Awful Records, the Atlanta crew and Soundcloud label, cranks out way too much music for anyone to keep track of all of it. But anytime you do check in, they’re usually doing something interesting. The kids in the group live in a big group hovel together and seem to spend their days recording and making videos and bouncing ideas off of each other, and it shows. You can hear them pushing each other, or competing with each other, or helping each other to become their best selves. Crew leader Father’s Young Hot Ebony has gotten more attention than anything else the crew has made, and it’s a good one, but it’s really just a sliver of ice atop a vast iceberg. Father’s got a wide enfant-terrible streak, which is why writers like me are still comparing Awful to Odd Future. But something like Archibald Slim’s He’s Drunk! worked as a warped, gurgling take on New York boom-bap. And Ethereal, the crew’s most elusive member, is a different story entirely. He’s the crew’s resident blunted-philosopher type. If you wanted to extend the Odd Future comparison way past its breaking point, you might call him their Frank Ocean, even though Ethereal doesn’t sing. But that would be a dick thing to do. Ethereal is just himself, and his new Blackli$t tape is one of the most trascendently zoned-out rap mixtapes I’ve heard since Main Attrakionz were regularly cranking out head-blown greatness.
Ethereal produced all of Blackli$t himself, and the music is a beautiful stoned warble. He uses soul samples a lot, but he’s not using them for impact. Instead, he lets the sounds on them drift and dissipate. It’s a supremely Southern production style, a bit like mid-’90s Pimp C on a song like “Ground.” But he’s not using those sounds to make rider music. His music is warm and insular, the sort of sound you make if you’re comfortable spending time within your own head. The style works perfectly for his voice, a supremely cool adenoidal mutter. There aren’t too many immediately quotable lines on Blackli$t, but partly because Ethereal never delivers his lines in ways that make you focus on his words. Instead, that voice sinks deep into the track, riding the beat and becoming a part of it. He never forces that voice on you; he lets you lean in close enough to hear.
As much as Blackli$t sounds like the work of one entirely self-sufficient artist, though, it still carries the mark of his crew. One of the interesting things about Awful is that they don’t really have a central sound. There’s no self-policing, no making sure these songs will complement their brand. Instead, it sounds like the work of a community, a group of people happy to step in and help each other with whatever they’re working on. A few other Awful rappers show up on Blackli$t, and they’re always welcome, mostly for the way their voices punch through the tape’s haze. On “Cash,” Awful labelmate AR shows up with a quick get-money verse, and even though he never raises his voice above conversational level, he changes the track’s dynamic. Alexandria, an R&B singer who isn’t officially on the Awful roster but who shows up on a lot of their songs, comes through twice. And her voice helps flesh out those songs, makes them more substantial.
Lyrically, Ethereal spends most of Blackli$t lambasting music-business politics or offering stoned non-sequiturs, but there’s one line on “Ground” that sticks with me: “I been up smashing the composition, but where do I go? / No place to run, that ain’t never been a option, so I float.” I didn’t notice that line, really, until I saw the song’s video, with Ethereal delivering it from a wheelchair. I don’t know much about Ethereal’s life, other than the fact that he was sampling Paramore on drum-and-bass tracks a few years ago and still finding that float. I don’t know what Ethereal’s disability is, if he was born with it or if it came from an injury. It’s not my business. But it gives me a new appreciation for how hard it must’ve been for something like Blackli$t to even exist. Confidence is a hard thing for anyone to come by, even if you’re not young and black and disabled in America. And on Blackli$t, Ethereal sounds supremely confident and cool. It’s a powerful, contained work, seven songs in half an hour. It’s Ethereal’s second mixtape in the last two months. And it’s a clear sign that this is an artist with things to say. Watch out for this guy.
Pay what you want to download Blackli$t at Bandcamp.