Monday, August 4, 2008

Review: CYNE - Pretty Dark Things (2008)

Don't sleep!

If you haven't heard of CYNE before, you can educate yourself on why they're so ill by reading what I've written here. If you already believe me, then I'll just provide a brief bio here. CYNE is a group of two West African MCs, Cise Starr and Akin, and two producers, Speck and Enoch, based in Gainsville, FL. Pretty Dark Things is technically their fourth LP, although this year's earlier Starship Utopia was really more a collection of unreleased material than a proper album. As such, it can be considered their proper follow up to their critically-acclaimed Evolution Fight (and my pick for favorite album of 2005).

If you've been sleeping on CYNE until now, Pretty Dark Things would make as great an entry point as any, as this contains some of their most realized work. As you can gather from the title, the album is thematically centered on discussions of blackness, the meaning of artistry (particularly as it relates to hip-hop), and more general social commentary. Cise Starr and Akin don't really drop any groundbreaking knowledge with the content of the lyrics, but their earnestness and urgency really set them apart from most of their peers.

On the opening track "Just Say No," over two beautiful guitar lines, some form of African chanting, and sparse hi-hats, Akin briefly explains that he'll always stay true to his roots before breaking up his rhyme out of nowhere and yelling:

"Wake the fuck up! Wake the fuck up! That Nelly shit sucks, little girls don't buy it! Wake he fuck up! Wake the fuck up!, They're underground stagnant, too scared to move!"

These words might read as being overly didactic, but combined with the magic of the instrumental, you can't help but nod in agreement. In the second verse, Cise Starr expounds further on Akin's earlier words:

"Money now, but you still act a fool/
doing Dr. Seuss rhymes, in your label play school/
Fuck this shit, I'm a grown ass man/
Doing grown ass things as I god damn can/
While you cop chains, I'm gonna buy me some land/
While you sit on 24s, I'm a build with my fans/
Giving you the real shit, shit you can deal with/
Listen on the corner while the plane hit the buildin/
CYNE mixtapes for the women and the children/
One per person, play it in your churches."

These are far from the most impressive rhymes on the album, but they outline CYNE's basic philosophy. Yeah, it doesn't sound very different from typical "conscious" fare, but the album is so MUSICALLY interesting that you want to hear everything that the MCs have to say. The next three tracks are on the same level as the first, with "The Runaway" featuring an abstract story about a man running away from life's pressures over a pounding Afrobeat (!?!) track . "Calor" continues in a similar vein, with Speck and Enoch providing African drum patterns for Cise Starr to briefly wax poetic about the implications of global warming. The track for "Escape" is one of the most atmospherically complex on the album, involving a call and answer of sorts between a guitar and dreamy keyboard, incredibly layered drums, and a thumping bass line. Cise and Akin spit double-time flows about gas prices, how intelligent design is bullshit, and how human rights must be generally be fought for.

This really is one those hip-hop those albums where the lyrics and beats equal more than the sum of their parts when joined together. While most of the tracks are similarly well done, one of the lyrical highlights of the album is probably "The Dance." Cise Starr reflects about whether a human being's achievements are meaningful if nobody is present to recognize them, and by extension, is asking himself why CYNE should continue to make the kind of music that will be slept on by the masses. He ultimately concludes that achieving "inner peace" is more important than trying to appeal to some "absolute" standard of what's good.

Another standout is "Radiant Cool Boy," where Akin and Cise rail against listeners who only listen to hip-hop for its negative excesses and actively deride rappers who try to discuss substantive issues (in other words, the so maligned on OKP "hipster" fan). Cise warns those who "stand for nothing and criticize everything" that although "everything can be reduced to clever little stickers, you better watch it ever call me nigga." Come to Swarthmore next year, please!

But as I said earlier, the rhymes on their own would probably fail to spark the interest of most hip-hop fans. While interesting, they are more centered around abstract imagery than grounded storytelling or catchy punchlines, and this is made all the more frustrating because their delivery is not always clear. Thankfully, Speck and Enoch, provide a nearly impeccable soundtrack for CYNE's two MCs to spit over. I don't think it would be hyperbole to say that this may be the best produced album of the year thus far. In addition to delving into African music, Speck and Enoch seem to have mastered the ambient/soul-based/electronic tinged sound that they've been gravitating toward since Evolution Fight. Their beats have never sounded so warm and organic, and they really are arranged to complement Akin and Cise's flows.

Groups like CYNE make me wonder about the amount of dope hip-hop out there that is ignored for whatever reason. Aside from what I've written, there'll probably be one or two more reviews on some obscure hip-hop sites, and then Pretty Dark Things will be forgotten in the wake of the year's big 3rd and 4th quarter releases. It's a damn shame, but if you've read this, hopefully you'll be one of the few who hasn't slept.

CYNE on myspace
Listen to "Just Say No"
Listen to "The Runaway"

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