Los Angeles

“You Can Win”/”Let’s Go” Bileo 7” (M.T.U/Watts City Records, 1979) remix & more

Not much information on Bileo – Bill Williams, Bobby Love, Joe Farnis, horn arr: Maceo Jackson – other than the group released two singles, this being one of them. The single was re-issued by Athens of the North in 2014. As the promo material for the re-issue states the single sells itself, the song too writes itself; it’s all there, the message of uplift and continuation. It’s a lovely thing.

Movin' up now
To higher ground now
Can use my stride! (?)
When I get there, yeah
I'm gonna smile now
Cause I'll be high!
High on love
That's all I need, yeah
To make my day!
I am happy
Happy now I'm
I'm on my way!

You can be there
If you want to, yeah...
You can be there
If you want to, yeah...

Another track credited to Bill William’s Bileo’s lead vocalist (under the name Bill Williams & Billeo is “Robot People” out on WCM, 1983), probably only of real interest for those seeking to “complete their collection.”

Ditto for another Bill Williams’s track: “Things WIll Be Better Tomorrow,” also from 1983. That said, this remix of “You Can Win” - Dorsi Plantar’s French Kiss Edit – is great:

"DOOM & Westside Gunn Sting with Bars on Alchemist Production" (AFH archive)

First published at Ambrosia for Heads, 11 October 2017, read the article on the AFH site

Everything is muted, quiet like a beautiful, twisted lullaby on “2Stings,” the most recent single from the forthcoming WestsideDOOM (DOOM and Gunn) collaboration, produced by another Shady family member, The Alchemist. “2Stings” has a very particular feel to it: at once spacey and under-stated, but also dense with effects.

Sustaining it all is one of the most subdued drum sounds in recent Hip-Hop music and a solitary, discordant note that doesn’t let up until the very end, further enhancing the claustrophobic mood.

DOOM once again takes on the calm uncle role here; his verse made up of “New York-style wow” includes his trademark smart wordplay; at one point, for example, coupling “Pasadena” with “grass is greener (Black Bimmer).”

When Westside Gunn bursts onto the song’s scene, at about one minute in, it’s in his typical popping-arteries style at play. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles producer maintains control and the beat goes on as before. “Life is great,” the Buffalo, New York native spits with enthusiasm. He soon adds: “If they kick down the door / Hit the Fire Escape … Wait.” As a bonus, “2Stings” is available as a free download too.

No release date has so far been given for the release of a WestsideDOOM project. But in September, Westside Gunn announced on social media: “WESTSIDEDOOM is here prod by ALCHEMIST & DARINGER this is one of the illest projects I’ve ever heard when u think ART, this is it the RAWEST, FLYEST, GRIMIEST sh*t you’ve ever heard IN YA LIFE wats dope than FLYGOD & DOOM  spread the gospel the day is soon cometh.” In August, DOOM released “DOOMSAYER” on an Alchemist track. That song was removed from Adult Swim’s jukebox following DOOM’s sudden ceasing of his Missing Notebook Rhyme series.

Compared to the pair’s most recent offering, last month’s excitable “Gorilla Monsoon” produced by Daringer, “2Stings” is a masterclass in the power of musical restraint.

"Alchemist Dug Samples in Paris Record Stores then Made an EP with Local MCs" (AFH archive)

First published at Ambrosia for Heads, 23 September 2017 read the article on the AFH site

Lush, abundant, playful; these three words perfectly describe Paris L.A. Bruxelles the recent project by acclaimed producer (and MC) Alchemist. This project sees him team up with a crew of French-language rappers.

Released via Red Bull Music Academy/Konbini Radio, the project is subtitled: “One Producer, Three Cities, 12 MCs, 1 mixtape, 1 concert,” as it sets up a show on September 27 at Paris’ Trabendo. All samples used for the beats were unearthed in Parisian record stores the past summer, where the Gangrene and Stepbrothers co-founder then recorded the MCs in the Red Bull Paris studios.

Now Eminem’s official DJ, Alc’ has built his reputation as one of Hip-Hop’s best over the past two decades via his collaborations with artists such as the late Prodigy from Mobb Deep, Curren$y, Roc Marciano and Action Bronson.

Unlike the cool minimalism of Alc’s production on classic cuts from Prodigy (see: “Keep It Thoro”), here the producer’s experimental spirit is given free reign. The music remains consistent, while constantly shifting gear.

For those who don’t speak French, there’s still a lot of interest to be found in this record. Perhaps not understanding the words even adds another dimension to the listening experience, in that the often gruff style of the Francophone MCs is taken as just another element in the mix.

Impressive is the way Al’ shifts moods throughout his production, see for example the single “Monnaie,” the title translates as “loose change” with its rehash of 60s Latin-Jazz, in the vein of Cal Tjader, that features Paris MCs Cool Connexion. Another stand-out is the opener, “Montre Suisse” (Swiss Watch) with the vocals of the Belgian duo Caballero and Jean Jass and the scratching of DJ Eskondo.

On social media, a few of the French MCs expressed their gratitude for the chance to work with such a great. The goodwill flows both ways, it seems.

Red Bull Music Academy✔@RBMA

Cet été, The @Alchemist était à Paris pour composer les instrus de la mixtape #PARISLABXL, à découvrir sur http://win.gs/ParisLABruxelles …

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10:41 AM - Sep 22, 2017

In a video released by Red Bull Music Academy, Alchemist shared how he appreciated the French capacity to “live life to the fullest.” A lot of the time, he said crate-digging feels like work, but here in Paris, he said, “they say, f*ck it, let’s have some wine.” Heads who tune in to Action’s F*ck That’s Delicious show regularly get to see Alchemist enjoying food, wine, and a musician’s life of exploration.

Madlib: an essay on his dub mixes, Blunted in the Bomb Shelter, Chalice All-Stars, dub and hip-hop

(First published at Passion of the Weiss, 26th June, 2018)


When asked what he had learnt from J Dilla in a 2013 interview with France Inter, Madlib replied, “Stay loose. Keep it raw.” Then he said something indecipherable about drums. At a later Red Bull Music Academy event, Madlib described the value of keeping “some human mistakes in (his music),” before adding, “If it’s too perfect, I don’t want anything to do with it. If it’s too clean (…) or too polished, I don’t like it. That’s just me.”

Throughout Madlib’s three-decade career as composer, crate digger, DJ, producer, and MC, there’s always been a tense duality between messy and clean. The way the “Shame” beat on Piñata—his collaborative LP with Freddie Gibbs— is a pristine, perfectly balanced soul-based instrumental (albeit with an unexpected water effect), while “Real” is splintered with dissonant sounds is a perfect example.

Madlib projects also oscillate between polarities: his jazz-inflected work is orderly, respectful to their sources, while the Beat Konducta releases celebrate the unhinged, enacting an unruly musical eclecticism. It’s not surprising then that his dub/reggae mixes, Blunted in the Bomb Shelter (2002) and Chalice All-Stars (2010), operate within a similar space. The second of the pair, Chalice All-Stars, is now being reissued by Rappcats on vinyl.

Musicians draw on their training during live performance while aiming to be fully in the moment. Producers likewise follow their intellect, not just their instincts when creating music (even if they prefer to emphasize the “feeling” when talking about their craft). Any intellectual aspect might be shaped by preferences and be unique to them, but beat-making requires a cool head to focus on the music’s minutiae. The more analytical side of production stems from hip-hop’s foundations in DJ culture; in particular, understanding how songs work together, which is necessary to create a coherent mix.

It’s not unusual for hip-hop producers to emphasize their DJ skills, possibly to align themselves with the genre’s reggae roots and DJs who birthed the art-form in 1970s New York. Madlib sees himself as a “DJ first, producer second, and MC last.” This seems weird at first, considering his status and reputation as a producer. Yet the issue here lies in the narrow idea of what it means to be a DJ. As these dub/reggae mixes show, DJ-ing is not just about bringing the party to the people, it’s also about how music is heard.

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"The French Connection: Alchemist goes to Gaul": an essay on Alchemist's 'French Blend', parts 1 & 2

First published at Passion of the Weiss, 22nd January 2018

One of the most striking aspects of Alchemist’s French Blend, parts 1 & 2, the albums riffing on a Francophone theme that he released at the end of 2017 is the way the Los Angeles producer gets something essential about French/Parisian culture.

Outsiders looking in on France, especially those who have gleaned their knowledge of the country from B&W ‘60s movies, imagine the French capital to be a place where cafés are filled with intellectual types speaking about semiotics while smoking cigarettes: it is. (Remember books by Marx and Hegel are sold at news kiosks in Paris and 11-year-old children memorize Molière in junior high).

Yet, as fans of Nouvelle Vague auteurs, such as Jean-Luc Godard know well - see, for example his 1967 film Weekend that combines social satire and nonsense   (or the famous party scene in Pierrot Le Fou from 1965 that has the characters deadpanning advertising slogans, philosophy and politics). French art and culture tends to spin fixed dichotomies, enjoying the displacement; it can be restrained/elegant/austere, but also silly, its greatest masterpieces whether in literature, music or cinema focus on the power and the passion, while delighting in detail, even if slight and trivial.

Stretching back to the depths of the French chanson tradition, the country’s most important and self-revelatory form of popular culture, say into the ‘60s/’70s you find something similar going on. With Charles Aznavour’s pained nostalgia for love lost on one hand and Nino Ferrer maniacally looking for his dog on the other. The signature style of the country’s most famous singer/songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, moreover, is defined by his manipulation of apparent contradictions, with many of his songs from the same period embodying a spirit of play (‘Couleur Café’) and desire marked by ambivalence, which manifests as self-disgust or cruelty and contempt (‘Manon’). 

Alchemist’s cover art for the French Blend series is the first sign that the Gangrene producer/MC might be seeking to mix things up. French Blend part one has an image of a smiling man who looks like the French singer Claude François in bright yellow/orange; the second has abstract shapes, in an almost Escher formation. On closer inspection you can see chopped up images of a bed, a mixing desk and Sylvester the cat.

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In praise of: ‘Terrorist Threats’ Ab-Soul, feat. Danny Brown, Jhené Aiko (Control System, Top Dawg Entertainment, 2012)

The song itself is popular - almost 20-million views and the first result when you put Ab-Soul’s name in a search engine; this is where the irony begins. Two wealthy, successful rappers in branded clothes, with money to burn (even if it is done ever so carefully, so delicately) giving voice to the marginalised.

Personally, I think this is one of the best political songs in recent hip-hop for two reasons. First, for many of the ideas conveyed. The way the lyrics, delivery, mood and music coalesce, allowing space for interpretation even if some of the lyrics are so clean and direct and memorable – catchy even. Some of the words could be used as slogans, worn on a T-shirt, or  unfurled on a banner, held high above people’s heads:

Peep the concept
You’ve got progress, you’ve got congress
We protest in hopes they confess
Just proceed on your conquest
I ain’t got no gavel, I ain’t finna fight nobody battle
I just wanna be free, I ain’t finna be nobody’s chattel

And second for the way, Danny Brown’s verse conveys something of poverty as a felt experience, rather than something abstract, or described as a narrative about someone else in a story that is being told.

In this extract from the Ab-Soul’s verse above there is some nice word-play with the repetition of “pro” and “con” (“for” and “against”), some listeners claim this reflects Ab-Soul’s belief that this is how the system operates, as a series of mediating and opposing forces. Lyrically Ab-Soul’s verses are super-dense, I won’t unpick them, as that goes against the spirit of it – for me – to read the track’s lyrics and interpretations, go here

It’s also hard to dislike a mainstream hip-hop/rap track that opens with a reference to Selassie, making connections to another radical Black musical/cultural tradition. The hook is great, so concise and powerful: "Wish I could see out of Selassie' eye/Maybe my sovereignty would still be mine/If all the gangs in the world unified/We'd stand a chance against the military tonight.”

Maybe there is some kind of connection here with the Mos Def/Massive Attack track from 2003 (and then Bad Brains’ track of the same name released back in 1986) even though there is a long, maybe unrecorded history of MCs and producers making such links between the genres.   

There’s also other stuff going on at the start, with direct references being made to the key sample used by producer Dave Free: Jay-Z’s “Ni**a What, Ni**a Who” that originally came out in 1998 (this is the j-version, not sure why, of the same song).

Danny Brown gets a mixed response critically and among hip-hop people, with some turned off by his “insane in the membrane” antics. But his verse here is genuinely affecting, stops you. And for this reason it's political. His words and delivery convey something of how it feels to be poor, the relentless and mundane reality of struggling to get by when you don’t have enough money to feed yourself or your children: "Feel my pain, goin' insane, I'm ashamed

‘Cause I ain't got shit but an EBT card
From a fiend that owe me and it's in her daughter name
How the fuck is they 'posed to eat?
How the fuck am I 'posed to eat?
Got a nigga in the streets, no health care
Tryna slang weed just to put shoes on his feet
So fuck you! You don't give a fuck about me
Can't get a job if they drug test me
Got a ni**a stressed, depressed
Got a feelin' in his chest
And the world's stripped of happiness
I ain't got no gavel, I ain't tryna fight nobody battle
I just wanna be free, I ain't finna be nobody's shadow."

(I’m not sure if the final word is correct, if it should be “chattel” as before). There’s nothing heroic or remotely Romantic about any of this. Nothing noble, it's soul-destroying. That makes this true: “Feel my pain, goin’ insane, I’m ashamed.” 

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power exhibition, Tate Modern London

‘The ghetto itself is the gallery.’

Emory Douglas, Black Panther Party Culture Minister

Before seeing this exhibition, based on the name alone, I was expecting a show turned up to peak volume; not that there is a problem with this, as someone who adores noise, the blacker the better, but wondered if it might operate on the level of radical pastiche.

None of this was a judgment of the curators, Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whiteley who have assembled 150 works from 1963-1983 by black American artists or the museum, but more an expression of personal confusion or alienation now that transgressive art, culture and ideas from the past are routinely transformed into commodities to be sold.

As I soon discovered, though, this often delicate and complex show was light years away from such mind-static. Introspection, restraint and a deep thoughtfulness pervaded much of the art – and its presentation - allowing us to take time to reflect and feel something of how it might have been to be alive then.

‘H20gate Blues’ Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson  (Winter in America, Strata-East Records, 1974)

Certain artworks, such as ‘Injustice Case’ (1970) by David Hammons worked on the level of the gut –

the artwork depicts Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, gagged and shackled at his 1969 trial after the judge ordered he be chained to his chair following a series of interjections. He was being tried as one of the ‘Chicago Eight’ on charges for conspiracy to cross state lines, according to the history.com site, ‘to cause a riot during the violent anti-war demonstrations in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention’. He was later tried alone for contempt charges and received a four-year sentence.

Here, Hammons printed his own body, objectifying it, transforming it into an surface, he 'coated his body (along with his clothes and hair) in margarine and then rolled his torso and limbs onto a large piece of illustration board, printing the image by pressing his body onto the smooth surface of paper, often arrayed on the floor’ – this is taken from Apsara DiQuizio's article, ‘David Hammons: Printing the Political, Black Body’. 

Because of its life-size dimensions, the essential savagery of what it depicts – chaining up a man as if he were a dog at his own trial - and the genius of the presentation/idea, this work is deeply affecting. Resembling an X-ray in an airport, the image transforms Seale into little more than a squashed/flattened body/bones in his fingers, while forcing us into the role of those conducting the surveillance. An older white man standing in front of me, shook his head when reading the description for the artwork and swore under his breath.        

There’s a lot to write about in terms of this exhibition, I kept writing notes and taking photographs of the descriptions of the works, as I was struck repeatedly by the fragments and splinters of ideas, often formulated as questions, see this from the brochure: ‘Was there a ‘Black art’ or a ‘Black aesthetic? Should an artist create legible images or make abstract work? Was a choice to be made between addressing a specifically Black audience or a ‘universal’ one?’

***

Black Light

Roy DeCarava (1919-2009) Man in window, New York, 1978 

 

'... the self as a secret entity, as a secret, hidden place.'

Note beside an artwork by Martin Puryear, 'Self' with regard to his sculpture (1978) 

One of the rooms seemed darker than the others and held a series of fragile and extremely beautiful installations by Betye Saar from the early 70s that drew on time spent in Haiti, entering the room was like going into a crypt ... On the walls, there were finely-constructed collages, often held in wooden boxes, filled with very small objects. There was something deeply private and intimate about this art that moved me.

The act of collecting and putting these objects together was a recurring theme in the exhibition; for example, the room called ‘Los Angeles Assemblage’ that included this commentary:

Los Angeles was a city experiencing great racial tension in 1962, police had entered a mosque and shot an unarmed member of the Nation of Islam. Two years later, another instance of police violence in a predominantly African American neighbourhood triggered the Watts Rebellion, which left 34 dead and properties and shops in ruins.

The artists featured in this room - Noah Purifoy, John Outterbridge, Melvin Edwards and Betye Saar - ‘created art by recycling and bringing together objects in different formations, known as assemblage’.

Of particular interest to me was the ‘Lynch Fragments’ series by Melvin Edwards, a project he started in 1963. The aggressive-looking steel objects, made up from refuse found on the streets of LA completely reversed expectations of how to represent race-based violence; here there is no victim – and no audience – but an object of torture, made from scrap metal.

Melvin Edwards (born 1937) Some Bright Morning, Lynch Fragments 1963

Christopher Knight writing in a Los Angeles Times review of a show marking the 50th anniversary of the Watts uprising quoted Purifoy as saying the following regarding the Watts Towers that he said was 'arguably America's greatest modern folk-art masterpiece.'

What if these people could look at junk another way — as a symbol of their being in the world, their being just in relationship to something.

Knight then concluded with these sentences: 'Their being in the world — battered and discarded, like the broken glass and pottery of the soaring towers but also reassembled and reborn into something beautiful, mysterious and profound.'

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Romare Bearden (1911-1988) Mysteries, 1964 

'YMF’ Ab-Soul, prod. Bentley Haze (Do what thou wilt/DWTW, Top Dawg Entertainment, 2016) & hip-hop love songs

[Hook: Ab-Soul]
Cause I’m a liar, a cheater
A devil in disguise and a deceiver
If I was you and you was me, I wouldn’t believe you
The tricky part’s my fingers crossed, cause I could even be lying
About being a liar, cheater
A devil in disguise and a deceiver
YMF (mmmm)
YMF (mmmm)
YMF

With its conscious/unconscious referencing of Steve Miller’s ‘The Joker’ via the emphatic listing of his identity (Miller is certainly the homeliest man ever to liken himself to a ‘space cowboy/a gangster of love’) Ab-Soul’s ‘YMF’ stands out from the rest of his December record, DWTW, Do what thou wilt for its spirit of play.

Play is a key element, if not the defining element of hip-hop. Creative play infuses the sampling process, with its emphasis on discovery and renewal alongside the way MCs reconfigure language, animated by the competition. (Play is not the same as humour, though: you can have a funny emcee, someone like Slick Rick who has his routine down, but is too knowing/worldly to be really playful. Big L probably best embodies this quality for me). 

Ab-Soul’s turn, though, takes it to a new level, as it often seems like he is playing with us; taking on the classic role of the unreliable narrator, making it clear that it all could be, might be a game, made up. None or all of it or some of it may be true. ‘The tricky part’s (his) fingers are crossed; he might ‘even be lying/About being a liar, cheater/A devil in disguise and a deceiver.’

Play also comes through Ab-Soul’s delivery, the way he sings it. Listening in you get a feeling of how Ab-Soul is: spinning around and around – playing around with being serious/dumb - giddy almost (getting distracted with a story that ends with a kind of faux-declaration of his feelings, to a woman cheating on her boyfriend, what? He sings: ‘I love you too’ to this other woman, rather than his girlfriend, the subject of the rest of the song).

The song title: ‘YMF’ refers to ‘Young Mind Fuck’, one of Ab-Soul’s nick-names for himself. (I originally misheard it, without seeing the correct title, as ‘why you mad?’ and the mmmmm in response being like a disapproving meme from the Internet)

***

For a long while I wondered where all the hip-hop love songs were (and even wrote about this, some time ago; paying some respect to the mad-genius of ODB and the two quintessential hip-hop love songs: LL Cool J’s  ‘I need love’ from 1987 and Method Man/Mary J Blige’s ‘I’ll be there for you/You’re all I need to get by’ 1995).

Considering the explicit debt to Soul music, the fact that the 90s and post musicians were the descendants of these 70s singers, I was surprised that there were so few hip-hop love songs. There are some, certainly, but compared to other music forms, not a lot. I noticed how you could listen to albums from 90s hip-hop stars and never hear them speak of their emotional lives, outside passing references to girlfriends or women they liked maybe. Other emotional and psychological states came through – loneliness, frustration, anger … – but not love.

(Here’s another perspective, though – and something I also believe – the fact that the early hip-hop storytellers had a breadth of interests, outside the typical boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl scenario might also be a strength, in the way these artists could convey the political and poetic and their sense of self within the same breath).  

If hip-hop artists did express love, often the focus was on storytelling so that the love came to represent something ‘bigger’ and in so doing became an abstraction (see Common’s ‘I used to love H.E.R’ from his 1994 album Resurrection

a lament for the commercialisation of hip-hop and expression of Common’s nostalgia for his youth. This is a great song, a classic song, but it marks out totally different territory from the raw intensity of Ab-Soul’s ‘YMF’. One is cool, the other hot).

Maybe I’m being a bit tough on hip-hop here; there aren’t that many love songs in Heavy Metal or Thrash either, even though I’m far from an expert on those genres. Here’s a good place to start if you want to put up a counter-attack: Complex’s 2012 Best 25 Hip-Hop love songs, spanning the decades, with the best lines from each. Can’t go past these lyrics from 50 Cent f/ Nate Dogg '21 Questions' (2003) 

Now, would you leave me
If your father found out I was thugging?
Do you believe me when I tell you, “You the one I’m loving”?
Are you mad ‘cause I’m asking you 21 questions?
Are you my soulmate? ‘Cause if so, girl, you a blessing
Do you trust me enough to tell me your dreams?
I’m staring at you, trying to figure how you got in them jeans

It also includes the classic line: 'I love you like a fat kid love cake.' And don't forget The Pharcyde’s ‘Passin’ me by' (1992) 'And if I was your man then I would be true/The only lying I would do is in the bed with you.' Sweet.   

Compared to other tracks on DWTW, ‘YMF’ is quite conventional in a musical sense, but this is not a weakness, as love songs (generally, most of the time) require a certain degree of conservatism to make them appear sincere. Love songs need to be stripped back, so that the focus remains on the singer's emotional state. It needs to be simple for the message to be clear and for the listeners to trust the sentiment, to believe it.

Having said that, even if ‘YMF’ is less daring than other songs on the record, it still has a lot of musical interest. The cruisy beginning and that over-basic beat - a repetitive double-beat - around 1’20” the track’s key sample – that squiggly distorted guitar sound that may/may not be from Kanye West’s ‘Runaway’ if it were that’d make sense – that builds over the song, at 2 minutes Ab-Soul makes a reference to an earlier song of his …

‘Stigmata’ from the These Days record (2014).

In ‘YMF Ab-Soul sings:

[Verse 1: Ab-Soul]
... And then I said that I would carry the cross
That wasn’t just a quote I stole from Nas (naw)
And like I said, It wasn’t written
But still I’m taking over with this ether
And since he got a new bitch
He ain’t dropped no new music, either
Told my lady I was an alien; she believed my ass
I said “Sike!”, I didn’t tell you E.T. was back

The logic behind this reference to Nas and his previous quoting the following lines from Nas’s song, ‘The Cross’ in ‘Stigmata’ isn't spelled out … ‘I carry the cross/If Virgin Mary would've had an abortion, I'd still be carried in a chariot/With stampeding horses...'
 

You could make a case that 'YMF' is not really about love, but rather an exploration of what’s going on inside Ab-Soul’s brain. In this sense, the following lines from the same verse are deeply resonant: 'They don't even know what eye is about/Is he non-fiction or not? Is it politics or hip-hop?' As others before me have also noticed the brooding harmony, backing vocals that come in at 4 minutes and become exposed at around 4’30 sound like a direct act of homage to Nirvana (and their track ‘On a Plain’) - Kurt Cobain understood paranoia.

And then 'YMF' closes with one of the best outros I’ve heard in recent hip-hop from Alia Zin, an ‘independent hip-hop artist from Southern California’:  

In the beginning, I created the heavens and the earth
Now, the earth was formless and empty
Darkness was over the surface of the deep
And my spirit was hovering over the waters
And I said, let there be light

Zin’s voice and the way she evokes this scene, with all of its Biblical references; so redolent of shared cultural norms, while remaining mysterious is a perfect conclusion to this song. Keeping it dark (no matter what the words say).