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Who remembers jazz rap? A hip hop microgenre that rose to mainstream fame for a few moments in the nineties thanks to excellent offerings from the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets, Guru (R.I.P.), and more. Jazz remains a strong influcene in hip hop and recent albums from Toronto based jazz fusion band Bad Bad Not Good's pairing with Ghostface Killah (Wu-Tang Clan) and the stylistic textures of Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly have served many with a reminder that this is still a well worth returning to. Yet with that being said, all encompassing jazz rap and hip hop has largely been omitted from today's modern music scene. Madlib made an attempt in 2003 with Shades of Blue, arguably one of the best albums of the past two decades and yet 90% (author's estimate) of people will admit to never hearing it. Overseas the music has had a bit more success as jazz seemed to be generally more well received in the '90s and in Japan where producers like Nujabes (R.I.P.) helped usher in a new era of young beatmakers. Still the wave of jazz hop knowledge and fanbase seems to be limited to relatively unknown corners on Reddit, 404 links, introverted forum posts, and chillwave (another genre that seems to have peaked in the early 00's and yet remains active) youtube streams. Pherhaps due to copyright issues and the complexity of performing in a live environment with stereo based instrumentation led to the decline, or beatcentric hip hop that is easier to produce, or it was the west coast vs east coast scene that ultimately killed jazz rap off. Run-on sentence aside, jazz rap is certainly perceived as an uphill battle. It's with these things in mind that I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered a beatmaker and rapper ready to take a stab at the genre here in 2017 - AntiLilly & Phoniks.
At initial glance it seems like an unlikely pairing. Phoniks, a 23-year old producer from Portland, Maine, and AntiLilly, a rapper who resides in Houston, Texas. The album, which features jazz samples under AntiLilly's slick rhymes, evokes a feeling of sunshine immediately to the mind and therefore It's Nice Outside becomes appropriately named. Although the relaxing beats and instrumentation carry the album on initial listen it's AntiLilly's lyricism that make this album an instant classic in this author's mind. AntiLilly has struggled and underneath the piano, the brass, the guitar, underneath the sorrow of the jazz and the blues, is an artist who reflects deeply on what has transpired in his life. From the betrayal of a close friend and a woman to the monotony of the 9 to 5 lifestyle and temptations of the streets, AntiLilly tells it how it is. The lens of vulnerability is surprisingly real and transcends the music. It's here in these depths of potential sorrow that AntiLilly's soars as this woe-is-me attitude is overidden by the rapper's drive to move forward in life with genuine hope and optimism. Here is a lyrical exceprt from "Nobody's Perfect":
"I dont hold no hatred for anybody that played me, I aint got no feelings for women I made mistakes with.
One of my exes and old friend's they had a baby, crazy how life can put people in different places.
It's never how you think, it's all about how you embrace it, back in the day Lucy was the one I'd spend my days with.
Back in the day knew you was my nigga defending me , you thought it was until infinity but it all had a limit.
Everything considered I hope the best y'all for the rest y'all days hope you're no more sweet than bitter.
Hope you teach the little man to make his life so bigger than I's ever was; true shit it dont get any realer."
Me I'm just a sinner with newer problems than ones in the past... We're all just work in progress Aint nobody got the answers so I question so much shit everyday, I was taught right from wrong but it's hard to obey cuzz I aint perfect. Nobody's Pefect.
This articulation of thoughts swirl around nicely over Phoniks sample of a trumpet and backbeat, two tones that tote the line between sad and glad with ease. The music mirrors the lyricism appropriately and when you realize you're in for 16 tracks of this (17 sans an interlude), you're in a for a very pleasant ride.
In an album full of standouts it's hard to pick out just one or two. "Grow" features an electric lo-fi guitar that provides enough congeniality to allow Phoniks kickdrum and snare beat to carry the song in quintessential '90s hip hop bliss. AntiLilly reminisces and reflects on being a kid, his early twenties, and a fan who reached out to him about the drive to keep living. "Company Cigarettes" takes the narrative to the workplace and all the quirks of interpersonal relationships that do or don't develop there. The characters in AntiLilly's verses seem so real because they are all easy relatable and exude characteristics we find in day to day life regardless of geographic origin. From a verse about a boss reminding you to take a break at a specific time to sharing cigarettes with those who don't smoke to build camaraderie, the track will undoubtedly take you to a similar memory of yesterday. Phoniks lifts the song with a beautiful flute and harp sample that seems heavenly and yet many will be listening to a track that reminds you of last Tuesday. "Company Cigarettes" captures the mundane and meaningless that we all experience and spins it beautifully.
Adding another layer of intrigue to It's Nice Outside are the voicemails left by those in AntiLilly's life. Self-admittedly a combatant of depression, AntiLilly forced himself into periods of profound isolation to channel his craft and better himself. This album is the result and a magnificent coping mechanism. The voicemails are littered strategically throughout the album post-song and feature messages from mom, friends, and others. The brevity and tone of the voicemails stand out the most, some are loving (mom of course), while others are coarse and turn from genuine curiosity to self-thought indignation. It serves as a reminder of the best of humanity and the worst of it, with the rest of us landing somewhere in the middle of it with AntiLilly.
It's Nice Outside is a meritorious affair, the music here is sanguine and in a musical scene saturated with artificial beats and inflated egos it's refreshing to listen to something poignant and real. The uniqueness of this album is undeniable and it's easy to not only hear the harmonies on the album but to feel the emotion and weight of the instruments and lyrics in a way that stays with you for quite some time.