California-born Aaron “A-Wax” Doppie was only 16 years old when he was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 78 months in Washington State Penitentiary. During his time behind bars, from 1996, until 2001, he became obsessed with music. He spoke about the experience in detail with Murder Dog‘s Deyu Ntebya in a 2009 interview: “Early on when I first started rapping in prison I felt like I couldn’t actually word what I was trying to say,” he told Ntebya. “I had been though a lot of experiences, but I couldn’t put on the paper the way I saw it.” Now thirteen years deep into his career, A-Wax remains a controversial cult figure, publically defined as much by beef as music, winning converts and turning off others in equal measure. But those early struggles learning to articulate his perspective must seem distant now; if his latest album, Pullin’ Strings, is not the best gangster rap album of 2014, it’s certainly the most evocatively written.
A-Wax is an old soul, a craftsman in a messy era of perpetual mindspray. He owes a debt to a longstanding—and long undervalued—lineage of hip-hop writers. This includes his immediate progenitors the Mob Figaz—a Pittsburg, CA-based hip-hop crew that was among the most influential in the last decade of Bay Area hip-hop—and their influences, including 2Pac, C-Bo, and Cormega. A-Wax has had beef with the Mob Figaz for years, or it’s at least surfaced online in bitter accusations. A-Wax claims he’s the messenger for his friends behind the walls (ask any Bay Area head about the veracity of A-Wax’s claims, and you get the carefully reframed answer of an agnostic: “He thinks they’re true.”) But regardless of the bridges burned, A-Wax has developed his own highly personal, principled style. While he has been damaged, his eye for subjectively truthful prose has not.
His conceptual focus on Pullin’ Strings is loneliness. This isn’t 27-problems-only-introverts-will-understand lonely or heartbroken lonely or last-man-on-earth sci-fi flick lonely—this is a much more exhaustive desolation. For A-Wax, it is an occupational hazard forced by circumstance, the consequences and paradoxes of a life lived illegally. This loneliness comes accompanied by paranoia and anxiety, fatalism and regret, each amplified by the life-or-death stakes of his (former?) profession. A-Wax’s alienation isn’t expressed as mere trite sadness, but through the prism of realism: calloused nonchalance, self-effacing humor, virulent bitterness, and profound melancholy, sometimes all at once. Weariness permeates the album. The betrayals and double-crosses don’t sting with surprise; they are inevitable, and linger like a dull bruise.
If a world populated with personalities is splashed in color, Pullin’ Strings compliments its bleak isolation by drawing in high-contrast black and white. Sometimes, when the light hits just right, the backdrop takes on a sunset tinge. The production is sleek, stripped down, and often subtly melodic; the dominant sound is one of wistful somnolence. Fuzzed guitars are sanded to a smooth surface and the focus is tight. The moments that vary from this mean are still spare. Even tracks that lean belligerent gain their power from their potential for aggression, rather than the therapeutic release of it. They are often balanced by humor or conceptual wit: take “Jetsons” and its cartoon conceit (“By the time he’s home as a parolee/ We’ll have a robotic maid we call Rosie”), the daytime TV-referencing “Maury Dance”, or album standout “No Limit” (“We just ridin’ around with two K’s like my name was Silkk the Shocker”). That song has one of the record’s best beats, a delicate blend of low quarter-note keyboards, a descending mallet effect that skitters across the track, and what sounds like the ‘fasten seatbelt’ alert—as if the camera were set on a drizzling crime scene where a car door hangs ajar. Like the record as a whole, it thrives on a canvas of negative space. There are no guest rappers on the album, and A-Wax does his own choruses. His earnest, droning sing-song magnifies an underlying pathos.
But the heart of the record is in its writing, which is as austere as the production. A-Wax creates an immersive narrative by locating the unlikely intersection of the direct and the oblique. He is purposeful in his use of hints and implication, understatement and aphorism. Much like his facility for hooks (“More hooks than a tackle box”) it’s a tactic of which he’s plenty aware (“Thinking more just saying less”). Of course there are the bare bones ingredients of purist street rap, where authenticity underpins his story—you’ll hear about the drugs (“She ain’t spill no cake mix/Whole kitchen counter like eight bricks”) and the violence (“You don’t want me ridin’ round thinking it’s an issue/We’re gon’ be around still to see if people miss you”). But he’s interested in something more than simple glorification (“All they see is the come-up, they don’t notice the losses”). For those who’ve followed A-Wax’s career closely, a willingness to wrestle with consequences gives him a leg up on much gangster theater, an acknowledgement of the psychological costs of the lifestyle he sells.
On Pullin’ Strings, the visible stitching of crime to consequence in his earlier work has been flipped to the inside of his life’s broader embroidery; the record promises a seamless, uncompromised self-portrait, his lyrics elliptical and focused less on details than dynamics: “Had a plan that didn’t pan out the way that I thought it would/ After everything that I put her through, I just want my mama good.” He’s a man of principle; on “Only Pray”, he upbraids a target for lack of character: “God won’t ever answer your prayers/ Because you only pray in handcuffs/ How convenient, you turn to God when you need some help.” Although he’s not afraid to be misanthropic, this song could as easily be turned inward, or at a past self, as at another. Who it addresses remains ambiguous.
Much of the record is oriented around A-Wax’s distrust of friends and foes (“Use one hand to count the people that I’m close to”). Other than his mother, women are trophies (“Broke that marriage up like kush”), as treacherous as men, and not immune to his cruelty. (A right-minded person might do some herculean compartmentalizing at the album’s midsection.) Humor balances somber subject matter; on “Trainwreck”, which finds A-Wax pointing the chopper at the mirror, whimsical production mocks his self-pity without undercutting his sincerity. “Trust Issues” takes a more serious tack: “I just don’t know who to trust, overthink when I think it over.” The growing sketch of not just a flawed but unreliable narrator is whittled to a fine paradox here. “Wipin’ off my chopper rounds, grown as hell still play with guns/ Shot my friend on accident then told some ho come get the gun/ I just can’t do nothing right, I just can’t do nothing wrong/ Make this shit seem effortless, live life like I’m above the law.”
“Trust Issues” is the first record in a trio that make up the album’s emotive heart. The second, “Trukfit”, cleanly connects typically vivid writing (“Duckin’ the grave plot, plottin’ the hold up/We’ll be in the same spot for now cuz we sold stuff”) to a moving sample of Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna’s immaculate “Someone Out of Town”. But the album’s climactic moment and most potent articulation is the cathartic “Be Alone,” which makes explicit what had been implied. Isolation isn’t just a consequence, but a conscious choice, a strategy of self-preservation.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1sENOTd