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Sun-Ui Yum is your least favorite rapper.
The nebulous subgenre of “art rap” is intentionally cerebral. At its fiery apex (Hellfyre Club in 2013 and 2014) it was unmatched, stacked with meanings and emotions, but it was also fundamentally designed to be dense. Its wordplay was not just for the sake of wordplay; too often, art rap mired itself in muddiness, becoming music that lost itself in its self-reflection. It was too often a dissection of one of hip-hop’s core building blocks, but a single-minded one.
Freehold, New Jersey rapper Ehiorobo—working here under side-name “tsar of gamble”—only looks inside to live outside: the classical art rap obsessions (for words, for momentary dips into spoken word, for foreign breakdowns) are redirected, back towards the music. His words amble off into the air, wobbling. a furnace in the coin fountain finds its life in an avidity for words, a minor obsession with the way that syllables skirmish and interlock and carry along trains of thought in ways unconventional.
Highlight track “ricochet” holds a singular word at its core, but its story unfolds outward, spiraling. “I heard he keeps a journal with emotional war cries/ I done seen him break it all over the lunch table” is an image that reaches forward in time from where it’s planted, deep in our memories, zooming past 2:30pm class bells and textbooks slamming down in lockers. Ehiorobo is a showman, but one as enamored with the envelope as much as the letter.
The high point of the entire project takes place just a minute in. “dibloons//fountains” marches forward with a hop in its step, then trips (“too fast, and now my paint job’s gone”), and then stumbles, and then full-on collapses into itself in its second half. The melodies are fundamentally pop, delivered bywails that might’ve been transplanted onto something more “accessibly” dark in 2010 (think Doc McKinney and The Weeknd), but instead they’re caught in the crossfire between barrage of synths. Ehiorobo’s new name is freeing: his primary works are more sparkly, 2018 retrofitted, and he’s a fully viable pop singer that’s working with popular electronic producer Flamingosis on a full project. “glide” is the best kind of hit, but this is the best kind of hit denial.
The abstraction that he embraces here—stage name, title, lyrics—teeters on the verge of self-cannibalizing (self-indulgent, maybe, too), but it’s controlled and delivered in the proper dose. It does not exhaust its welcome. Ehiorobo has only walked an album’s length into his career, 2016’s mellowed limeade, but a furnace is the platonic ideal of early-career experimentation, a spreading of wings and a honing of blades.
He sounds stronger, clearer, and the music is better; the dissonance here heralds an artist finding his voice. The pause is always as important as the voice; note how the most hollowed of these songs (the ramp-up in “took”) lets its lines dangle, then drop. Some of it feels reminiscent of adolescent Tyler, the Creator, in the era where he began to redirect his dissonance into something more comfortable, a steady-state to be disrupted in bursts, measured chaos. Like its cover art, a furnace feels like an ocean surface: shapes lurking underneath it, occasionally rising to sea level to raze it with their fins.