We would sit under the crescent moon and dim streetlights, our voices echoing down the neighborhood, entering windows belonging to real adults with real jobs and tormented by real life. The cheap brown liquor kept our souls warm, our ambition kept us sane, we were the dreamers with empty wallets that believed in the art we created and nothing more. Art would take us from the jobs we loathed into the visions we saw the few hours we slept. It was a special time, when the dreams outweighed desperation, when our confidence conquered logic, a time I’m reminded of when playing Charles Hamilton’s The Pink Lavalamp. He was just like us, an outcast with a bit of arrogance wanting nothing more than to create and be rewarded for pouring his soul into the craft. He put so much of himself into the music it was almost like hearing a pulse, the faintest heartbeat, a true representation of someone that had nothing else. The sample of Graham Central Station used in the introduction of the project told you everything you needed to know about him, that music was life.
Charles had a lot of mixtapes, most I liked, but no project resonated quite like The Pink Lavalamp. In one album he encompassed all the traits that made him unique. There was lyricism, storytelling, metaphors, similes, introspection, the kind of music you make with one hand in heaven and a foot in hell. No demons were hidden, no skeletons locked away, the honesty made him into a figure of transparency. Not a brand or persona but the man struggling with suicide, depression, addiction, women, money, family and life as an artist starving. The title was perfect, pink representing his favorite color, lava lamps only glow in the dark and his music was illuminated by the darkness of his reality. I believe it was the brutal honesty that people attached themselves to, rapping from the heart, fragments of a soul in the form of a song, the man behind the microphone felt like a friend and not a stranger. There’s something special about music made out of desperation, it’s like the most beautiful rose that blooms from the concrete. It’s far from perfect, thorns that will prick your fingers if held too tightly, but still a marvelous sight to behold.
A few weeks ago 40, the in-house producer for OVO, was tweeting about Drake during the ghostwriting debacle, how rap has never seen a rapper speak as openly and honestly about their life as Drake. I laughed at the thought of Drake as the apex of rapper honesty. There’s countless emcees worth being named, but Charles was one of the first that came to mind. In all his songs about former lovers, I don’t think Drake has anything poignant and poetic as “Come Back To You.” Drake speaks so much about family but has nothing with the amount of heart and passion as “I’ll Be Around.” Has he ever recorded a suicide note like “Latte”? I’ve always gravitated toward the personal, these are just a few songs that really made me into a fan of Charles. I sought his music when feeling overwhelmed by the world, someone else that was going through the storm of life but turning the emotions into art. Unfortunately, Charles’ issues were deeper than I could imagine. He was suffering, despite tragedies inspiring the masterpieces that created his cult following, issues that simply couldn’t be buried by success would swallow him before reaching the pinnacle of his potential. His rise and fall happened swiftly, from being a promising XXL Freshmen signed to Interscope to dropped and hated. The internet loves hard and hates harder, there’s no in-between.
Hollywood has made us suckers for a good comeback story, hip-hop has taught us to never underestimate the underdog, Charles Hamilton’s return embodies both. After some turbulent years he made his grand reappearance as an artist signed to Republic Records and even scored a single on the show and soundtrack for Empire that featured Rita Ora. The hard drugs were absent, his mental health greatly improved, he was officially back. My feelings toward his resurgence was mixed, I was happy for his health but wondered how the music would sound. The question was answered last week when I checked out his forthcoming project, The Black Box EP. This will be his first proper offering through his recent label deal.
The EP is a new sound for Charles, most noticeably apparent by the lack of vocal samples, a trademark of his former work. The six songs are polished but still has a Charles feel to them. He is direct as ever, unafraid to mention the punch in the face, J. Dilla, and a few other problematic situations that slowly lead to his downfall. There’s a song, “Man’s World,” where he speaks on racism and being black in America that immediately stood out. “Down The Line” is another strong record that will definitely give Starchasers what they been missing. Overall, the EP sounds like an artist regaining his footing, which comes with a lot of trial and error. The hooks are bad, a majority of them fall flat, but despite the rough edges it was good to once again hear the rapper that made me download a bunch of mixtapes with a cartoon hedgehog return from his lower points.
There will always be someone that wants Jay to be the rapper on Reasonable Doubt, for Eminem to be the druggy madman on the Slim Shady LP, for Lil Wayne to return to his mixtape days. It’s an attachment to the familiar that craves the best of their work again and again. It doesn’t work that way though, for any of us. You’ll never be who you were yesterday, artists can never make an album like the one before. It goes against natural progression. There’s a part of me that wants Charles to be that artist who made The Pink Lavalamp, but that’s not who he is anymore. We aren’t the same kids that stood in the street lights howling at the moon. So for the old fans intrigued by the new Charles Hamilton, expect some change. And for new listeners first encountering him though Black Box, I highly recommend going back to The Pink Lavalamp. That time in Hamilton’s life is gone, but we can listen to it forever.
[By Yoh, aka Come Back to Yoh, aka @Yoh31]