Although it may have the undertones of vapid political sloganeering or motivational quote, there is at least a sliver of truth to the notion that there’s strength in numbers. When creative entities pull their efforts and align them with one common goal, it can go one of two ways. Either the assembled congregation find a rhythm and a delegation of labour that enables them to produce something special, or its success can be hampered by a case of too many cooks in the kitchen.
When Beast Coast announced that their “Escape From New York Tour” would be accompanied by their debut release as a cohesive unit, hip-hop’s collective brain whirred with the unsettling knowledge that the album would fall into one of the two camps. The cumulative acclaim of this assembly made for a tantalizing proposition but one that stoked a niggling wariness that was hard to disperse. Time after time, pedestalized collaborative projects have failed to deliver on the greatness that we’ve preassigned to them and ensured that they had nowhere near the replay value that we’d once hoped. But in the case of this veritable all-star team of Brooklynites, any residual apprehension that may have been lurking in the background has been completely exorcised by the resounding success of Escape From New York.
Opening on the fiery barrage of “It Ain’t Easy, It Ain’t Easy” and its rallying cry of “bitch I’m a hustler, flex like a wrestler,” this typhoon of witty punchlines from Juice, Erick, Nyck Caution, CJ Fly and AK serves as the perfect distillation of what to expect over the next thrilling 47-- did you see what they did there?-- minutes. Despite the record’s billing as a showcase for New York’s most adept purveyors of hip-hop, the track marks the first of several contributions that show off the deft sonic handiwork of two Seattle, Washington Natives in Tyler Dopps and Sam Wish. With the former acting as an executive producer for the whole project, his ability to make the beats as blisteringly hard-hitting as possible without overpowering the fidelity of the rhymes is one that any budding beatmaker should studiously examine.
Staying on the subject of the production, there was a lot of conjecture around the release of singles such as the foreboding “Left Hand,” the breezy “Coast/Clear,” and the perceived absence of New York’s boom-bap tradition. While it may seem that many of the beats are jarringly compliant with the trap-doused sound of today’s mainstream, this is by no means a concession on the part of Beast Coast. In fact, it’s actually a wise move on their part that is a ringing endorsement of their vitality.
808-heavy tracks such as “Desperado” and “Distance,” depicted across the album, feel like an exemplar for how you can move within contemporary circles without falling into monotonous uniformity. Steered by the panoramic creative vision of Powers Pleasant on both occasions, the multitude of flows, lyrical technique and delivery on offer demonstrates the ingenuity of each member and attests to why they’ll always be regarded in a plateau that’s way above the norm. Whether it’s their inflections, subtle references or vocal manipulation, they all bring a new sensation to proceedings and this is encapsulated by Erick’s erudite critique of the present hip-hop status quo:
“Too many rappers and not enough painters, Frida or Dali, my palette like Monet.”
As Joey Badass knows first-hand from his early career, making music steeped in nostalgia is a treacherous path that gives way to a relatively short shelf life. But beyond casting aside the notion of doing boom-bap revivalism, what’s fascinating about Escape From New York is just how much they’ve all refused to be typecast in either sound or lyrical direction. Across its 13 tracks, each group goes out of their way to exceed their customary trifecta of spiritualism, street raps and psychedelia.
While each of those elements is accounted for and then some, this album is a long-form ode to the culture that enriched and bettered each of their lives from the ground up. Whether they’re dipping their oar in sultry mid-00s slow jam territory with “Far Away” and the hypnotic “One More Round” or striving to keep heads above water on the therapeutic "Problems," there’s a versatility on here that would be startling if it came from anyone other than such pedigreed artists. Not content to stay on American soil, the group even take time to celebrate the Jamaican heritages of CJ Fly, Erick Arc Elliot, Meechy Darko and Joey Bada$$ on the invigorating “Snow In The Stadium.”
As far as bars go, UA’s dynamic duo of Issa and AKTHESAVIOR are on top form throughout. Flitting between stellar quips such as “can’t hear you talk, I speak gaup-anese” and imploring would-be challengers to step to "young majesty, think you’re immortal? come face the fatality," they more than hold their own alongside their esteemed peers. Not to be outdone, PRO ERA’s lesser-known stars use their deployments to make a compelling case for reverence that equals that of Joey’s. While CJ Fly is perhaps omitted from a few too many tracks, he never fails to make an impact when he emerges, and Nyck Caution puts in a star-making turn on “Puke,” “Left Hand” and “Bones.” Enlisted for hook duty on more than one occasion, Kirk Knight does a great job on both melodic choruses or lightning-quick verses but is notably absent behind the boards. For Joey Bada$$, there is a sense that he was content to take a backseat and allow his lieutenants to blossom but it’s clear that Flatbush Zombies poured every modicum of their being into this project. Across every track, their verses or hooks are delivered with fervour and a self-belief that makes it feel as though the world is theirs to take. Tight a unit as they may be, there’s no denying that any of them could have a flourishing solo career if they so desired. The artistic growth of Zombie Juice has been a joy to behold over the past few years while Meechy Darko’s performance on this album not only solidifies him as the most joyfully menacing MC this side of Onyx or DMX but emphatically raises the question of why he’s always omitted from lists of the top 5 MC’s in the industry today. On his productions such as “Problemz,” “Bones” and “Snow In The Stadium,” Erick goes beyond the connotations of his own self-delegated title of “Architect” and edges closer towards the remit of visionary.
Between its exultant pitched-up sample and booming percussive swells, closer “Last Choir” is the sound of pink polo Kanye if he’d grown up somewhere in the boundaries of Hoyt Street and Atlantic Avenue. Recalibrated for a New Yorker’s sensibilities, Erick’s production soars once more while Meechy’s impassioned musings of “to think this all started from thoughts inside my noggin, but creativity easy when you're starvin” really drills home how far the Beast Coast Movement has came since those embryonic days in the early 2010s. To officially pinpoint or crown an MVP would be at odds with the mission statement of the album and that is to uplift the whole crew and showcase exactly how much they have to offer.
A living, breathing rebuttal to the dismissively misguided belief that hip-hop is in a period of stagnation or some form of creative slump, the scope of the ground they cover means that both old heads and newer converts can bask in the sound of a collective that’s firing on all cylinders. Up-tempo from the outset, they clearly went into the process with an unblinking focus on curating an album that would incite pandemonium in a live scenario and that’s exactly what it’ll do when this summer’s shows roll around.
Although it may be billed as an Escape From New York, this title more than transcends the five boroughs and acts as their emancipation from the dogeared distinction as “slept-on” artists. A collaborative album that’s sure to age with a gracefulness that few can, Beast Coast are a united front like no other and if there’s any justice, they should run roughshod over the genre for as long as they desire.