Ben Grenrock put this piece in a time capsule.
I am going to die. And so are you.
We both have a finite amount of minutes, seconds, days, and years to listen to hip-hop and breathe air. Of course, deep down we all know this. To type it out loud isn’t just passé, it’s a squandering of a bit more of each of our existences.
But there are few things more human than to forget this fact, few things more jarring or powerful than being reminded of it. Often, it’s brought to our attention by diverse and unexpected catalysts—a glance at a plant mid-wilt or blooming, the death of something as culturally tenable as a celebrity, a rap album by a werewolf-masked drinker of cantaloupe juice—but whatever the source, the message is the same. Life is short. Nothing lasts. Relevance is relative.
Even sooner than you and I, this piece of writing is going to disappear. Pushed to the back of the leftward cycling center square of Passion of the Weiss’ most recent posts. Dropped down to the bottom of the page. And then gone. I only have so much time left and yet I’m pouring more and more of it into my screen, creating what’s essentially a review-shaped digital sandcastle. “Technology is stealing your time,” warns Dominique Purdy, a.k.a. The Koreatown Oddity, on his latest album’s closing track. So why am I letting it? Why are we sitting in front of our computers thinking about somebody’s rap album? Why are we letting anything non-essential, suck moments from the melting milkshakes of our lives?
These are the question explored on Finna Be Past Tense, The Koreatown Oddity’s first release on Los Angeles’ foremost label for mask-wearing hip-hop acts, Stones Throw Records. No critical séance was held to draw out this reading of the album; the message is on blatant display all the way up its lexical hierarchy. It’s right there in the lyrics (“Don’t think it can’t happen to you, it’s gon happen to me and all y’all/The inevitable curtain call”), the song names (“Regret Is Useless,” “Yesterday’s News”), and the title. Sonically too, impermanence haunts the record.
The beats produced by fellow Stones Throw signee Vex Ruffin buttress its Ozymandian thesis with sharply truncated samples on “Land Before Time,” silicon spider webs fluttering through “Technology After Time,” and horns on “They” that seem to be effected with an immortal delay until they disappear like a cloth swiped off of a crowded kitchen table. The void beckons in every track on Finna Be Past Tense and the artists behind it seem well aware that before long their album will be exactly that as well: past.
The idea that even an artifact such as the record itself has a limited lifespan explodes the traditional sort of commonality Purdy meditates on when rapping, “As the world be spinning on its axis/all of us livin’ in it be dealing with the madness,” to apply to pretty much everything that has ever existed. To give you an idea of just how macro The K Town Oddity is going with this, Finna Be Past Tense opens with the extinction of the dinosaurs and ends with him telling you to put down your smartphone.
By placing the disappearance of something as huge and corporeal as a Tyrannosaurus Rex in conversation with the ephemeral nature of a tweet, he intimates that not only are we all in this together, but that the agents of our differences and divergences, all the things that inform and inhabit our reality, are as ultimately irrelevant as the differences themselves.
Though unifying, under the weight of all this impermanence an existential crisis seems inevitable. But the record is filled with examples of everyday tactics for keeping nihilism at bay. Attempts to out bluster the grim reaper with braggadocio; acceptance and humility at the small part we have to play on the world’s stage; indulgence in pleasures of the flesh, psychedelic fungi, and tacos—all are flailed in the face of Father Time with the vain hope of hypnotizing him into a forgetful stupor. In contrast to these voluntary distractions from mortality are others of a more oppressive, external nature. The rent’s due on “Depressed But Hopeful.” On “They,” the rigged game of a systematically prejudiced society is near-impossible to win and harder still to transcend.
Yet in spite of all these worldly worries and frivolities Purdy does have and provide the answers to those big questions raised earlier. What should we do as we inexorably decay? “Hurry up and create stuff,” is his advice. But if what we create will just “Be yesterday’s news tomorrow,” why write? Why read? Why make a rap album? “The goal of life is to experience our essence. There is no higher attainment than this.”
How one goes about doing this is outlined on “Mood for the Grind.” The song features both the most aggressively driving beat on the record and the most passionate tone of voice from Purdy as he raps, “Keep moving/Keep grinding/Keep striving,” like a holy mantra. This solution doesn’t apply exclusively to rappers, writers, or even creatives. The lines, “We’ve all got a special strength so revise you’re strategy/analyze the data, then reclimb the ladder,” aren’t a call to ride talent to the top. Purdy doesn’t doom the “ladder” with a destination.
It’s the act of continuously, repeatedly climbing it—of cultivating your “special strength” whether that’s cross breeding sativas or impersonating a tanning bed with your friends—learning about yourself and continuing to refine and discover who you are, that locates meaning even in a reality where, “None of this shit even matters.”
And again, we already know all this. It’s not a revelation or a particularly original idea. Yet on Finna Be Past Tense the message feels earned because this ethos is inextricably ingrained in who The Koreatown Oddity is: an MC, producer, actor, screenwriter, and comedian so committed to the means rather than the ends of his art that repurposing a table at his local Wendy’s as a stage is more an act of survival than a publicity stunt. It’s not about the product, it’s about the process. The work. The grind.
This sentiment is less proselytized in Purdy’s lyrical content than conveyed by its form—an off-the-cuff, freestyley flow. His words often fall off the beat before doggedly climbing back into the pocket, dragging the perfect punch line into place. That’s not to say the raps are sloppy. This is intentional. It’s an aural metaphor for perseverance and a nod to a hip-hop aesthetic so pure that it grates against the conventions of recorded music.
Purdy’s verses sound like a masterful display of ciphering prowess, more at home evaporating on a street corner than in a recording booth. Even if these moments were flubs in the rapper’s flow, they could have been easily corrected by simply cutting another take. Left in the song they become a protest against perfectionism, an ode to loving rap because of how its mechanics and action make you feel rather than seeing the music as a vehicle for success.
This unvarnished, visceral purity makes Vex Ruffian a seamless fit for production duties. The raw immediacy of the punk music he draws from supports the lyrics impeccably. Though his is a completely unique backdrop for a rap album, he doesn’t rely on its novelty. Instead, sounds of feedback and wailing guitars join Purdy in striking an artful balance between the bleak and the comical. The anxiety within the kitsch of “A Break From the Drama of Life Drunk at the Wet T-Shirt Contest” is tuned to just the right frequency. Both producer and MC are maybe at their best on “Regret Is Useless,” where Purdy’s frank realism dances with a beat that sounds defeated until a whimsical horn lick punctuates each verse, prompting an uplifting observation from the rapper.
The effortless delivery, the comedic flourish, the Saturday morning cartoon interludes, the Stones Throw logo, the headgear—similarities between The Koreatown Oddity and legendary rapper MF DOOM are almost too easy to draw. In truth, it’s more interesting to look at their differences. DOOM excels at commenting on society from the outside in, sketching reality as a satirical comic book. Purdy’s commentary comes from within the machine. No matter how lofty his themes, he raps with feet planted firmly on the cement of Central Los Angeles. Despite the ever-present costume, his only persona is himself.
And this is why Finna Be Past Tense, a concept album about entropy, can’t implode from its metaphysical mass. Though its themes are huge, it’s hyper-realistic snapshots and willingness to laugh at itself and at a transient world, make it work. So whether it’s creating a birdfeeder, creating knowledge in your own head by reading, or creating an existential blog post about hip-hop, go create something. It won’t free you—or whatever you create—from this mortal coil, but that doesn’t make it a waste of time. Take it from The Koreatown Oddity: “We all bear witness to limited existence/so get yo’ ass off the couch n****, this ain’t The Simpsons.” It’ll feel good, and that’s enough.