The ZWAARD Of Destiny

Beans and Vladislav Delay validate their avant legacies... w/ reviews of Roc Marciano + MIKE & Tony Seltzer

The ZWAARD Of Destiny

As was the case with other genres, the pandemic had a multifaceted impact on rap, one that continues to resonate today. We lost vital figures such as DJ Kay Slay and Fred The Godson to the virus and its deadly complications, while Scarface and Slim Thug were among the countless over-40 greats who contracted it over the past four years. Westside Gunn and Nas, among others, have been vocal about their perilous experiences with COVID as well, sharing details that one hopes encouraged others to take precautions or at least take the threat seriously.

During the most concerning period, when vaccines and life-saving drugs like Paxlovid were not yet abundant or accessible the way they are now, I spoke with multiple hip-hop veterans for this newsletter as well as other outlets. The sickness came up naturally and regularly in Zoom-based conversation, often beginning with a simple how're you holding up? and frequently evolving into discussions about creativity in isolation. Remote collaboration was a recurring topic, something some artists expressed more comfort with than others used to working on in-person studio environments. But in more than one sense, the phrase adapt or die had rarely been truer in the genre's forty year history.

More recent chats like my late 2023 interview with Beans offered an example of the silver linings amid the storm clouds of quarantine and social distancing, as the New York native shared how it brought Antipop Consortium back together. None of its four members live in the same city anymore, yet while divided among continents HPRIZM (fka High Priest), M. Sayyid, Earl Blaize, and the Shock City Maverick himself managed to make new music together using home studio setups and online tools. Though the process was slow, a mixtape ultimately began to form. And were it not for one apparent holdout, the group's first new project since 2009's Big Dada release Fluorescent Black would be here by now. Thankfully, that wasn't the only project the verbally dextrous emcee had in mind.

14 track album

Enter ZWAARD, a full-length team-up between Beans and Finnish producer Sasu Ripatti, aka Vladislav Delay. The two men have never met, nor did they need to, their respective reputations forged in the pages of The Wire magazine and on shared shelves at indie record stores like the sadly shuttered Other Music. And while the quantifiably buzziest periods in their careers happened roughly two decades ago, that just makes them kindred spirits–and enduring ones at that.

ZWAARD validates both artists in different ways. Under-appreciated and overlooked far too often, Beans should be included in the G.O.A.T. conversation without hesitation. He retains that primal urge commonly found among the best rappers across generations: to be the nicest on the mic. This set of songs gives him the forum to make that case properly. Meanwhile, Ripatti's long list of pseudonyms arguably left him adrift critically, with many having passed judgment on him over records from long past. This album not only reframes his role as a genuinely innovative electronic composer, but poses a challenge to those who stopped actively listening beyond Luomo's The Present Lover. What's more, his productions date here back to the early-to-mid 2010s, by his own admission, which makes the sonic leaps contained within all the more impressive.

Numerically organized but hardly neat, ZWAARD makes a powerful first impression with its direct and revelatory opener. This is Beans at his most lucid, breaking through the avant and abstract to show and prove while ruminating on his path and the inevitability of death. Fast forwarding to "ZWARRD 2," he's staring down the barrel of a 50th birthday, the once innocuous sheet cake cover photo now dramatically in full focus. He proclaims himself "one of the flyest emcees on AARP" after remarking on his receding hairline and a litany of personal details from his past over its skittish beat. His hooks here resemble remarkable mantras, repeated refrains like rappers got burnt and learned the color of flames and the past is the life of a ghost that roams restless.

Further cuts like "ZWAARD 4" and "ZWAARD 7" both compound and dissolve Beans' demigodly mythos, all the while showing just how superior he is to mere mortal spitters. That aforementioned lucidity becomes increasingly scarce, though his fortitude and the purposefulness of his delivery never waver. Indeed, the deeper one dives into the album's track listing, the greater the fractal growth of his wordplay. COVID gets a rare mention on "ZWAARD 10" amid a viral verbal slurry soundtracked by Ripatti's noisy loops and digital gulps. A few chaotic instrumental interludes enliven things, but by the nihilistic culmination of the radically de/reconstructed boom bap number "ZWAARD 14," one may be understandably perplexed at how they arrived at this destination. At the center, however, hovers "ZWAARD_OVER," an understated three-verse APC reunion single that gives this mad metaphysical medley a beating, human heart.

Roc Marciano, Marciology (buy it / stream it)

Whether as rapper or producer, Roc Marciano's underground rap dominance cannot be denied. Still, Marciology marks his first proper solo album since 2020's Mt. Marci, a cause for celebration after nearly four years of collaborative and co-headlining efforts. On the instrumental front, he joins his beatmaking familiars The Alchemist and Animoss, all of whom keep things consistent across these 14 bar-heavy new bap tracks. Befitting the philosophical title, he holds court as a formidable and imaginative lyricist. His sly phrase turns, street-level slang, and ultra-luxe touchpoints grow increasingly niche via "BeBe's Kids" and "Goyard God." On the DOOM-worthy "Gold Crossbow," he delivers a dizzying series of stop-start syllable strings that will take multiple listens to even attempt to untangle. A reprise of their Nothing Bigger Than The Program vibe, "On The Run" reintegrates his pimp-minded pal Jay Worthy with an unbothered yet tense verse. Elsewhere, Larry June leans in with the least humble of brags on "Bad JuJu," while CRIMEAPPLE reflects modestly on his own growth on "Killin' Spree."

MIKE & Tony Seltzer, Pinball (buy it / stream it)

Enigmatic yet approachable, MIKE is one of the more ambidextrous rappers in the game right now. Contrasting with last year’s Alchemist-helmed Faith Is A Rock joint album with Wiki, Pinball puts him in front of Tony Seltzer’s largely plugg-centric production, to great if subtle effect. So it makes sense when Tony Shhnow shows up for “On God,” a dynamic trio cut rounded out by an Earl Sweatshirt feature. Jay Critch ramps up the energy on “Reminiscing,” while Niontay matches the headliner’s casual cool on “2k24 Tour.” And though it’s nice to have these fine guests in tow, MIKE doesn’t actually need anyone else's help to rock the mic right, evident on tracks like “Lethal Weapon” and “Underground Kingz.” 

Three new tracks for you to snack on...

Marv Won, "Good Thangs (feat. Quelle Chris)"

Ode Broham, "Blowing Mines (feat. Lefty Van Lowe)"

i.F. (Chuuwee & iMAGiNARY OTHER), "Vortex"

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