If you were to ask a music journalist what their favourite hip-hop outtake from the decade was, chances are that you would be getting a Kendrick, a Cudi, a Cole, a Sweatshirt or a Kanye. Unsurprisingly enough, finding these names on a tier list is commonplace. However, if you were to tell the same journalists that there are artists out there whose music is a beautiful connexion between these axioms of hip-hop artistry, chances are that they would not be inviting you to a lot many fancy journo parties after that. For a debut album to be this compact, precise, emotive and iconic as PRIMAL is not just musically impressive, but also highlights the philosophy of what seems to be a legendary artist-in-the-making. In many ways, PRIMAL is the manuscript of SWANNY.95, and he seems to just be getting started. The album is divided into seven neatly-lined tracks — TOTEM, HIGH.95, EMPIRE, SUNDOWN.INTERLUDE, NO.GUARD, I’M.THRU and ZZZQUILL.
Thematically, the album seems to attune itself towards a lyrical ballad that introduces SWANNY.95 to the listeners, focusing on his lifestyle, troubles, worries and shortcomings — a rounded exploration of the protagonist’s hamartia. The album leads off with TOTEM and its old-school J.Cole beat layered on with an ominous melody that does well to set the tone for the rest of the album. SWANNY.95 does not appear a debutant; he appears a long-time maestro of the game, exploring the depth of his cyphers, delivering them on each beat with conviction and meaning to tell his story on his own terms. To my understanding, the artist grapples with multiple personalities — a sort of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde situation — across the album, where some parts of the lyric feature a heavier transposed near-Luciferish persona, and others are a higher-pitched characterization.
We are introduced to these entities with HIGH.95, where it sets off with a mellower slowed-down prelude that sounds more recitative than lyrical, eventually breaking off into a beat switch. The remainder of the track is a cypher overlaid on top of a boom-bap drum loop and sounds of occult police sirens. SWANNY.95’s vocals crest low and trough high towards the outro, eventually spinning off into a rhythm and bluesy synth melody. EMPIRE uses a similar formula as that of TOTEM, representing an assertive cypher on sinister beats. The definitive element of EMPIRE is in its outro, where the track slows down and freezes into a reverbed lo-fi rhythm and blues characterisation, replete with external samples. In many ways, the storytelling on the track is similar to that of Kendrick on good kid, m.A.A.d city.
SUNDOWN.INTERLUDE is a track straight out of Jaden Smith’s SYRE album — the introduction and background vocals sung in a soulful melancholic pink sunset. The entire rap on this track is from the heavy-voiced entity, exposing the descriptive flaws and hubris of itself with a sense of finality. The Nehruviandoom/MF DOOM influence is abundant when NO.GUARD opens up, especially with its vinyl-crackled sampling and cinematic fade-in. With a cypher that is more along the lines of 21 Savage’s flow, NO.GUARD is the beginning of the album’s denouement. Arguably, SWANNY.95 appears his most personal and honest in I’M THRU — a deeply emotional and turbulent honest introspection of the rapper’s journey through childhood to the status quo, highlighting the hurdles that do not end and the nights with no foreseeable sunrises. The occasional switches in the vocal’s pitch keep the listeners on the edge, offering not a single opportunity for the momentum to fall through.
The album’s closer ZZZQUILL opens up in a lo-fi element, quickly getting married to a determined kick-n-snare combination that offers support to various vocal performances. The track carries forward the thematic tonality from its preceding track, glued together with a rhythm and bluesy bridge that offers a sense of musical suspension into SWANNY.95’s lyrical cavity.
Captivated by his work, we reached out to the artist for his inputs on his collective. Here is how that went:
Congratulations on your new tracks! Your SoundCloud tells us that this is your first entry! Guide us through the process of the production of your debut – the pros, the cons and the team.
I’m very excited about the solo debut I’ve made! It took me 123 days to make this album (from the first “Notes” entry on my phone til release day). The pro of producing everything on your own entirely from your apartment is that you have total autonomy and control. I’ve been producing music for over 10 years and never once utilized an “actual” recording studio. The con (yet it really ends up being a pro if you handle it well) is that your artistic world and personal space start to meld together. Luckily, I became self-aware of that during this process and learned to embrace it. My girlfriend and my cat are the most important priorities for me in the world, so sometimes working late nights on this album took a toll on my time with them. But it challenged me to strike a balance with my different life aspects and in turn, the thoughts that I had surrounding that bleed into the art. So really, when channeled properly, the cons can be flipped into good art.
How would you describe PRIMAL to someone going fresh into it? Obviously, we have our own takes on it but it would be good if the maestro puts things into perspective.
PRIMAL takes listeners to the raw, murky, and isolated world of a protagonist on a journey of self-discovery and actualization. Lo-fi melodies and boom bap drums carry the brunt of the musicality which creates the vibe of a classic hip-hop universe akin to early mixtapes of my favorite rappers.
A bit of J Cole, a bit of Jaden Smith, some Cudi and some other influences here and there (we could be wrong!). Tell us some of your greatest musical influences?
Those guys are all definitely inspirational to me. To be honest, I’m inspired by so many different artists from different genres. Music that is honest, unique, and sonically primo makes me giddy, and those qualities can come from everywhere. But I’ll break it down in terms of hip-hop influences and other genres:
Hip-hop: Kendrick Lamar, Wale, Kanye West, Mac Miller, Biggie, Kid Cudi, Schoolboy Q, ATCQ, J DillaOthers: Anthony Kiedis (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Ben Gibbard (Death Cab For Cutie), Pink Floyd, The Japanese House, Anna of the North, Dave Grohl.
I think if you throw all those sounds in a blender and apply some of my own lo-fi flare onto things, you’ll end up somewhere close to my sound as an artist! We are all products of our environment and influences and I’m no different. It’s just about actively trying to push yourself beyond the point of imitation and move towards true ingenuity.
What prompted the creation of PRIMAL? What was the primary motivation behind it?
I’ve always loved hip-hop and the craft of music production. I make beats literally every day just to get in the reps in the pursuit of excellence, but also because I literally have so much fun doing it. However, even I know that no matter how good the music is, great hip-hop only happens when the artist has something to say. And for a long time, I didn’t know exactly what or how to approach communicating the ideas that I had around PRIMAL. I had spent about 6 months in therapy prior to the start of the album process and it allowed me to confront some insecurities, critical thoughts, and traumas that shape my individuality. Through doing that, I realized that by being totally vulnerable and honest through the music, I could have a cathartic experience and almost expel any sort of negative energy. PRIMAL was just my way of making the craft of music that I love so much the conduit for my therapeutic monologue about myself and my journey to self-actualization.
Would you say PRIMAL is a concept album?
I’m not sure how I would categorize PRIMAL to be honest. I could say it’s a concept album if the overall concept is like “Hi world, here’s an unapologetic introduction of myself within the context of the hip-hop world”. Sonically, I really worked hard to produce tracks that cohesively takes listeners into a universe so from that standpoint it operates traditionally like an album would. I really wanted to show off my chops as a producer and writer as I think it’s rare nowadays for someone to do it all on their own. But to me that’s the only way I know how to express my love for hip-hop and really pay homage to it. I say it in the first song off the album TOTEM “Black tea, unsweet, no help, all me, bars up, chop beats, punchlines, cold heat”. That’s my creative process in a nutshell and for now it helps me achieve the magic that hip-hop tries to offer people: true self-expression.