Higher Learning: Vic Spencer & Sonnyjim Teach You To Understand

POW premieres the new collaborative LP from Vic Spencer and Sonnyjim, 'Spencer For Higher.'
By    January 11, 2018

Douglas Martin don’t listen to rappers, he be really tired.

You can always tell when you’re speaking to someone who doesn’t like to sugarcoat things. Keeping it real was an honorable position before it became a cliche. When the electric chair was long ago replaced by lethal injections, Vic Spencer seems to be a little nostalgic for a time when experiences were by and large a little tougher, like everything seems too soft nowadays. Not just the rap game but life in general, all the way down to government-issued execution.

Remember Spenser: for Hire? If you’re like me and making your way through your mid-thirties, your answer is probably “vaguely.” It was one of those interesting, middlebrow network crime dramas teeming with articulate and violent men, a genre that was in far greater supply in the ‘70s and ‘80s than it is now. In a very roundabout way, the series’ run reminds me of Spencer, a rapper who’s style the marketplace was bursting at the seams with in a bygone era but has been replaced by something far less material, something hollow. It’s sort of appropriate Spencer would tap fellow a kindred spirit in Sonnyjim to reference this largely obscure television series on their stellar collaborative LP.

Sonnyjim provides an obsessively dope collection of beats, (sometimes) placing heavy rhythms underneath the smooth corners of blaxploitation and jazz reefer-friendly soul. “Gs3” is all white linen and the sun trying to shine through white hotel curtains. “Alex Trebek” sounds like rolling through Southside Chicago in an El Dorado when heroin was heavy in the streets. “Primal Rage” sounds like the sun rising on some ’60s Hollywood landscape, barreling through the shadows of the night before. On the song, Quelle Chris boasts of shutting it down “coast to coast like Blockbuster” while referencing both Singles and Fight Club.

There are patches of articulate, whip-smart dialogue from the series, its closest peers of the same ilk these days were when Justified and Luther were on the air. On the Monday night feature sounds of “Uzi Shoppin’,” Sonnyjim also supplies one of three quality guest verses, as well as a glimpse of what’s to come for him: “My next record, it ain’t got no features / Just me and my brother like Romulus and Remus.”

There’s also a sleepy House Shoes, thin clouds of marijuana lingering around him like fog, imploring he’s tired of talking shit and that the music will speak for itself.

As a deft showcase of skill from all parties involved, Spencer for Higher opens with “Hex Hawking,” Ironside Hex introducing Spencer by decrying the Kool-Aid braids contingent, and the Chicago original immediately thereafter putting the kibosh on offering the mercy of a warning. Spencer breaks his wrist after letting off 500 shots and offers his own criticism for his peers: “Your music got me taking a wild nap.” Sonnyjim employs an organ psychedelic in its pitch and steadiness, giving the impression of the transmission pumping through some heavy reefer smoke.

The Big Ghost remix of “SauceMANIA,” the requisite (and exceedingly welcome) Chris $pencer burn session, captures the feel of the album with boulder-thick drums beating down a sample sounding like it was lifted from the score of Spenser: for Hire, but the original is more bombastic, more celebratory. Spencer reminisces when people used to tell him he sounded “like Busta Rhymes mixed with Ludacris” and Chris Crack reveals a moment early in life where he stated his intention on being a rapper. At this point, it shouldn’t take much to sell a Chris $pencer song. Saying that ‘listening to these Chicago greats rap is like watching Jordan and Pippen shred through defenses’ sounds like hyperbole until you give them a stink sack and a dope beat.

As always with his releases, there is a wealth of imagination and imagery from memory in the verses of Vic Spencer, so much to unpack that an ancient scroll of breaking down his words would need the tiniest feather for ink to get everything meaningful into the text. Over the easy, floating R&B of “Bleek Gilliam,” he relates innately to a Kanye lyric (“I be saying how I feel at the wrong time”) and finding himself aghast while realizing how much he paid for a pair of Yeezy Boosts. “Adventures of Ew McNasty” is a blunted fever dream on par with the imaginative “Gone Fishin’” trilogy, with killers wielding “knives with AIDS on it,” lurking in the shadows of Spencer’s subconscious.

Elsewhere, Vic is getting angry texts from his boss over the cover art for The Cost of Victory (“I was smoking weed while reading it, I wasn’t stressin’ it.”) and trying to smash Ric Flair’s maid Fifi. As someone who has parked in front of the television tuned to TBS a great many Saturday night from 6:05 to 8:05 (and has a reputation for revisiting those episodes in stoned adulthood), I can certainly relate.

“Nia Long’s Weed” stands atop Spencer’s stellar catalog of love songs to Mary Jane in no small part to Sonnyjim’s breezy, jazzy beat, drums metered out in 6/4 time. It also speaks to Vic’s talent to be able to weave his trademark rich imagery into such a smooth flow; some rappers are still trying not to sound awkward rapping in 6/8. “Rappers who don’t smoke make lame music,” he asserts, and he may not be incorrect in that assessment. At least in his case, Spencer brings a lot of allure out of the dusky, loopy, word-heavy feel of stoned rap music.

On “Bleek Gilliam,” Spencer intones, “I’m a difficult person to understand, I know that.” Although he offers singular insights about—and sometimes stark, sometimes gorgeous imagery from—his life, although he offers a peek into his outrageous imagination, he still feels misunderstood. There’s that hint of frustration of Spencer giving everyone the tools they need to understand him to no avail. I’ve been told this is the curse of genius, having your insight fly over peoples’ heads. It’s like figuring out the appeal of an artfully composed television show thirty years after the fact.

On the outro of Spencer for Higher, Shoes speaks for a final time. “One of these days, you gonna understand. Motherfucker might not be here no more when you understand it.”