Luke Benjamin lives in Oregon, so he’s used to gray skies.
It’s hard to be both expansive and economical, insular and world-wise. To say that we live among such contradictions is true; the world is full of thorny dualities, among them DUE RENT, currently playing through my tangled headphones. A 22-song double-album from producer Swarvy and rapper iojii where most records check in just under 2 minutes, and most narratives are rooted in the particulars of empty stomachs and overdue checks. Still, the throughlines gesture toward universality in their unadorned cinema—no rosy broad strokes, just vérité born from over-observant eyes.
More than paradox though, DUE RENT is an album of in-betweenness. A meditation on liminal spaces, incomplete job applications sitting on the coffee table of a studio apartment. It’s not all despair—rather qualified happiness. It’s naturalism broken by hot coffee and the joy in having a friend’s couch to rest on. It’s nostalgic without being solely revivalist, featuring dense, bluntly incisive verses paced by the stuttering crinkle of snare drums. One of the album’s most trenchant moments is its first, the title number “due rent,” a two minute exercise in the terminal anxieties of the precariat—stretched thin from the first day of the month to the last and almost always a few dollars short.
The video for the Fresh Selects release falls out in unhurried black and white, which means it’s suffused in detached grayscale. Gray is a natural partner in that it can only be defined by absence, can only be understood as somewhere between black and white, differentiated by degrees of grayness. “due rent” is similarly steeped in absence: transient housing, left-over food from tables, and money from shallow pockets. The glass from both sides is half-empty and half-full; a consciousness aware of material limitations but content to get by until they improve.
To hear iojii himself tell it:
“I wanted to depict the backstory of the tape in a symbolic way. For those new to the project, the story is: I was short on rent one time, Swarvy loaned me money to cover it, then we decided to make a tape and slang it to make back the dough I owed him. We called it DUE RENT. This is the title track and first song on the tape – the video for it is a metaphor for our story. It’s me waking up, hitting the block and tryna slang raps for rent money.”
The gray is meted out so there is never too much white or black, every setback balanced with a dose of knowing confidence: “I ain’t make it yet, but I’m takin’ bets.” DUE RENT is living music, not made for the churn of conventional algorithms. It never postures or over-performs, just sits comfortably in its pocket of irrevocably good rap music.
Even when edging closer to darkness, sunnier threads abound, almost as if in reference to the dual locales that spawned it. It’s hard not to grasp at pieces of Philadelphia and Los Angeles in its composition, empty palm tree optimism shot through with learned pragmatism. The video bares this out, glimpsing into the less glamorous side of Hollywood heat—cardboard signs and taquerias that aren’t gluten free.
There’s perverse beauty in artistic toil, but less in bare cupboards and declined cards, so spend a little money on some raps before rent’s due. Your ears will pay you back in full come the 31st, even if you have to skip a latte.