Review by Garrett Deming:
Set to a sparse musical dystopia, Dope KNife‘s NineteenEightyFour is equally imbued with autobiography, social commentary, Scorsese-esque noir, dark humor, and bombastic hip-hop authority. Dope KNife displays his signature style of savage wordplay over self-produced tracks composed of original live music and takes the listener on a dense tour through 21st century life.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I appear as a musician on this album. Some time last year I got a call from Dope KNife one random afternoon, asking me if I was free to come by the house and record some tracks. After spending a few hours improvising over rough drum beats, he explained his musical approach to the album. Rather than trolling music libraries for new samples, he’d decided to tap the local Savannah music scene for musicians. The musical result, after two years of work, is a record that sounds like a live band is backing up the vocals.
While the music itself has a unique character, it simply serves as the setting for the story of NineteenEightyFour. Just as the reader of Orwell’s novel feels the oppression of Winston Smith’s world, the listener of Dope KNife’s album can feel the grey walls, the decaying structures and souls of a confused world trying to express thought and feeling in a stifled and hostile environment. And, just like the book, the character in the forefront goes through mental and logistical gymnastics to seek freedom. At times KNife himself is the protagonist, as in the opener “Nothing To Lose,” where he documents his journey to find himself through different ages. Other times he serves as a twisted Master of Ceremonies — “They Live” has him introducing the ills of modern life as if he were the announcer of a macabre carnival show, and group tracks like “Your Tombstone” and “#SQUADHARD” see him sitting back and handing the mic over to others. Character pieces, like “Thought Crimes” and “Name Up,” put the vocalist in the roles of a regretful one night stand and an ego-maniacal fame junky, respectively, and show Dope KNife’s range both in delivery and in creative elbow-room.
There is, undoubtedly, a vaguely unsettling quality to the album as whole. A sense of paranoia runs as a constant thread, as does a certain chilliness. Quieter moments in “Memory Hole” and “Unperson” leave room for almost whispered confessions, as though the speaker understands the threats of speaking out. Like Winston and Julia in the novel, Dope KNife’s more candid verses communicate a complicit dissatisfaction, but unlike those characters KNife’s words display an understanding of the threats to his freedom. It is not until they are captured that the novel’s characters truly start to understand the inner workings of their state-based adversary. Conversely, Dope KNife jokes satirically about Citizens United, corrupt media structures, law enforcement abuses, and social pressure to conform. This sets Dope KNife’s NineteenEightyFour starkly apart from its namesake, and serves to show that this is not simply a musicalized version of the novel. Considering that NineteenEightyFour is the rapper’s birth year, there are evidently more layers to the choice of title.
Dope KNife’s NineteenEightyFour is perfectly timed to reflect a world of growing instability and turmoil. It seems the arts have but few choices in these days — the artists must either cater to the corporately-sponsored narratives and formulas, or else buck vehemently against them. While this album is certainly no political treatise, it vibrates fierce resistance and an appreciation for knowledge, honesty, and a backbone. As Dope KNife’s first release on the StrangeFamous label, NineteenEightyFour shows the vibrant possibilities of individual artists with full creative control as they pair with other independent media outlets. It also shows that hip hop is as vital as ever, as are all other genre of music underneath the surface of Big Brother’s sugar-coated media offerings.
Click here to purchase the album via Strange Famous Records. The album release show is on Friday, Jan. 27 at El-Rocko Lounge.