[Image via Instagram]
The moment. Every hip-hop fan knows it. The moment you’re listening to a song and it hits you. Deep in the gut, right in the heart, you can feel it. It’s the moment we are all searching for, even if the longing is subconscious, and it's as difficult to describe as it is to transfer the feeling to someone else.
It can happen in a line, a verse or over the course of an entire song, for reasons ranging from something deeply poignant and emotional to something so intelligent and introspective it forces you to think outside the box and push the boundaries of your own beliefs. Almost universally, it happens when you connect on a deeper level of understanding with the artist, when an experience is described in a way that you can almost put yourself in the shoes of that person as they experience it themselves. Kendrick has given me the feeling many times over, immediate examples being “Sing About Me” and “The Heart, Pt. 2.” Common did it on “The Light” and “Retrospect For Life,” to name two of many. Chance on “Brain Cells,” Kanye on “Family Business,” Mac Miller’s “Wedding,” Styles P's "My Brother" - all examples of being left speechless after connecting to the lyrics on a personal level. I can continue to list songs you’ve heard, but one artist in particular isn’t mentioned enough when it comes to celebrating life and supplying that music for the soul…in addition to being able to rap circlesaround even your favorite rappers.
Hailing from San Francisco, rapper A-1 might come from a Bay Area currently swimming in talent and output, but he is unique in that nearly all of his notable contemporaries originate from the other side of the water, in Oakland. Local roots are just the beginning of his distinction as an artist. To understand A-1, one must first understand “THURL” - A-1’s calling card and driving philosophy. To be “Thurl” is “to Think (for oneself), Hustle (for one another), Understand (each other), and Really Live (one’s life to the fullest).”
Perhaps the greatest example of this mantra comes from “This Year We’ll Be Better,” released on the final day of 2013. Described as a product of random inspiration from the previous night, it was my first real exposure to A-1 as an artist. It was also my favorite song last year.
"Fuck you to the stress in your lives
This is a salute to the rest of your lives
If I spend mine doing something that makes me unhappy
I permit thee to stick me in the chest with four knives
One inside my heart because I chose not to follow it
One for my pride cause I chose not to swallow it
And one in each lung, punctured ever so gentle
Cause I didn't use my breath to its fullest potential”
Simple lyrics, but sneakily profound. After countless replays, I had to find more.
His earlier work is not as strong as his material from the last three years. His debut mixtape, After School Special, was a fine introduction to his lyrical and storytelling (“Golden Girls”) ability, but suffered from a novelty factor as the instrumentals were reworked theme songs from classic children’s shows. Save for “All That,” the project is largely forgettable. 2011’s The Book Of Adam was a more apt precursor to his current sound. His now-signature multi-syllable rhymes were more developed (“My Name Is Adam,” “Winning”) and he moved into a heavier focus on soul-baring and questioning the establishment; themes that would go on to define his differentiation from the norm. He speaks on being disillusioned with the current system (“On My Way”) and breaks down his search for answers on religion, race, and career in a relatable manner (“The Book of Adam”).
The Thurl Tape was one of the most thought-provoking projects of 2012 and seems to have come after some sort of creative epiphany for A-1. It had one of the strongest opening four-song sets in recent memory (“Thurl Young Brother”>”Double Dose”>”Speaker”>”The Ritual”). A-1’s true talent is his ability to approach complex subjects, such as the death of a close friend, systematic oppression or police harassment, and make them relatable through vivid imagery. Think of Action Bronson’s ability to visualize a plate of pasta with lobster, only with heavier subject matter.
Thurlian was released earlier this year, his most recent project and a step forward sonically that unfortunately suffers from some of the same problems plaguing A-1’s early work. The project doesn’t feel as cohesive as it should, a product of its diverse production contributors. The credits are a who’s who of buzzing, genre-bending producers like Mr. Carmack, Mikos Da Gawd, Kaytranada, Sango and Stwo, among others. That said, what's more important is what A-1 is saying. The mood ranges from upbeat to melancholy, the subject matter from appreciating the good people in the world to Sunday downtime. Throughout it all is a permeating message of living better and changing the world. Highly skilled in the art of metaphors and multi-lined rhymes, broken rhymes, and internal rhymes, A-1's bars read as highly technical without bogging down the message with complex words and references (as say, Jay Elect often does).
The most powerful moment is not even on the album in it’s optimal form. It’s an acoustic version of the album’s twelfth song, “Thurlian,” one that replaces the traditional instrumental with a bare-bones piano rendition, making it far easier to concentrate on A-1’s lyrics and emphasizing the track’s emotional impact. The second verse gives me chills every time I press play.
A regular on the TeamBackpack circuit, it’s likely that many hip-hop fans first discovered A-1 through various cyphers that spread across the net. Certainly a great place to start, as he’s a lyricist on-par with the best in the game. Unfortunately, heartfelt emotion doesn’t always translate in the midst of a cypher, but then again how many rappers are using their precious time in a lyrical showcase to give a PSA on drunk driving while dropping ultra-descriptive gems like, "If that ever happens I hope that they take the baby and it's mommy / And wrap they bodies in cashmere, bury'em in a field of poppys / And carry'em softly in a diamond coffin that's blue aquarium glass clear"?
Today's hip-hop landscape is littered with artists that talk a lot without actually saying anything, shallow artists with hollow content. I'm know because I listen to to all that material; you'll find me blaring Travi$ Scott, Future and Young Thug with no shame. There's a time and place for everything, and luckily we have the Kendrick's and Big K.R.I.T.'s of the world to balance out the other end of the spectrum with introspection and analysis of societal issues. A-1 is still far from a similar level of fame, but as evidenced from his "Control" response (trust me, this one is worth a listen) he's not going to get there by selling out. It will be through hard work, a positive message, a driving philosophy, and deeply personal, relatable music. He's going to keep on delivering those moments that speak to your soul and force you to hit the rewind button, and I think he's got "The Plan."
Thurlian is available now.
[By Brendan Varan. He's not quite "Thurl" just yet, but thanks to A-1 he's on the path. Follow him on Twitter.]