I’m not sure why I’m choosing a hip-hop album for my first Blind Taste Test with you, when it’s probably a genre we’ve discussed less than most others. Lots of the bands and artists we share are guitar based.
But something tells me you’ll get as big a kick out of The Iceberg by Oddisee as I did when I first heard it. At times joyful, always invigorating, and deeply political, it’s one of my favourite hip-hop releases of this century so far and I think everyone should hear it at least once.
‘Want To Be’ is a joy, ‘You Grew Up’ takes an important viewpoint and creates a banger, and ‘Hold It Back’ is an instant classic with incredible lyrics. But they’re just some of the highlights, and maybe you’ll have your own.
Hope you love it, and can’t wait to hear your thoughts.
It’s a fair observation of Fran’s that we haven’t spent much time discussing hip-hop records. Although it occupies a smaller chunk of my listening time than other musical genres, I probably listen to more of it than anyone who has spoken to me about my musical tastes realise. So where does my reticence to talk about it come from? I think there’s a lack of confidence in my own knowledge of the genre and its terminology that prevented me from talking and writing about it so much. That doesn’t necessarily stand us in good stead for an entire article, but here goes!
From the opening moments of ‘Digging Deep’ I know I’m in safe hands and that Fran has picked a winner for me. The song opens with finger clicks and stabs of brass before kicking into a full on soul workout. The production is crisp, bright and bouncy and I’m immediately hooked. Early on, Oddisee declares “I been on this life thing” and it sets out the track’s reflective stall. He spits at double speed, but rather than it seeming like an attempt at showing off, it sounds more like someone who has a lot to get off their chest racing to get their ideas out. This has been a very strong start.
‘Things’ maintains the frenetic tempo. It’s another reflective, introspective track, with Oddisee observing how when he’s going through tough times, he often fails to remember that there are others going through exactly the same thing. The sampled and pitch-shifted voices saying “things” sound like they are the cacophony of thoughts and voices he is wrestling with in his head and function really effectively as a production trick that heightens the song’s impact.
‘Built By Pictures’ keeps the same soulful production and reflective stance to dismantle the myths surrounding success. It feels like a corrective to the way the same topic is often explored in hip-hop but still manages to be celebratory. Oddisee’s combination of honesty and positivity here is a difficult trick but one that he manages to pull off.
Fran described ‘Hold It Back’ as an “instant classic with incredibly lyrics”, so hopes are high for this one! Fortunately I can see where he is coming from. What I particularly like is the ambivalence and nuance on display. Whilst Oddisee attests to the importance of speaking out, he also recognises the limited impact this can have. It also has one of the record’s best (and most amusing) lines in “annoy me more than cargo shorts or yoga pants worn at anything that’s not a sport”.
‘You Grew Up’ slows things down and throws in an incredibly funky bass line for good measure. Oddisee offers up razor sharp analysis of generational trauma and intersectionality that errs towards the empathetic rather than the judgemental. Despite the music’s groove, it’s fair to say this isn’t a party record.
It’s ‘NNGE’ next. I love the contrast of the pessimistic verses and the more optimistic choruses, on which he offers himself up as an example for others. It also has the first guest feature of the record. Toine’s delivery is more laid-back and works brilliantly when paired with Oddissee’s. After a fairly downbeat first part of the record, it’s nice to have a note of optimism.
The repeated refrain of “Like really” on the track of the same name is an effective structural device that underlines his disbelief in the state of society and its racial inequalities and highlights what an inventive lyricist Oddisee is. Rather than sticking to one songwriting style across the record, he is happy to mix things up and this makes the record a varied, engaging listen.
‘Want To Be’ is a complete banger. At points it almost sounds like it could be a lost Prince track – the funk guitar throughout is amazing and there’s a brilliant bass solo halfway through the track. There is also something oddly empowering in its central message of “I just want to be happy / I just want to be free”. Musically, it’s one of the standouts on the record for me.
The next track is slightly more opaque. I spend my time listening to ‘This Girl I Know’ wondering whether the girl in question is a metaphor or not. Either way, it’s a decent track but not one of the standouts on the record for me.
‘Waiting Outside’ picks things back up again. It’s a powerful reflection on mental health and how we deal with trauma that plays out over a slow and funky R&B instrumental. It demonstrates again Oddisee’s ability to combine insightful lyricism and challenging subject matter with a song that is a joy to listen to.
‘Rain Dance’ and ‘Rights and Wrongs’ round out the record in style, the former staking a place for Oddissee to celebrate his success, small and self-contained as it may be, and the latter returning to the opening track’s exploration of moral relativism. Lyrically they provide a fitting coda. They also draw together the record’s twin narrative strands of looking inwards at the self and outwards at society and underline how thematically cohesive the record is.
Thanks for sending this my way, Fran. It combines elements of my favourite hip-hop artists – vintage instrumentation, socially conscious lyrics and lyrical dexterity – but produces something that is distinctive and confident to walk his own path. You were absolutely right about the tracks that you singled out, but the whole record is a blast. I’m excited to check out the rest of his back catalogue!