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“Up until this summer it never occurred to me—oh shit, if they google me, it’s a wrap”, Brian Ennals says with a smile on his face. He tells it through a phone camera from his car, ducking out of his day job to do an interview over Zoom. The voice behind King Cobra made one of the the most fearless rap albums of 2022 and presents an absolute master class in contrasts. “I say some pretty inflammatory things and it’s a relatively conservative work environment. They may fire me when they find out.”
He has a chuckle at what he describes as a ‘Clark Kent / Superman type of situation’, but unlike the mild-mannered reporter and his Kryptonian alter ego, Ennals never thought of separating his creative and work life through an alias. He looks like someone who would be hard to get into an argument with. A guy with a friendly face and the sort of balmy laughter that could smooth anything over. That this same man delivers unflinching bars like “Chris Dorner is a muthafuckin’ legend” followed with “after we eat the rich / then we gon’ murder the reverend” somehow feels fitting though. Because he does so over bouncy synthesizer funk that sounds like it comes from a parallel universe where Egyptian Lover was once signed to Def Jux.
Those soundscapes come courtesy of Tariq Ravelomanana, aka Infinity Knives, a fellow Baltimorean who grew up living in several different African nations, and absorbed its musical traditions with the same zeal he has for the punk tunes from that other continent he calls home. “I just love music. If I hear something I want to emulate it. Whether it’s Wu-Tang or 2Pac. My first introduction to music was Bob Marley, but I’ll do polka if I have to. Music just touches me. And it gets more pronounced as I grow older. The album is an homage to 20th Century recorded music.” If that sounds like a net cast impossibly wide, rest assured that it just means the composer is unconcerned with musical dogma of any kind. “I used to live in a punk house, with a lot of guys in punk and metal bands. They were so militant about genre purity. I was like a pariah, because I never wore the right clothes and stuff like that. I never gave a fuck—I just liked the music.”
As disparate as his influences may be, Ravelomanana did have a clear idea of the direction in which he wanted to head on King Cobra. “I wanted to make a John Carpenter rap album. That’s where a lot of the uncomfortable synthesizers come from; a fictional 2001, sort of cheesy in that sense. These really hard synthesizers and those melodic lines, minor keys, and then these heavy-hitting drums on it. Like an ‘80s action movie.” Added onto the swooping melodic flourishes are some hard to define gritty textures, which make the largely electronic album sound remarkably human. “There’s a warmth,” Ennals says, to which his creative partner agrees. “I play guitar or piano on some of the songs, so it’s not all electronic. It’s a marriage of artificial and organic, but the artificial definitely stands out. By design.”
Again, contrasts. They can be found in how many of the tracks sound jubilant, despite their subject matter often being beyond bleak. It’s an unceasing parade of the many failures of late-stage capitalism, but instead of sitting amid the flames pretending that ‘this is fine’, Brian Ennals and Infinity Knives party like it’s 1999. “With all the dark stuff being talked about, there’s a sense of humor to it as well. A bit of a wake”, Ennals feels. That sense of humor can even be found in the interplay between music and lyrics, like when the rapper declares his distaste for a certain politician. “Fuck Ted Cruz forever / I hope he gets stabbed”, Ennals spits with his chest out, a line which is underscored by an actual synth stab. “That’s very intentional, for sure”, he remarks laughing.
The moment also reveals how closely in tandem the multi-instrumentalist and vocalist collaborate. “The first time I worked with Brian, I had him rap to a metronome, and built a beat around it”, the musician reveals. “Now I’m more aware of how he works, and I can give him a skeleton of a beat. He then sends me a cellphone demo. I listen to his rhymes, write some notes and suggestions about what to put where, and then he’ll give me another demo, and I start switching the beat around. There’s a lot of back and forth. Eventually we go into the studio, but there’s a lot of planning that goes in before that.”
How carefully they constructed the album is also revealed by some of the lyrical callbacks between songs. There’s the two songs sang by Allison Clendaniel that bookend the album, the connections between ‘The Culling’ and ‘Milk & Codeine’, and on ‘A Melancholy Boogie’, Ennals raps about missing his dad, while two songs later on ‘Don’t Let The Smooth Taste Fool You’, he ends a verse by off-handedly remarking how he doesn’t really miss his dad. It invokes an unreliable narrator on an album that sounds brutally honest on an emotional level. “‘Melancholy Boogie’ had to be before ‘Don’t Let The Smooth Taste Fool You’, so the punchline lands. Two songs of setup before the punchline lands”, he cheerfully notes. “It’s just an honest feeling, sometimes I miss him, sometimes I don’t.”
King Cobra delivers the acerbic pang of harsh truths through tracks that have a genuine bop to them. Cynicism and violence waltz along celebrations of life, often even in lockstep with each other. ‘Don’t Let The Smooth Taste Fool You’ could very well serve as a tagline for the album as a whole, and perhaps not coincidentally, was just that for the beer it is named after. “It was their slogan in the eighties”, Ennals remembers. “You’d get blackout drunk if you drank two King Cobras. There’s something in the fermentation of malt liquors, man. Those things will destroy you.”
The album would too, if its sequencing had been constructed less meticulously. “The pacing of it, we had to make sure it wasn’t too depressing. The way the album works out as a whole, there are some instrumental backings that sort of jerk you back to a meditative state. Just so it stayed human”, Ravelomanana notes. “We didn’t want to come off as preachy or self-righteous. A lot of it is us talking to each other”, he remarks. “It’s very much how we relate, and how our conversations tend to go”, Ennals adds. “We’re talking about what’s going on in the world, and on the flip side, you have stuff that’s very profane or vulgar. That’s how we talk to each other, what our conversations consist of. That’s what the album really is reflecting; our rapport as friends.”
The deliciously pointed way in which they present the art resulting from those talks, sounds like a breath of fresh air in an age where unceasing bothsides-ism often ends up derailing a healthy discourse. It’ll indubitably rankle feathers though. “Brian doesn’t give a fuck. His credit score couldn’t be worse anyway”, one half the duo jokes. “There’s artists, especially comedians, who claim they’ll say awful shit for the sake of pushing boundaries—but it’s always pushing down. Pushing down at gay people, being transphobic; you’re not pushing boundaries. The establishment has always been doing this. Oh, you’re making fun of people being killed for being transgender? That’s what Brian and I concluded: fuck that.”
He’s quick to add that the album’s outspokenness is taking themselves to task as much as it is about the world around them. “It’s being self-critical of us as people. With him orating, it comes across as us speaking to an audience. But it’s really a letter to us. Because I’m not impervious to propaganda, or capitalist tendencies or desires.”
Much of their dialogue surrounding that idea boils down to Ennals’ bar “How do you expect the oppressor, to act like anything but an oppressor? / But you don’t want revolution, n****, you want a Tesla”. It’s one of the album’s many examples of the rapper distilling big ideas down to powerfully succinct lines that land like punches to the gut.
“That line is actually a big punctuation mark in the record”, Ravelomanana says. “We talk a big game about ‘You can’t have this without a civil war’, you know?—Man, I’m fucking lazy. I like to sit in my house, drink, and enjoy these creature comforts that have been provided to me, through exploitation of other people. When he said that line, he wasn’t talking about anybody specific, he was literally talking about me and him. ‘Cause I want to buy my grandma a pearl necklace, through music, eventually. I want to buy a home, and all that. All these little luxuries. But I’ll also fight for what I believe in.”