Tony Stamp reviews albums from American indie pop musician Grace Ives, Palestinian producer Julmud, and hip-hop artist Oddisee.
Janky Star by Grace Ives
If you’re like me, a certain type of music discovery holds a particular joy – finding something you have no reference point for, and realising that the people celebrating it were absolutely right.
Janky Star, the second album by Grace Ives, came out in June of 2022, and Pitchfork reviewed it and interviewed her at the time. About a month ago they posted a social video of her, and tweeted that the album was one of the best pop records of last year, and noticing this special treatment, I pressed play.
Sometimes when I listen to pop it leaves me cold on first listen, then draws me back for a second, and then I’m hooked. That’s what happened here. Ives has a knack for minimal arrangement, and clever writing – the way she draws out the title of ‘Burn Bridges’ as she sings it, easily summarises a tricky social situation and changes up the kick drum to match the lyrics – these are things you start to notice on repeat listens.
Like all good pop, the songs feel like they’re leading you by the hand to a cathartic chorus, and that’s true here, although often, as on ‘Angel of Business’, they’ll simply serve up a new melody and tweak a few chords, rather than anything too explosive.
Checking the credits on Janky Star, it’s notable that Grace Ives wrote each song herself – I’ve become used to seeing a long list of composers when dealing with pop music, although she does live in Brooklyn, not LA, and has a distinctly indie bent. Regardless, these songs are pleasurable in the way their hooks feel inevitable, and never too sweet.
On her wiki, Ives’s gear is simply listed as a Roland MC505, a kind of all-in-one drum machine and synth, but for Janky Star added guitar, piano, and a producer who’s worked with the likes of Charli XCX. Songs like ‘Loose’ benefit from a slightly grander canvas, moving from synth silliness into a breakbeat-assisted chorus.
It can be tricky talking about pop music, even the slightly spiky kind like this where the drums are louder and more distorted than usual. I keep coming back to the idea that these songs just sound exactly as they should, even though they could have turned out hundreds of different ways. They make me feel good and want to sing along, and that’s about the biggest compliment I can think of.
Tuqoos by Julmud
Founded in London, the Boiler Room is an online broadcaster that films and streams dance parties onto the internet. They focus on the underground end of the spectrum and have proved massively successful. In 2021 when they began transmitting events from New Zealand it caused a flurry of excitement.
A few years prior they hosted an event in Palestine, featuring a guy called Julmud on the decks, flanked by his MC Dakn. When Julmud grabbed the mic himself, he showed his ability to excite a crowd and proved his vocal ability was on par with his DJing.
In 2022 he released his debut album Tuqoos, and while dancing and rapping are part of the equation, it’s exciting in the way it heads in every direction at once – alternating between incendiary and soothing.
‘Saree’ el thawaban’ features disembodied voices, marimba, and elements either performed or sampled. Although indebted to dub music and hip hop, and with an audible Middle Eastern lineage, it’s thrillingly new. Later on the record, ‘Kalma’’ steps further into what might have been labelled trip hop in the nineties, with sluggish guitar stabs and pitched-down vocals.
Julmud is based in the West Bank city Ramallah, part of a collective called Saleb Wahad, made up of MCs and producers, including his mentor Muqata’a, who’s been making instrumental hip hop for over ten years. The scene is focused on connecting with Palestinian musicians based in Israel, and celebrating their Arab identity through music. Simply by virtue of their location, events like the Boiler Room doubled as a kind of peaceful protest.
Muqata’a was interviewed by The Guardian in 2018 and was specific about Palestinian hip-hop being inherently aggressive, a response to the sounds of checkpoints and military helicopters. Julmud’s music is more placid in some ways, but frequently indulges in distortion, and on tracks like ‘Harti’, ups the sense of confrontation when he switches from singing to rapping.
As well as performing keys and percussion, Julmud often samples traditional Arabic music. Muqata’a refers to this as a way of preserving a culture that’s being muted, and the slinky string lines that weave through ‘Haras El Jabal’ seem to be a good example.
What’s exciting about a track like that is its lack of a traditional rhythm part, instead stacking disparate organic and electric elements over one another. Tuqoos is frequently spacious, sending various bleeps into the void in a way not dissimilar to dub producers in the 1970s and beyond. Elsewhere it draws on modern trap production, industrial noise, jazz, jungle and more, but it always feels like these genres have been taken apart and reassembled.
This debut is just part of a burgeoning scene, but it’s emblematic of it: music made in the face of oppression, celebrating its Arabic roots while staying relentlessly creative.
To What End by Oddisee
At the start of the 2000s, conscious rap was having a moment. Releases from groups like Jurassic Five, Mos Def, Talib Kweli and more aimed to educate and philosophize, tackling weighty topics while remaining generally amiable.
A producer and rapper called Oddisee started his career a few years later and is frequently tagged as ‘conscious’. His tenth album came out recently, and one of its first lines is “I don’t have enemies, just misunderstandings”, proceeding to run through sixteen tracks that are warm, and often nostalgic.
Moving from Maryland to Washington to New York, Oddisee has been vocal about influences like De la Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, saying he could relate to them more because they didn’t rap about drugs or murder. Recently he stated he doesn’t consider himself a conscious rapper, but to the casual observer, he definitely fits the bill. Topics on recent albums include his status as an independent artist, starting a family and being an introvert.
The framework of this album is in its title: To What End, as he grapples with the definition of success, and what it takes to achieve. In its hook one song asks “How far will you go?”, and on ‘Already Knew’, he reminisces about earlier days when he was “happy with a whole lot less”, then finds at least ten ways to rhyme with that.
There’s a newfound bluntness in moments like ‘People Watching’, where he raps about depression and introversion, and the way those things make him treat his fans, then in the chorus, he changes flow and apologises.
The tracks are all self-produced, drawing on Washington’s Go Go music as an influence, and bolstered on some by his band Good Company. On ‘Ghetto to the Meadow’ he raps about success bringing its own series of complications, over a beat featuring live bass and guitar.
In a backstage interview from 2017, Oddisee spoke for the first time about why he stopped swearing on record: like many rappers, he said seeing an all-white crowd say the n-word along with him at shows was so unnerving he had to stop. He also had kids and realised parents might want to listen to rap with their children, and explained that not having to do radio edits meant less work. He also saw his sync deals start to soar: his music is frequently used in TV shows, films and games.
It’s a typically multifaceted response from someone who’s open about introversion and using music as an outlet. The thesis behind To What End is similarly complex, but the repeat listens it’ll take to untangle definitely won’t be a chore.