Included in the Barrel Brothers release from New York MC duo Skyzoo and Torae, ‘Memorabilia’ is a track that shows off its artistry within a broader mood of understated finesse, while never losing its essential power. Easily one of my favourite hip-hop songs of the past five years (I use that word intentionally as the music shows clear design, rather than the rustling up of effects) it's also a piece that could be played to those who question the status of hip-hop as music.
The melodic emphasis and classic song construction is what elevates ‘Memorabilia’ for me and makes it a song that stops you, if heard on the radio, or a playlist somewhere. Automatically you get it because it works on multiple levels, while also re-affirming conventions. (It’s also catchy, of course, with that tuneful refrain linking it with other hip-hop hits from earlier eras, even if the tone is much more subdued and refined: say 'Ante up' by M.O.P or ‘How High’ from Method Man/Redman).
Starting with that extraordinary subterranean bassline that sounds as if it has been treated made to sound as deep as possible, underwater almost; it’s an amazing sound, so resonant and intense. This foregrounding, in itself, upends conventions, it seems to me, in that 99% of the time a hip-hop song starts with the beat stating that this is what counts. Notice this, this beat as the structure the way this music is built. This meandering sound encourages us to listen differently; I appreciate that.
Philadelphia producer Antman Wonder – who has been working closely with DJ Premier, they worked on another track together on Barrel Brothers, 'Aura' - has released a series of really strong instrumental albums that are highly distinctive and reflect a new hip-hop aesthetic that is smart, constructed (I aim to return to them later, hopefully after an interview with him).
When listening to ‘Memorabilia’ you can hear the perfect structure via the way Antman Wonder introduces the elements at the same intervals that you would find in a jazz composition – at 30 seconds, 20 seconds later and then at 1 minute increases. But what I notice, and like, is the way he doesn’t just place them there – as if to say, hey check this out, or look at me – but rather makes them work together with great modesty and intelligence that reflects an acknowledgement of and respect for his predecessors, alongside a depth of knowledge of musical conventions.
The bassline takes the centre, and the beat recedes as if it’s just another sample and a similar effect happens with the horns, ie they are placed there to provide emphasis of the other elements, but never overpower them. It reminded me of more elegant incarnations of Afrobeat, within the play with the tension of release and momentum.
Clearly the music is what first made me notice 'Memorabilia’ but it is not created in a way that draws attention away from the MCs, who present their case in an emphatic way that never becomes over-bearing, indeed there is a energy/synergy between them that makes it clear they are enjoying this moment.
When I looked at the lyrics I wasn’t sure if there was a deeper significance to the repeated refrain, so I asked a friend in the US to offer his take:
‘...jerseys in the rafters..." is another way of saying "retirement". It's a sports euphemism. At its core, the song is effectively Sky & Tor painting the picture of how their retirement from rapping will come about. It's also, however, their retelling of one of the subplots the TV show, The Wire.
'There's a third theme and that's Sky & Tor describing what goes through the mind of the most accomplished hustlers when they're considering retirement from their "street life", and transitioning into a quieter life. The third is an undercurrent of the entire Barrel Brothers album.'
'I thought it was literal, in that you put up jerseys on the walls of basketball players you respect?'
'You do, and it is. But neither Sky nor Tor ever played pro basketball.'
'But it’s as if they are similar to sportsmen?'
'Yes, rappers (especially NYers) regularly draw lines of parallel between playing basketball, rapping and hustling. All of it falls under the category of sport.'
Here's some info from the promo material that places the album in context:
The idea behind Barrel Brothers is what the people have asked and come to know the two wordsmiths for; pure lyricism. Skyzoo, known for his picturesque storytelling and jazz/orchestral background, and Torae, known for his gritty Coney Island depictions of life with a vintage but modern lyrical approach, have briefly put their normal forte’s to the side and crafted this album with one game plan in mind; lyrical exercise over hard hitting New York City soundscapes. The current resurgence of NYC hip hop is perfect grounds for two of its premier flag holders to continue doing what they never stopped doing in the first place; representing the city.
And it includes an extract from an interview with Skyzoo and Torae:
Have a look at this interview with IllWill from the UK and Torae, where he recalls how making the 2014 album followed a process where they would 'listen through beats, and bullshit and scroll through Instagram and talk about sports and in the midst of that make a record'.
Torae also says how he first came across Skyzoo after discovering a plastic bag full of discarded CDs after a show and how even though most of them ended up being thrown out the window, there was something about Skyzoo's music that kept him interested.