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“I’d rather die than be complacent with the way that it goes,” Oddisee declares on “NNGE,” one of several tracks from his new album that aim to unravel listeners’ tightly wound spools of indifference. At 32 years old, the rapper has been working at a steady clip without much fanfare for more than a decade. 2015’s The Good Fight showed his fine-tuned, live-band sound; last year brought the instrumental Odd Tape, which highlighted his beat-making, and the anxiety-laden Alwasta EP, which foreshadowed The Iceberg. “Lifting Shadows,” a song from that release where the Sudanese-American MC worries that the government might be tapping his phone, feels prescient in the light of recent actions by President Trump: “That’s what makes this country great, it’s built by those who bleed/It’s built by those who came on boats, it’s built by those who flee… So if you just try to chop us down you only hurt your knees.”
That song provides an easy bridge to The Iceberg, a focused beam of hip-hop soul that rattles loudly in our present political moment. On “NNGE,” Oddisee reckons with the election of the new President from the perspective of someone familiar with government-sanctioned antagonism. “What is there to fear?/I’m from black America, this is just another year.” “Like Really” also calls attention to pervasive, systemic inequality. “Why a brother get three for a sack while your brother go free for raping?” Oddisee wonders. “How you made a film about Egypt with all lead roles caucasian?” Sexism gets a similar treatment in “Hold It Back,” the idea of which “annoys [him] more than cargo shorts.”
The backdrop for Oddisee’s cutting analysis is a continuation of the funky sound honed on his recent records. Limber runs from bassist Dennis Turner and quicksilver riffs from Olivier St. Louis flash through The Iceberg, and the programmed drums hit with a human player’s snap. St. Louis is also a gifted vocalist—during “Rain Dance,” a glittering, four-minute head-nod symphony, he tumbles into the track from above, shaking the walls with a wail that nods to the Temptations in the early ’70s.
Live-band hip-hop has cycled back into the mainstream again after more than a decade in the cold behind acts like Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper. Though in modern pop, rising tides do not lift all boats. It’s not clear if the success of the Kendricks and the Chances means that other rappers with a comparable approach can ride their coattails and enjoy the benefits of more listeners without needing to compromise their methods. Having support from gatekeepers helps with that process, and at least one gatekeeper is listening to Oddisee: “Like Really” premiered on Ebro’s Beats 1 program. But Oddisee has bigger fish to fry. Frequently on The Iceberg, characters seem stuck in entrenched paths dictated by America’s racist history, and the album ends at a stand-off. “We can’t agree on a thing,” Oddisee raps on “Rights and Wrongs.” “We both are beyond the games/But we still play.”Share