by Dom Jones
I know that you probably read the title and scoffed. Your favorite rapper is mainstream. Your favorite rapper has at least 1.2 million followers. Your favorite rapper gets played on the radio. Maybe your favorite rapper is Kendrick Lamar, who just dropped a single that has the internet buzzing and the think-pieces abundantly flowing. Or for some reason, maybe your favorite rapper is Future, who has musicians across the country playing the familiar riff from his song, “Mask Off.” The thing is, Kendrick or Future would have their work cut out for them, if put up next to Maryland native, Amir Mohamed el Khalifa, better known as Oddisee.
I first became aware of Oddisee the spring before I left Oakland for Berklee (and I was late because fam has been releasing albums since 2008, y’all). My favorite DJ, Wonway, was throwing a show at a North Oakland spot for his radio show Thinkbeat’s 10 year anniversary, and he’d invited a slew of friends to perform, including me in a cypher and Oddisee as the headliner. I had never heard of the headliner, but I didn’t give it the normal grimace that I would because I trust Wonway’s musical taste. I assumed I would be introduced to some good music. What actually happened is that I experienced something that had remarkably never happened before from any rap headliner of any major stature at any hip-hop concert I’d ever attended, Mos Def/Yasiin Bey included. I nodded my head and two-stepped to Oddisee’s entire set without once feeling disrespected or objectified as a woman and without once thinking, “this song is dumb” (sonically or linguistically). I decided to investigate further. We met after the show (Oddisee and I), and I told him that I would buy his album if he listened to mine (which I promptly handed to him – it’s a thing I was doing then). When I purchased his then new album, The Good Fight, I posted a screenshot on Twitter and tagged him – promise kept. This album would be the music that would get me through the last three and a half months at my corporate gig, before I’d quit to move to Boston. Songs like “Want Something Done,” “First Choice,” and “A List of Withouts” became anthemic in my life, and I listened to them to tap in or reset, when needed. It was what music should be, and what hip-hop hadn’t been for me for a minute: medicine.
Oddisee’s production also makes his music something to be desired and hailed, perfectly weaving the tapestry of digital sounds and live instrumentation, building a bridge between new-age production and traditional playing. You’re not just going to hear an 8 or 16 bar loop that some Music Director would need to step in and upgrade into a live arrangement. The live arrangement is pretty much already there.
All of this being said, earlier this year when I heard he was dropping a new album, I set my $12 aside and waited for the release date of “The Iceberg.” The title was off-putting, and made me expect a depressing project, but it is what it has always been with Oddisee: part self-reflection, part societal critique, part sage wisdom, part biographical all to the tune of that consistent and pleasing production from the previous album. It should be noted that Oddisee is also a producer, which means he has a heavy hand in his sound, contributing to the consistency of quality and style. From the very first track, “Digging Deep,” on the very first listen, I knew that this project was going to be something special. His first verse goes in:
“…Rights made wrong from a point of view/
Morality is relevant to what you’re going through/
On a high I’m a judge, on the low I’m like your honor/
If you only knew the karma, you would light plea/
I feel sorry for the people that are probably hated/
‘Cause when you take the time to understand the makings of a man, you comprehend that he’s the sum of circumstance/
And that evil ain’t incarnate & if cornered we can all create it/
I know it’s easy when you’re angry just to shallow grave it/
But dig deeper for the reasons and we’re all related/
To kill a cousin ain’t as easy as a stranger, and the danger ain’t the bullet but the anger…”
And just because his music is thoughtful, doesn’t mean the bravado (that every ambitious emcee needs) doesn’t make itself present every now and then, illuminating a rare self-awareness and esteem in a genre where much of the music seems to come from fear, anger, misogyny, and lack. On “Like Really,” Oddisee quips “I ain’t got a big deal/But I’m still a big deal/And I feel important (nah, like really)/Yeah you got a big deal/Running on a big wheel/I ain’t wit’ extortin’ (nah like really).” You’ll find that his critique of the record label model and industry is prevalent in his music, and that he takes pride in being an independent artist – with no apparent desire to be signed to a major.
If you’re following him on Instagram, you can see that his independent status hasn’t relegated him to the United States at all. He’s been performing everywhere from Frankfurt, Germany to Amsterdam to Barcelona to Milan to Zurich to Vienna, and beyond. His travels will bring him to Massachusetts this summer, though, for a stop at Brighton Music Hall, where I’ll hopefully be front row with some friends. Oddisee seems to be a quiet giant in an eco-system that is rapidly changing with the digitization of music and the assumed death of the traditional label, and he’s encroaching on the always sought-after crown of hip-hop. Because this is music that’s both elevated and electrifying, both thoughtful and tantalizing, both meaningful and moveable. Because this is music that isn’t a guilty pleasure, but still tastes good. Because this is hip-hop.
HAVE YOU HEARD ODDISEE’S NEW ALBUM? SOUND OFF IN THE COMMENTS!