Spectrum Pulse Review

Original Link: Spectrum Pulse Review by Mark Grondon

Let's talk a bit about cosigns. 

Because as a critic, I'm always pretty wary of them. You get plenty of artists who will pitch themselves as being 'like' a specific act, or being loosely affiliated with them, or using that one guest verse that was super tight to build a bridge of association that they'd never be able to hold again under tighter scrutiny. I tend to be a fair bit more forgiving when the act that I like outright endorses them, but again, I've always got a bit of skepticism. Sure, maybe this producer I really like helped cowrite or add verses to a project and he believes in its artistic intentions... or he's trying to give a friend a leg-up or use his status to elevate someone not ready for primetime. 

And yet my skepticism was sorely tested when Uncommon Nasa reached out to me about this project. Given how much I absolutely loved his last album Halfway last year, I was pretty damn optimistic when he said that he contributed both verses and all the production to Chicago MC Short Fuze, who worked with Nasa back in 2010 for his debut Lobotomy Musicand who showed up for a pretty good guest verse on Halfway. And from what I know of Nasa, he isn't about to cosign or work with artists he wouldn't fully support, so I had some faith that this project could really hit home, especially as it was just under thirty five minutes, the sort of ruthlessly tight project that left no room for error. So I made sure to dig into Autonomy Music - did it stick the landing and meet expectations? 

Well, in a way it did, because I definitely like this project, the sort of well-framed but slightly offkilter record that I would expect from these men - and yet I can't quite say I like it as much as I liked Halfway. Don't get me wrong, it's definitely solid with the brand of complicated lyricism and askew production that might initially disorient until you dig in - and yet it's also one of those projects that might be a little too scattershot and overstuffed for its own good, with the sort of density that doesn't quite reflect cohesion so much as so many ideas fighting for space. Oh, if you dig in deep to decode this record there is a framework around these ideas, but if I was looking for an album that could have used more time and room to breathe, it'd be this one. 

Granted, a big part of that is Short Fuze and Uncommon Nasa themselves. At first listen they have similar flows in terms of the way their bars are constructed, not so much spoken word but free flowing thoughts that coast over unconventional rhyming structures that are definitely an acquired taste but one I do like. And both Uncommon Nasa and the sole guest star Curly Castro acquit themselves well here with more immediately expressive tones, mostly thanks to Nasa's slightly higher register and Castro's thicker rasp. Short Fuze himself... his voice is authoritative and I respect how his content is more introspective here, but I'm not always certain he conveys the emotive range as well as he could, and he can come across a bit monotone, like on 'Oddest Future'. Or take 'The Darkest Place I've Ever Been', a song that literally focuses on coming to the brink of suicide, and while I understand depression wouldn't lead to an incredibly expressive delivery, it still feels a tad flat here, especially in contrast. 

Granted, it's not like Uncommon Nasa is giving Short Fuze easy beats to ride against, especially with as intricate and unconventional as these flows are. Much of this sample-heavy production is as noisy and dense as the rhyme patterns, including two sampled interludes that shows Nasa still has an uncanny knack for finding some poignant moments to further crystallize the themes. And like with Halfway, there are a few production choices that don't quite connect for me: the warping whir of squealing glitchy samples that seems to layer over a dense roiling beat and what might be a piano underneath on 'The Darkest Place I've Ever Been'; the buzzy synth that sprays over parts of the tapping beat, fuzzy blur of melody, and textured, slightly askew percussion on 'Time And Space'; the operatic vocal touches against the scratching of 'Oddest Future' feels like a weird blend of styles that doesn't quite mesh with an overlong hook; or the low oily tune behind the rattling bass and thicker cymbals on 'Beggar's Buffet' that builds into a blur of strings and heavier echo on the vocals on the hook. And again, I don't think that any of these production choices are bad - if you dig into the textures and instrumental you'll find real melody and potent hooks here - but again, this is material where it's going to take time to really appreciate, and it's not nearly as immediate or hard-hitting as other hooks here. And the thing is that those hooks are no less complicated - the keening layers of electric guitar that loop against noisy drums and trudging beat on 'Breakdance For The Def', the heavier bassline against the scratchy cymbals that plays off twinkling swells and a higher horn line that falls against the textured cushion of scratching and news samples on 'Perfect Health', the low synth against the stalking bassline, sparse percussion, thin horns and what sounds like seagulls echoing across the mix that builds to rattling faded elegance on 'Self Distortion', a vibe that later repeats on the horns, boom-bap beat, and low male backing vocals of 'Addicted To The Horn', all of which further impress that strong sense of New York atmosphere that's always permeated Nasa's production. And it's tough to pinpoint why those production choices work more for me - perhaps it's simply giving the track a little more room to breathe, or a stylistic experiment that clicks a little better - but I think it's more because the intricate production augments the complex flows and ideas, not obscures or muddies them. 

And make no mistake, there's a lot going on lyrically on this album, even if on the surface the theme is well-established early: art used as a way to ensure autonomy in modern life, the freedom to make one's own path. And yet this record starts on bleak notes, as the album begins with uncertainty and depression, not having that clear path until hitting the lowest point, which allows this record to truly click into recovery mode less than five minutes in. Bit of a wonky way to open a record - normally you'd expect low points like this one to occur later on, but this record isn't so much delving into Short Fuze's personal anxieties so much as a focus on his relationship with the art itself, and an industry set against denying a hungry public any sort of hope of release through regurgitated product. And what I like is how for both Short Fuze and Uncommon Nasa, hip-hop goes beyond pure lyricism but into graffiti and other forms of art that tie into the culture beneath it that can transcend class and social divides - although they also don't shy away from how that art focus can have its dangers. 'Perfect Health' is a great example, a song that focuses on graffiti and gang tags and how hip-hop helped save Short Fuze's life in the long term, but it opens with a sample of someone describing how the paint fumes ultimately landed him in the hospital, and how he'd trade all of it back for perfect health. 'Self Distortion' goes even darker, showing how Short Fuze's struggles with his faith have left him even further astray, with hip-hop culture and a broken society exacerbating it, something the violence of Curly Castro's verse further emphasizes - and yet it's one of the reasons I really like the interlude 'Electric Blanket Conversation', a moment where a person rejects the electric blanket for cutting him off from the cold at night and his compassion - you know, reality. And as the album continues, you can tell Short Fuze is battling between his introspective impulses to further explore himself through art and isolate - an addictive compulsion, something he even calls out and highlights on 'Addicted To The Horn' in both content and samples - and to make a larger message. Now if I were to criticize the content, it'd come in that larger message on 'Oddest Future', which goes into social commentary flogging the mass media, with a paranoid edge that's probably not as well framed as it could be, especially with lines about the 'New World Order' and 'Occupy Wall Street is the new form of torture'. I get the darker, paranoid framing is part of the point, which is even called out on the final track 'Beggar's Buffet' in further highlighting how Short Fuze's worst moments he channels and deals with through his art - it's analogous to what Aesop Rock did this year on 'Molecules' off of The Impossible Kid - but it doesn't quite hit with the same impact, as the writing doesn't quite feel as focused - this record could have used a slightly stronger ending. 

But really, that's nitpicking about details on a record that really does hold together well, and like any Uncommon Nasa-affiliated project reveals more details to appreciate with every listen. And make no mistake, this is definitely a record that demands a lot of repeated listens and has only gotten better in my eyes. I'm still a little on the fence whether I would say it was great - again, I think it's a shade weaker than Halfway in terms of focus and impact - but it has grown on me significantly over the dozen-plus times I've gone through it, and if the most major criticism I have is that it could afford to be expanded so we get more of it, that's a pretty minor complaint! So for me, I'm thinking a very light 8/10 and definitely a recommendation, especially if you're looking for some thoughtful, dense New York hip-hop to balance against the West Coast explosion this year. And Short Fuze, this is definitely what I like to see in a return to form, so definitely keep it up.

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