Thursday, August 31, 2017

So Alive: review of Spirit Gunner by Cam Archer

                     

 I mean it in the best of all ways when I say that OhGoshLeotus’ work consistently reminds me of the 2012 Channel Orange album by Frank Ocean. Certainly neo-soul sounds existed before 2012 but that year and album marked a turning point in hip-hop and R&B production in my view and I was glad to see with 2016’s Cocamania that Cam Archer & OhGoshLeotus applied much of what I loved about that aesthetic to a barsy rap album by one of the Inland Empire’s sharpest mic controllers. Archer’s Spirit Gunner, scheduled for mass release 2 days from now, is very much a sequel to Cocamania and it doesn’t waste its chance to deepen the journey that album started us on.

     It’s a neo-soul nerdcore MC’s journey into the self like that album but it actually delivers on its implications about inner revelation. To harken once more to Ocean’s Orange, that album culminates in an implication about the album protagonist’s sexuality in the song “Forrest Gump”. In Gunner, Archer goes beyond Ocean’s game of footsie with a deep admission and makes explicit what Cocamania went through meticulous pains, Rube Goldberg-esque machinery and Jungian imagery to explain: that Archer’s rap persona emerged from intense depression, insecurity and struggle with suicidal tendencies. If Leotus didn’t make it such a melodious symphony and Archer didn’t round up such a talented coterie of singers for it, you could say this album is to Cocamania what Alan Moore’s footnotes to his From Hell graphic novel are to the actual From Hell graphic novel. He explains not too long into the record that he is frustrated that people didn’t understand the cries for help in Cocamania, that the constant Nirvana references in that album and this one aren’t just coincidences. In a world where Netflix shows like 13 Reasons Why are becoming massive phenomena among the youth, Archer’s topic matter is both timely and relevant to the young people of the world who listen to hip-hop.  

          The truth is that these days I can’t talk to anyone who won’t tell me about their intense depression and inclination towards suicide within 5 minutes of our conversation beginning. Some blame Trump or late capitalism generally for this mass ennui and nihilism. I think they’d all have a point. And I’m talking to people over the age of 25. Apparently younger people are feeling the same way and they might not have a vocabulary for it. Cam Archer is here to help. His "spirit gunner" character seeks a durable and oh-so-elusive happiness for him and his lover- what teen can’t relate to that? It’s amazing to me honestly the myth that Kurt Cobain has become. Kurupt was referencing his suicide in raps in 1995, almost as a jab at spoiled weird white people who don’t understand how good they have it but by the time younger MCs like Sonnie Babble and Cam Archer are rapping about him, he was a prescient sensitive soul whose intolerance for this plane of existence foreshadowed how we all would feel about the world at this point. In this sense, Spirit Gunner has a lot of darkness both in its narrative and in what the title even means- the implication that the gun in that phrase could be used on oneself is not expressed subtly. I stress how blatant the album is on these topics because it shocked and surprised me while never compromising the muscular quality of the vocals and production. To never lose your momentum while shocking the audience is a mark of exceptional art in my opinion.

        That said, even death-and-Anime obsessed BarGawds get hungry and the same dude who seamlessly wove Highland and San Bernardino into Cocamania presents in this album a standout single which also serves as an ode to an Inland Empire Mexican food staple, "Amapola".
"Grew up on 13th where coke was harbored/now we're talkin'!"

The single's second verse has some incredible insights about working class life about the I.E. and all within one of the album’s bouncier singles. The above line and others about growing up on San Bernardino’s infamous west side reiterate an idea I gleaned from Cocamania and that many great MCs have in common- lack of middle class comfort early in life leading to an intense drive for success as an adult. The milieu Archer paints in his songs that speak positively but honestly about his youth are odes to working class perseverance and the struggles of single mothers. I love the bangin’ Leotus production on “Amapola” for claiming G-Funk for the I.E., something I always wanted for the region as I grew up listening to Dr. Dre and DPG. Also the idea of celebrating a Latino business in the I.E. is dope, I don’t know how else to put it. I don’t harp on the working class just to do it; we are ignored by the political and cultural elite. Artists like Archer and Leotus are changing that.

“Songs about You” is a clever riff on the idea of sexual partners that want to be muses and not getting it twisted; Archer doesn’t just shit on floozies here though but rather delves into his own evolution from someone who was not confident with women to someone perceived by some as a player. This deepens the whole album’s thesis of explaining the Phoenix that rose from insecurity and depression which was in Cocamania but more subtly than this and apparently less understood than Archer hoped based on his lyrics in this record.

"Snake Road" and "Super Saiyan 2" are more melodic bangers and example of how you never quite know if you’re in the I.E., an anime, a video game or a combination of all of the above as you listen to Archer’s work. More strong songs, "Namaste" and "Nights" continue to balance the badassery and growing zen of our hero, depicting his journey towards peace and being able to let things go.

The closer, "BarGawds IV", is the most ambitious of the Over Everything BG series yet with multiple producers (Nabeyin on the second beat) providing a different hard and tony beat for each rapper. Each MC delivers but Kit’s verse, the final, shows that the singer has more Goodie Mob in him than most can handle. Always lovely to hear Stone x Sober together on a new track.


                 “If I’m not the king by 2019 then I swear on my life with this music I’m done”.

      The whole album but particularly “Savin’ Up” (the sole track not by OhGoshLeotus, a Nabeyin production) and “Amapola” touch on working class Inland Empire, California life exquisitely and in a way that pushes the visceral impact past where Cam took it on Cocamania. On a record that in my view is less misogynistic than his last in general anyway (I like to think this happens to us modern thinkers as we age…), “Savin’ Up” gets specific and eloquent about the relatable and common struggle of balancing one's love life and the pursuit of artistic dreams. Even this idea of particularly talking about the simple but ubiquitous concept of “saving money” takes humility to discuss- a lot of rappers like to rap from a persona that has always been and will always be rich, high above the hoi polloi. Hell, even the ones that don’t tend not to laud the virtue of frugality- to me this is I.E. as hell. Our reality is working class. Our parents had to save to survive and so will we to thrive. Life was not handed to us in some already dope city- we, the independent artist community, are among the ones building what is dope here. The tenderness, passion and sincerity with which Gunner’s protagonist speaks to his life partner is palpable and effective in a song that was really a vulnerable and risky moment in my opinion. In another move that I think is more I.E. than the swingy open-relationship lifestyles of major metro areas (not that I’m hating, just observing), the song implies a desire to spend the rest of life’s moments with one’s lover. Marriage, monogamy….these are working class values that cultural elites and privileged hipsters increasingly sneer at and I love that Archer is unaffected by that.         

                          "I've waited my whole life now I feel so Alive"

The two “Holographic” songs catch the O.E. / Chill Palace combo at their most OddFuturish except you don’t have to squint for Cam’s verses to hit. To me the songs symbolize the deepening journey of the hero but I am sure there is more to mine there. Another thing they symbolize is the distorted chronology of the album, with the first "Holographic" being "part 2" and the second one "part 1". Our narrators are letting us know the order of events is not necessarily precise and when I think of the two songs that actually culminate the album's through lines it makes sense. On "The Shooter", our hero breaks it all down for us: what "Nirvana" meant in Cocamania and the triple meaning of the gun in Gunner: everyone loves the shooter who scores the last points in the game, everyone loves the gunslinger in the movies, and when we're honest everyone seems to loves the angsty artist that shoots himself in the head only to be glorified posthumously while they dwell in Nirvana. Archer confronts all three ideas and if you care about what he started in Cocamania, you've got to hear this resolution. I like to think of "Alive", the catchiest and most cathartic life-affirming track on the record to me, as where the character ends up, the lyric quoted above feels like a satisfying conclusion to the angst and depression we've seen him trudge through in the stories before. That's certainly a reductionist take but it's satisfying. Certainly Archer's work is more textured in the end- an ongoing discussion of the good and the bad in life and the truth is most people that deal with depression have intense highs and lows.

Technically speaking, the album finds MC Cam Archer and primary producer Oh Gosh Leotus in peak form but the musical aspect that is new here is Cam's singing. Particularly on "Alive", he renders choruses confidently and in smooth complement to his verses. All the guest vocalists are transcendent and the way the album plays like an out of order movie is why this review is so extensive: it's an album length nerdcore-tinged neo-soul hip-hop story of a moody yet reborn love-struck gunslinger that speaks to a multiple generation-spanning global sadness that most struggle to express- and everybody loves a shooter.

Tristan "Tanjint Wiggy" Acker is a staff writer for JooseBoxx, youth hip-hop writing instructor with CHORDS Enrichment Youth program (chordseyp.org) and member of the Inland Empire nerdcore hip-hop group the West Coast Avengers. Catch more of their work at westcoastavengers.com, follow Tristan on Twitter @Tanjint or e-mail him at tristanacker@gmail.com