?’

 

Funk speedsters The Allergies challenge Andy Cooper to a remix race on ‘Blast Off’ before sprinting off on ‘You Got Power’, both coming with their own dizzying troupe of high kickers and baton twirlers. Savvy goes axe shredding with his signature flow, because it’s ‘The Only Way I Know’, rock-rap carefully measuring its run-up to the front five rows. Prince Po has been unearthing remixes for new project ‘The Redux’, ranging from MC Paul Barman’s networking exasperations, DOOM, Wordsworth and Chubb Rock navigating urgent chops and changes, and De La Soul easing back.




Albums

Now’s the time of year when albums start creeping up on the blindside of end-of-year assessors. Detroit’s Nolan the Ninja, a dervish occasionally drifting into a Big L twang, comes with the dopest dragon punch. The currency of ‘Yen’ trades on aggressive, eyeballing rhymes to get you bouncing, and beats strategically picking their punches, whether they be soul-powered or sent in to slug it out.


Taking a trip to ‘South City’, livewire London pair Too Many Ts bring power to the people with an electricity hip-hop crowds would be remiss to keep to themselves. A little cheek going a long way and craziness staying certified PG, Leon Rhymes and Standaloft shut down the show arm in arm, doing block party rockin’ (‘Hang Tight’ is something like a phenomenon) and jump-up audience ignition.

Setting you up for the day is one of UK hip-hop’s most reliable. The ever obliging Verb T finds a perfect ally in producer Pitch 92 for ‘Good Evening’, a leisurely, watertight LP that breaks down the day to day – the system, vices, and the people lost to both – and sets your mind at rest as your neck sweats it. With the elite onside as well – Kashmere, Jehst, Ocean Wisdom, Fliptrix – this one can and will go all night long.

In charge of a landscape both dense and set adrift, Upfront rascally rattles through the A-Z on ‘Lettermorphosis’. The cause for mass head down huddles bobbing from beneath hoods, the Bristol rhymer values every syllable when pitching between Ocean Wisdom, Dabbla and Frisco. Summed up in the line “got a grip so tight when I write that my mic hand’s bleeding”, Upfront’ll make you think from underneath the stockpile of verbs you’re buried under. Ded Tebiase has a ‘Landspeed’ record, his means of travel an unapologetic golden age sound – horns, sleighbells and low cuts of bass that can only be listened to in carparks by the pack load – that laces up grit-caked Timbs and wears them like comfy slippers. Kelz, Sir Beans OBE, Ash the Author and Benaddict come along for a ride perfect for the pending autumn-winter changeover.





“’Apocalypse Trent represents Nottingham’s new wave of rap music, or not”: so say the inscrutable VVV crew, lead by Cappo, Juga-Naut and Vandal Savage. A not entirely serious collection of synth loungers, skittering, bare bones club beats, off-the-tops and lyrical mind boggles trained to be dope, that’s not to say there isn’t freshness within. Knowing exactly what’s going on, the thin line between attacking and appreciating the state of play puts the rewind button to work.





The meeting of Slaine and Termanology was always going to be a backstreet brawl. Uncompromising is the word tattooed across ‘Anti-Hero’, duty bound to hammer nails into coffins and treating ciphers like cage matches. To their credit they do add some clear-headed perspectives amidst the constant of calling it as they see it. Bun B, Everlast, Evidence, Psycho Les and lll Bill are amongst those egging them on. In their roles of hammer and sickle, Apathy and OC drum home their own history lesson of ‘Perestroika’. Apathy’s signature going for throats and OC maintaining DITC dignity, conduct subzero hostilities looking to conscript captive audiences, the Soviet shtick ratting out defectors in a second. “Broadcasting for those behind enemy lines”, this is blunt with a capital B.

Calm and dignified in a world hugging the down slope, CunninLynguists present ‘Rose Azuro Njano’; funk and blues taking to the stage and taking responsibility to provide both salvation and eloquent discussion, standing up without sugar-coating it. When pushing ‘Music I Wanna Make’, John Reilly comes up with a respect earner, him and Rediculus on production taking no shortcuts with beats and bars built to stick around.




Thavius Beck’s gravitational pull on ‘Technol OG’ vaporises dancefloors, with dictionaries a close second. Blasting out descrambled sonic challenges to rip glitterballs off their axis in 30 minutes, Beck’s seasoned interstellar highwayman act, available on amazing-looking gold vinyl, grabs the game by the balls as if the whole world is in his hands.

Guided by Jonwayne to the brink and back on the boards, a bluesy wait for psychedelics to take effect, Danny Watts has the ability to take a look around before sounding like one of hip-hop’s coldest. Watts shifting his peripheral vision can be your best friend and worst enemy, as well as his own when cruising and concealing turmoil. Houston’s Watts is a champion, and another threat to the end of year monopoly.




The million dollar Wu-Tang sound gets caught in familiar post-dynasty malaise when Masta Killa asserts ‘Loyalty is Royalty’. Despite a lot of clansmen coming through – Method Man, RZA, GZA, Inspectah Deck, Cappadonna – it’s an album rooted in indifference. Even bigger shrugs are reserved for PMD’s ‘Business Mentality’. Swamped in guests – Ace Brav and RJ da Realst should really be co-headliners – and rugged beats overwhelming the solitary smooth ones, this business lacks legs to move up the ladder. An Erick Sermon appearance on the prescient ‘The Real is Gone’ fails to provide a saving grace on a project playing catch-up.

As angels and demons battle for room on his shoulders, Denzil Porter details the ‘Semantics of Mr Porter’ with Kendrick Lamar/Big Sean sensibilities, digitally precise roughhousing, mainstream accessibility with beats and hooks to hang onto, and developed narratives you might not expect after blustery opening exchanges. A new volume of ‘The Good Book’ from the collar-poppin’ Alchemst & Budgie turns the booth into a confessional for a lengthy second sermon, unofficially defined by the former reaching out to the recognised underground and the latter introducing a flock to follow up on. Flipping religious recordings and soundbites into an immaculately packaged soul-soaked baptism, Royce 5’9″, Westside Gunn & Conway, Meyhem Lauren, Durag Dynasty, Your Old Droog, Evidence and Jeremiah Jae are part of the mass chewing on titbits and spreading thoughts to take home.

 

Mixtapes

Your first stop for a commemorative throwdown, Hellee Hooper gives it some golden age largesse with Diamond D’s ‘Stunts, Blunts and Hip-Hop’ given a 25-year salute. Comprised of the usual congratulatory handshake of source material, samples and remixes, you’ll struggle to find a funkier 55 minutes this year.


Nowt on telly? Try Skipp Whitman’s shopping channel, Chairman Maf’s anarchist cookbook and Murs rewriting the classics.











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