Welcome to a new column here at Stereogum. Every Wednesday, we’ll pick a newish mixtape, rap or otherwise, and talk a bit about what’s interesting about it and the way it works in the general context of the moment’s musical landscape. For the last little bit of time I was at Pitchfork, I wrote Out The Trunk, a column about rap mixtapes. This will be a bit like that, but it’ll tackle the subject on a weekly basis, and it’s also open to non-rap mixtapes; the Weeknd’s two 2011 efforts could’ve been Mixtapes Of The Week, for instance, or Clams Casino’s game-changing Instrumental Mixtape. The basic definition of “mixtape” has evolved a bit over the past few years; these days, it refers to just about any collection of music that people post for free online. And since the mixtape scene is one that mutates constantly, a weekly column seems like a pretty good way of keeping tabs on it. So let’s get into it with some thoughts on Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire’s new Lost In Translation mixtape.
We’ve already posted a few times about eXquire, a Brooklyn rapper with a slurry rasp of a voice and a general unreconstructed hardhead mentality. “Huzzah!,” the track that got eXquire on our radar, starts with this statement-of-intent singsong chorus: “Drunk drivin’ on a Wednsdaaaaay / With three bitches in the MPV.” As introductions go, that’s a pretty forceful and accurate one. eXquire is someone who displays considerable glee when rapping about doing fucked-up shit. It’s not the Odd Future shock-value approach, exactly; it’s more a smirky delight in willfully ignorant everyday indulgences. And the “MPV” part is crucial; eXquire pushes a Mazda minivan, not a Benz. His general brokeness (or, I guess, non-richness) isn’t an embarrassment to be hidden or a badge of honor; it’s just a simple fact of life. His persona is something like this: He’s the perma-drunk guy in your building, the one who’s still partying loudly at 4 a.m. but who never gets told to keep it down, since he makes everyone vaguely nervous.
There’s room for a persona like that one in rap today, and eXquire succeeds by simultaneously portraying himself as a brain-addled weirdo and a tough motherfucker. But the mixtape has a sonic identity that’s more interesting than the persona that animates it. In some ways, it marks the reemergence of ’90s abstract-underground champ El-P, who produces or co-produces five tracks here and whose sonic fingerprints are all over even the songs he didn’t produce. The sound here is very much in line with the cluttered, claustrophobic stuff that El’s Def Jux crew was making at the turn of the century; you can hear echoes of Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein and Aesop Rock’s Bazooka Tooth everywhere. But Def Jux never quite had a convincing hardass on its roster, and it’s somewhat revelatory to hear a guy like eXquire sounding so completely at home in these skronky soundscapes. eXquire actually raps on-beat, something that most of the Def Jux roster (El included) rarely bothered with, and his agile but guttural voice sinks right into these tracks.
And there’s more to eXquire than “Huzzah!,” it turns out. “Huzzah!” and other pre-mixtape eXquire tracks built eXquire’s drunk-weird-everyman image, but Lost In Translation is an honest-to-god album with lots of different ideas flying through it. Willful knuckleheadedness and pop-culture addictions are what jumps out first, of course; eXquire is, after all, a guy who will happily make an entire song out of the “cockmeat sandwich” joke from Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay. (I’ve also got a huge soft spot for rappers who constantly name-check semi-obscure ’80s and ’90s pro wrestlers, and between eXquire and Action Bronson, we’re living through something of a golden age of that.) But eXquire gets serious and tries out different ideas throughout Lost In Translation, and the results are usually strong. “I Should Be Sleepin’,” for instance, is a relatable and heartfelt childhood memoir. And “Maltese Falcon Pt. 1 And Pt. 2″ is fast becoming one of my favorite tracks on the album; it’s a dream-logic story song in which John Woo recruits eXquire to steal the titular mythical artifact from Sgt. Slaughter. I have no idea why it works, but it does.
Lost In Translation is by no means a perfect tape. “Weight Of Water” is an unguardedly emo mess of a track that sinks thanks to its godawful sung chorus, for instance. And the skits are a problem, too. Nobody needs to hear music-biz bitching from a buzzed-about rapper who, after all, opted to put the word “Muthafuckin’” in his name. A too-long blowjob skit is the sort of thing that always seems to be playing whenever anyone walks in on you listening to an album. And plenty of readers are probably going to have problems with the casual misogyny and, to a lesser extent, homophobia on display here. Those things are hardhead-rap constants, but that doesn’t mean we should just be OK with them.
Still, it’s a strong introduction to a magnetic new figure, and it stands as one of the strongest underground-rap releases of a very strong year. Barely any guest rappers show up until the all-star tape-closing “Huzzah!” remix, on which eXquire more than holds his own alongside Das Racist, Danny Brown, El-P, and Despot. In his verse, Das Racist’s Heems calls himself the “worst rapper on the track,” and the fact that he’s telling the truth says something about the level of talent here. None of the guests manage to steal the track from eXquire, and all of them try hard. Underground rap could use more talented, charismatic weirdos like this.
Lost In Translation is up for free download right here.
So welcome to the Mixtape Of The Week. That’ll be this feature’s official name unless any of you guys come up with something better. If you’ve got a suggestion, leave it in the comment box!