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.





MATT OLIVER’S ESSENTIAL HIP-HOP REVIEW




Rapture & Verse’s March hares are made up of dirt-slinging duo Remy Ma and Nicki Minaj (naturally, Foxy Brown then has her two penneth worth as well), Snoop blurring the line between life and art when it comes to America’s next top president, Joey Badass having a John Lennon-style, ‘Bigger than Jesus’ moment, Tupac ‘memorabilia’ reaching unhealthy new levels, and a right flash-looking reissue of Kool Keith and Dan the Automator’s trailblazing weirdo ‘Dr Octagonecologyst’ (when an Easter egg just won’t do). All topped with Will I Am appearing in a new video with the realest of the Rovers Return, Liz McDonald.

Talib Kweli joins the UK B-Boy World Championships with an April performance (probably not as a contestant…well, you never know). Big Daddy Kane reiterates he’s still got juice with a London appearance in May bound to bring in scores of hip-hop nostalgics; and home-grown old skool originals London Posse go on a wee road trip to tell all the current gun finger spitters how slang should really sound. Also upcoming on these shores – DJ Q-Bert, Masta Ace and Jedi Mind Tricks, all making it rain like an April shower.






Singles/EPs

A teeny-tiny singles selection this month starts with a quintet of instrumentals seeing who’s big enough to plug a mic in. Urban Click’s ‘Half Past Two’ does boom bap that keeps time and plants seeds of doubt; just enough fear factor to have you looking over your shoulder mid head-nod, until ‘Payback’ brings the hatchet into full view. In need of an assertive, affirmative funk jam with a worldview to cause roadblocks? Rob Cave’s singsong exasperation telling you ‘Hold Your Head’ is that very jam. Follow that with a remix of Mista Sinista’s ‘Life Without Fear’, another partier making a point with Worldarama, Illa Ghee & Chordz Cordero wrapping up Eitan Noyze’s bulbous funker. Milano Constantine gets grimy on the belt-loosening ‘Rasclart’, with Conway and Big Twins helping extort DJ Skizz’ mob skanking.






Albums

Action packed storytelling kicks off Your Old Droog’s triumphant ‘Packs’, that languid NY flow quickly working a number of hustles and stakes-high dice games, all with a penchant for humour and words to the wise stashed in the trunk. From go-slows to arse kicks, adopting the same readiness for and awareness of when the streets come calling, and with Danny Brown, Edan and Heems on his team, YOD perfects the unfathomable: a varied album with no time to waste or room for error. 14 silk cuts, if you will.

With a flow somewhere between honey dipped and Seattle high, Porter Ray’s seesaw twang that’s always laidback in a perpetual state of motion grounds spacey, floaty forecasts replacing low riders with ambient parachute jumps. ‘Watercolor’ is vaporous but tangible gangsta living from under the stars with a creditable amount of earnestness, with Ray’s role as some kind of avenging angel leaving his mark on you, one way or another.





UK crews control this month starts with the Gatecrasherz getting parties jumping and scrawling their names all over the VIP list on ‘Uninvited’. A more patient unit than expected, inasmuch as each emcee queues obediently before showing ill discipline on the mic (in turn letting you pick your own distinctively-twanged rapper like you’re swapping stickers), a broadside of bumping beats (including ‘2-3 Break’ playing out like a choose-your-own-adventure book), gets doors off hinges.

 

Steady Rock and Oliver Sudden push flavour in your ear with ‘Preservatives’. The BBP reliability always plays the game the right way, spanning humble brags, straight shots, living as they live it, tales told while getting ‘em in and beats getting bobbleheaded on life’s dashboard. What you hear is what you get. Amos & Kaz’ ‘Year of the Ram’ justifies all natural assumptions of locking horns and being capable of a battering. Forceful personality dominates business, pleasure and pain; these two are up for a scrap, or at least a good pantsing, after their knowledge has driven its way down your ear canal. Granville Sessions power through without pretension on ‘Monument’, demanding a captive amphitheatre rather than threatening the front row. A forthright manifesto playing no games makes for a well regimented campaign.

 

After the ‘Barrydockalypse’, Joe Dirt is the last real rapper alive on an album that’s a pessimist’s paradise. Repping Squid Ninjaz by showing strong survival instincts, keeping composure is paramount on a great, stomach-unsettling set for those getting kicks out of losing themselves past the wrong side of the tracks. Safe to say Jam Baxter’s ‘Mansion 38’ is not surrounded by a postcard-perfect white picket fence; half cut, whip smart, and hoovering up Chemo’s top-to-bottom production so that the pair sink until they strike the gold of rock bottom. Ultimate, grungy outlaw hip-hop, putting the trap in trapdoor.





As a flipside, Dabbla barfs out bonus project ‘Chapsville’ (location: London twinned with Tennessee and Thunderdome), spraying obnoxiously hot bars at water cannon pressure while DJ Frosty twists the shapeshfiting landscapes around him. Leaf Dog’s ‘Dyslexic Disciple’ is a proper UK hip-hop knees-up, awash with weed and scuffles always likely to break out because it’s all family. Funk and blues buck like a bronco, plucky and bullish rhymes will step to a mic whatever the weather, Kool Keith drops by to diss you without you realising, and a grand finale of a giant posse cut lands the knockout blow.





Oddisee is his usual engaging self on ‘The Iceberg’. With music as crisp as freshly plucked Romaine, effortlessly upping the pace when the time’s right, the personal becomes appealing so that you can’t help but pore over eloquent diary entries where the ink never runs dry. Ultimately you agree with his clearly made points of view as Oddisee is becoming the master of his own destiny who could make takeaway menus or the phone book sound compelling. From the supple to the ambitious/exhaustive, Beans releases three albums simultaneously (!) – ‘Wolves of the World’, ‘Love Me Tonight’ and ‘HAAST’ – as well as an accompanying novel. Fantastical seat of your pants scenarios and breathless narratives seemingly doing real life and politics in fast forward even if caught in traffic, the Anti-Pop Consortium alumni loves the feel of a fine tooth comb throughout.

NYC’s El Michels Affair have reached the same level of dynasty as their Staten Island source of inspiration. Back covering another batch of Wu-Tang Clan trademarks in an irrepressible, funk and soul, live band experience, ‘Return to the 37th Chamber’ repeats their craft of cultish kung-fu cabaret rewriting the scrolls of Shaolin methodology. Though they dart in as quickly as they sneak out, they’re politely nuthin’ to fuck wit’ when you’re trying to name that tune.

 

A jawbreaker flow meets boom-bap control; ZoTheJerk and Frost Gamble’s ‘Black Beach’ makes strong statements, showing Detroit determination to put things right – or at least stay vigilant – in a world full of buck-passing. A good combination that cruises before T-boning ya. Fuelled by hard liquor and blackmarket diesel, TOPR’s ‘Afterlife of the Party’ is a 13 track brawl finding “epiphanies in heresy, poetry in vulgarity”, kicking down doors and spitting wisdom with the force of a slammed down shot glass. Even at its calmest, there’s only one (albeit methodical) trajectory, justifying arguments and rabble rousing as a hard-bitten B-boy. The usual safe-breaking, toothpick-chewing, phone-tapping vibes from Roc Marciano plots ‘Rosebudd’s Revenge’, a seedy shoulder-brusher putting its kingpin in a familiar position of power, to the sound of a soul jukebox watching trife life go by.





Hosting a sophisticated dinner party but still putting fresh kicks on the table, Dr Drumah runs a tight ship of instrumentals passing round cigar-n-scotch jazz and choice samples keeping ears attracted late on. ‘90’s Mindz’ is precisely put together, a showcase of simple pleasures that’s got plenty of mileage. Once that’s soiree’s over and done with, head over to Vital’s ‘Pieces of Time’ for pretty much more of the same; hard shells with soft centres and golden age hues, in an easy access network of neck work. Argentinean Gas-Lab boasts an international cast to take you ahead of the sunrise on the soul dejeuner ‘Fusion’, all piano keys and horns applying shine to respectful spit. ‘Rise N Shine’ shakes the bottle and wakes a little Samba in Spaniard Alex Rocks, an easygoing beatsmith who gets his US guests licking their lips from the stoop. With a squeeze of bossa funk in the mix as well, it sticks to the script enough for soft tops and sunloungers to start folding themselves back.





Welcoming your retinas this month: Open Mike Eagle turns superhero, Joey Badass pledges allegiance, Knowledge Nick gives a thumbs down, and Ash the Author keeps on track.














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