Ben Grenrock has phoned home.
SETI isn’t listening to deep space hard enough. There are things out there, and they’ve been watching us. Observing our world in all its rapacious hubris. Casting a disdainful gaze down on our little planet. They don’t like what they see.
They pick up errant strains of our rap music. They don’t like what they hear. Somewhere above in the cold dark they twist powerful tentacles around whatever alien technology is comparable to a microphone. They spit “with a heat so hot it disinfects metal,” disinfects hip-hop of its recycled conventions, disinfects the universe of wack rappers, of humanity. Really, it’s for our own good.
Okay, okay, Doseone and Mestizo probably aren’t aliens. But when I tell you they have conspired to create a vitriolic record under the moniker A7PHA that draws its stylistic influences more from trap than any other subgenre of hip-hop, if you were expecting the result to be anything short of otherworldly, you’re clearly unfamiliar with either of their bodies of work. Just the thought of Doseone’s bars—which tend to sally forth at the pitch and velocity of a tattoo gun on its highest setting—forced into counterpoint with the relentless hi-hats endemic to trap music, seems at once inconceivable, terrifying, and alluring.
This is precisely what occurs on “At the Altar,” a track deep into A7PHA’s self-titled campaign of destruction. “Let me show you weapon perfect and what it do / anything to dishonor and dominate you,” the pair chant in a blistering hook that bookends searing verses and a bridge in which ghostly Marine Corps “Hoo Ahhs” punctuate Dose ululating some unintelligible war cry in reverse. The jaw slackens. Eyes go out of focus. Domination doesn’t even come close.
A7PHA is one of the latest releases to be shot out of the indie rap wormhole Anticon. The label has been on the cutting edge of avant-garde hip-hop since it was co-founded by Doseone in 1998. Keeping it in the species, A7PHA was predominantly produced by another of Anticon’s founders, Alias. The sonic aesthetic Alias and co. have created for this album is as much responsible for my reading the record as similar to the plot of Independence Day, to the intentions of Cthulhu, as lyrics like, “Don’t finish fights where they don’t begin / Not everything stays where it’s been / i.e. the chitin key that let lighting in / amongst the thunder and a number of income colored moons.”
The beats are as expansive and dark as the void; punctured at times by harsh slashes of gamma ray interference (“99 Point Static”), the cold sparkle of distant stars (“Closer,” “Skull Break”), and spine tingling squeals that hint at shapeless leviathans floating through an endless, airless ether (“Hand 2 Hand”). As mentioned above, the production has more in common with trap than the boom-bappy fringe-rap both Mestizo and Doseone trace their origins to. It certainly isn’t trap music, but the BPMs, the space created by the arrangement of the drums, and the selection of tones—the claps and hi-hats in the drum kits, the thick timbre of alternating legato then staccato bass notes that fill entire measures in “Hater Hate It”—are all close enough that it becomes difficult to imagine someone rapping to these beats in a style too distant from that of Denzel Curry or 21 Savage.
So that’s more or less what Dose and Mestizo do. But their approach is not even close to emulation. Between Mestizo’s uniquely fluid phrasing and the perverse pleasure you can almost feel Dose experiencing as he wraps his mouth around words, both rappers put their own underground spin on the trendy style creating something entirely new—as artful and inscrutable as the “Mona Lisa mouths” invoked on opening track “No Breaks.” This convergence of disparate techniques injected with the rappers’ dizzying ire makes A7PHA sound like what you’d get if you strapped Death Grips, Busdriver, and Migos into one of those gyroscopic spinning chairs they use to simulate zero gravity at Space Camp.
Amidst all this disorientation and biting invective, the tracks on A7PHA are bridged by surprisingly smooth transitions. Each song floats seamlessly into the next gaining more and more inertia as the album progresses. The tracks flow so well an unsettling, inexorable suspense builds that wouldn’t be out of place in a well-directed horror movie. “No Breaks” feels like a curtain lifting, the eerily soundless jettisoning of a missile in a vacuum. Then engines kick in, coordinates are set, and cruising velocity is undeniably reached by the fourth track, “Modern Animal.”
On “Modern Animal,” extra terrestrial death-cult A7PHA outline their plan for earth’s destruction. Mestizo and Dose have grown disgusted with all the players in the dance of inequality our species is caught in. They sneer at both the “Demons in a high-rise,” and the “hyenas at its feet.” While Mestizo sees this system, “in need of some realignment,” he notes that even those at the top are already doomed by the precarious heights they’ve clawed their way to, intoning, “there’s always a bed of nails right behind a bed of diamonds.”
A7LPHA’s plans for “realignment” are two fold. There’s the old fashioned way—their bars “setting fires with the hopes of no survivors,”—but also Dose and ‘Zo realize the rappers they’ve set their sights on, and earthlings in general are, “taxed and hunger under a metric ton of mass.” We are so trapped in a Sisyphean dance, “up against what you can never afford / but will do almost anything for,” that they can let us do some of their work for them. Given enough time humanity will crumble all by itself.
The album flies towards its gory conclusion. Bars warp in hyperspace, skulls break through decomposing flesh like suns over an unfamiliar horizon, until on “Hand 2 Hand” the attack begins. Mestizo starts, “banging rocks together making dangerous fire,” bludgeoning rappers and bystanders with his expertly measured flow. Dose comments on death’s inevitability (“Grubs eat grandpa’s guts through cracked caskets / that’s how it is, with be and you has been”) before dealing it out in a violent blur. The second act of this one-sided battle, “Hater Hate It,” begins when Dose triumphantly, “roll[s] up in a hater-skin jacket / with a matching hater-skin hat,” and escalates in intensity through one of Mestizo’s best verses on the album until everything in sight has been vaporized.
It’s a good thing Dose has constructive, even fashionable, plans for what to do with haters, as A7PHA will see more than it’s fair share. The album is brutally difficult to crack. Its effect-drenched lyrics buffet the listener like solar wind, and its harsh aesthetic is so completely original it will no doubt wrong-foot many of those brave enough to face it. I urge you to keep fighting, and to don headphones for your struggle. Deciphering A7PHA’s coded messages is highly rewarding. Each successive listen reveals more subtle nuances in the chaos, more brilliant variations on tropes otherwise grown stale.
The album’s final track “Kingdom” might be its most accessible to those struggling with A7PHA’s unique brand of sci-fi necromancy. “Kingdom” opens as a tongue-in-cheek epitaph in the wake of all the murderous verses the album has wrought thus far. The vocal effects loosen their grip, allowing Doseone’s prowess as a writer to dazzle with darkness as he explores the freedom from suffering dying provides: “Death the only place Capitalism is not / Look at you / one palm-tree-free wild isle in a sea of rot.” He describes searching for meaning in life as, “projecting balance on mayhem,” dolling out an alien eye-roll at, “all the toil and tooth brushing of dust / off of giving a fuck it must take,” for humans to engage in the menial hassles they endure before their inevitable demise. Mestizo then swoops in to revisit A7PHA’s bloodthirsty tendencies one last time, before shouting out rapper and friend Cadalack Ron, who passed away during the recording of A7PHA. Zo’ ends the album with the line “Rest in power,” a fitting end for a record that orbits death so tightly.
There’s a moment on “Kingdom” where Doseone sums up his positive take on death with the line, “I got 99 problems, but my corpse got none.” Here Dose is at once reverently dapping-up the grim reaper with one hand, while sculpting hip-hop memes into something serrated, fresh, and totally his own with the other. This is a perfect microcosm of what A7PHA have managed to do throughout their debut. Vicious, dark, and bold, Mestizo and Doseone’s record is like nothing heard before on this planet. From a perspective heretofore foreign to this galaxy they inspect humanity’s ultimate fear, bending conventional styles to their unconventional whims with a matter of fact force not unlike gravity. If the apocalypse ever does occur, lets hope it sounds like A7PHA.