The Art of One MC and One DJ : Marlowe : An Album Review


by Mat Clouser


For more than forty years Hip Hop and Rap music have driven art and culture on a global scale, yet rarely are they given their propers alongside artists in other genres. There have been some critical darlings to get play in the high-end art world, such as DJ Spooky or Saul Williams (oh yeah, and that Kendrick guy got a Pulitzer in 2018), but by and large Hip Hop is Hip Hop on its own terms, redefining what art can be from the margins. Hip Hop has always been an outsider. Its success has always been in spite of, and directly in the face of the establishment (not to mention the academy), and it has persevered despite the constant racial discrimination, economic abandonment and straight-up plot to destroy many of its creators. 

Yet, not only does Hip Hop endure—it presses forward. One of the main reasons for this is Hip Hop’s post-modern sensibility—the crate diggers endlessly chopping, looping and mixing so many different heard and unheard sounds from the past and present, across time and space, into something brand new, something bigger. In the past, it’s been said by many a stodgy critic that “Rap is Crap,” that it shouldn’t be considered real music since nobody’s playing any real instruments. Not many remain who would decry the musicianship inherent to turntablism, and most of the old (predominantly white) critics of this new-style have either wised up, croaked, or taken Q-Tip’s advice and pushed it along back to whatever cave they crawled out of in the first place.  Hip-Hop is a classic built from other classics, and despite many of its problems (real and perceived), Hip Hop is an inclusive form more so than an exclusive one. Everybody can get down. 

At the forefront of this is the cumulative power of words and music—the most essential pieces of a rap record—are beats and rhymes. Each have an energy all their own, but when combined, they activate a super-powered sound greater than its component pieces—and one that endures as an evocative, highly danceable narrative vehicle, as well. Old heads Pete Rock and Mad Skillz knew the power of one MC and one DJ, and so do L’Orange and Solemn Brigham—the duo who’ve combined their supersonic powers to create the sample-heavy, old-school leaning, post-modern narrative-boom bap that is their new project, Marlowe.

The album has an anachronistic feel to it thanks to a slew of L’Orange samples, deftly interwoven to create a tenebrous texture that helps propel the story. And its main character—the mysterious Marlowe—goes through the ups and downs of an artist, writer, even sometime hustler who feels the consequences of taking action in a world that is not built for everyone, especially himself. It’s hard to listen to Marlowe and not contemplate all that may or may not be in a name. The story has an almost Faustian vibe, and one wonders if the Marlowe in question might be Christopher Marlowe, author of Doctor Faustus. The noir stylings of Raymond Chandler’s character, Phillip Marlowe, also come to mind, as does hustler extraordinaire, Marlo Stanfield from The Wire. L’Orange and Brigham have not gone so far as to explicitly state if any of those Marlo(we)s are what they had in mind, saying only that it was a character they wanted to use to tell a story. But more than any direct titular influence, Marlowe’s story is Hip Hop’s story, and the story of real and potential Hip Hoppers everywhere. It’s a human story of dedication, temptation, perseverance and loss. 

It’s all well and good to tell a story, of course, but in good music there has to be more substance than that.  As MC Shan once taught us, by way of Duke Ellington, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”  And so it goes with Marlowe. The beats are true to form for L’Orange, whose works with other MCs such as Kool Keith, Mr. Lif and Jerimiah Jae have earned him a reputation amongst crate diggers, producers and Hip Hop fans across generations. Marlowe’s production feels at home with most styles, featuring a mix of fuzzed out, tremolo soaked, electric jazz guitars, jaunty piano lines, epic horn breaks, abstracted backing vocals and bass and percussion both tight and loose as the story demands. The beats are a lesson in Music, Pop Culture and Hip Hop History, with L’Orange sampling everything from Marvel’s Mole Man to John Cacava’s “Agent Who.” The result feels like a straight line to the production of such luminaries as J-Swift, J-Dilla, Madlib, RZA, MF Grimm, DOOM and Count Bass-D among others. It’s safe to assume that any fans of the so-called golden era of Hip-Hop will feel right at home here—and there’s enough head nods for a dude like Busta Rhymes to get his neck into some real trouble.

Solemn Brigham, a heretofore little-known MC and longtime friend of L’Orange, is not here for any talk of nepotism. He’s not along for the ride, in fact, he’s downright despotic on tracks like “Demonstration,” “Medicated,” “Palm Readers,” and “Mayday,” among others. His style is both varied and consistently strong throughout, always harkening back to that golden-era vibe, though there are glimpses old-Kanye-esque flows and the occasional dabble into a more sing-song style. Brigham isn’t going to weigh you down with attempts to be overly verbose, nor will he kill you with too much attempted wit, and certainly not in any attempt to shock or belittle with vulgarity. There is no overt swag here, no weaponized sex or status. Take for example these lines from first verse of “Lost Arts:”

Revolution is knockin'
Resolution is knowledge
Get yo hand out my pocket
No weapon made can conquer my inner pain
I started my evolution of rhymin', persecuted, indicted
They instituted the violence that started my defiance
Give no respect or alliance
Less men get rich than ones who die tryin'
Less making commitments, dollars have no pious
Show you how to move in a den full of lions
If the dinner ain't cookin' you gotta know where to find it
Even if you paint pretty, you can't change the climate of my inner sanctum
My hard work is thankless, bold print the statement
I could show you somethin' that's suited for all ages
Back when I used to hide the heist in crawlspaces…

The rhymes are tightly crafted, in lock step with the beat, always moving the story ahead. There are no verbal fireworks here, per se, so much as an uncanny workmanship that might go overlooked on the first listen. If ever you need to explain what it is to ride a beat, then Brigham’s work on Marlowe would do nicely to show and prove. Solemn Brigham can flat out bust a flow.

It may never be that Brigham and L’Orange start booking gallery shows or start selling out museums. One imagines they’re okay with that—more to the point, it’s not the point of what they do—they’re content to be making music in the lab somewhere, content to put it out and watch other people bob their heads. Art is rarely defined by the critics so much as it is by the artists and their audience. Hip Hop has been telling us this story for its whole life. Hip Hop is a medium that touches on so much more than its five elements—Bboying, MCijng, DJing, Graffiti and Beatboxing—it’s a medium that can unite all kinds of people through a recontextualization of sounds that we’ve known before, through ideas that come from us all. Hip Hop can build a bigger love from all our smaller loves. Hip Hop is, and is about, triumph. Brigham and L’Orange understand this, it’s why they go to the lengths they do for their music, why they spend hours poring over samples and perfecting flawless sixteens instead of mashing synths and crooning auto-tune (though that too can slap). It’s why the success of an artist or an art form isn’t built from mainstream acceptance, nor should mainstream, establishment or academic acceptance be the primary goal of any artist.  Marlowe is a record that belongs to outsiders all over the world, and it’s a gift from L’Orange and Solemn Brigham. It’s their energy, their art. It’s dope. Enjoy it.