By Bobby Bickley
Montreal-based hip hop producer, Kanye West collaborator, and TNGHT boy band member Lunice released his first full length album, CCCLX this Friday, September 8. Aside from a handful of remixes and assorted original tracks, Lunice had been largely silent since his 2015 release, 180 EP.
CCCLX opens with what is essentially a thesis statement on the first track, CCCLX (Curtain) [feat. CJ Flemings]. Over a very Blade Runner-esque instrumental, Flemings raps about the importance of innovation (“something new”) and timelessness in music. Lunice’s ominous arpeggios and detuned melodies coupled with Flemings’s foreboding lyrics (“never sleep / save your life / save your woman / save your soul”) develop an anxious atmosphere, while simultaneously promising to deliver something the listener has never heard before.
Track 2, Tha Doorz, begins with a plucked melody that would have worked very well in any one of the Nightmare on Elm Street films. After a short percussion build, Lunice gifts unto us the grittiest bassline heard since Vince Staples & SOPHIE’s “Yeah Right.” Instrumental though it may be, the raw energy and phenomenal production of Tha Doorz carries the track perfectly well. The addition of an extremely sinister church organ melody in the track’s second half seals the deal. It is more or less a song about a halloween party gone horribly wrong, but in a cool way.
Scottish maximalist pop producer SOPHIE immediately makes his presence known on Drop Down, providing listeners with signature blips® for a few seconds before the track’s grime-influenced beat appears. Eccentric NY rapper Le1f delivers a charismatic performance as the track builds in intensity. An extremely strained vocal autotune effect is added later in the track, providing an additional dose of the off-the-wall experimentation you’d expect from a collaboration between these three artists.
On Elevated, Lunice builds one of the most compositionally dense songs on the album, complete with choir and orchestra samples, only to overhaul the beat around the two minute mark. Bars from CJ Flemings and King Mez would have been a complete surprise had their names not appeared in the track list.
Mazerati marks the return to the sinister mood established at the beginning of the album. A faceless, pitched-down villain repeats the track’s mantra, “Mazerati” as the track’s swirling synthesizer layers build in intensity. When the beat comes in, it is aggressive, but somehow the track holds something back, as if it is still brooding. Emotional complexity like this is rare in instrumental music, and while part of me wishes Rick Ross would make an unannounced appearance here, it is not at all difficult to appreciate the song for what it is.
CJ Flemings appears for the third and final time on Freeman, alongside rapper Speng, for what is arguably his best performance on the album. As Fleming relentlessly rhymes in triplets, Lunice crafts another harmonically rich beat, making further use of choir samples. Equal parts eerie and exalted, Freeman provides the perfect segue into the album’s intermission track.
Lunice proves himself a talented composer and arranger on CCCLX II (Intermission). A solo piano introduction gives way to a sparse beat, upon which layers of beautiful orchestral instrumentation are stacked. The piano makes another appearance by itself at the end of the track. My official advice: buy stock in Lunice movie soundtracks while you still can.
On Distrust, Lunice’s production is as refreshing and interesting as ever. He also expertly juggles lyrics from three different rappers. Listeners can imagine a particularly focused freestyle cypher as the three trade bars about self-reliance and skepticism for authority. (“I can’t even trust the tiniest voices that’s in my head / so I only trust my gut instinct, that’s enough said”). While J.K. The Reaper and Nell are both at the top of their respective games on this track, Denzel Curry’s growled hook towards the end of the track places him comfortably in the lead. For the last thirty seconds of the track, an entirely new & wonderfully bizarre instrumental appears, complete with old school dubstep drums. If anything, I wish some of Lunice’s more left-field experiments on this album stuck around for longer.
CCCLX III (Costume) with Mike Dean calls back to the cyberpunk aesthetic from the introduction track. Compositionally interesting and texturally lush, Costume sounds like a missing song from the Tron Legacy soundtrack, from an alternate reality where Tron Legacy was a much better movie.
O.N.O, the penultimate song, is both a pearl and an oddity in the track list. The percussion is relentlessly dense, with multiple rhythms vying for attention, even as the overall flow of the track maintains a certain dirty south trap flavor. The insectile drones and synthesizer textures that appear in the second half only add to the song’s intrigue and sinister attitude. Over a number of listens, O.N.O has only grown on me, and I expect it will continue to do so.
CCCLX IV (Black Out) begins with muffled choir samples. Montreal vocalist Syv De Blare’s unique voice cuts through these easily, singing in French as the track metamorphoses from an ambient soundscape to a nicely paced club track. Lunice closes the album on a high note with a nod to his home city.
CCCLX represents some of Lunice’s best work yet. Speaking with multiple voices through an impressive roster of guests, the Montreal producer manages to give the album a coherent arc, and maintains focus on specific themes: innovation, creative longevity, and autonomy. Lunice’s production is both nuanced and gripping; it steals the show when it is on its own, and elevates vocalists when it is not. Many of the album’s experimental moments pay off, and guest performances are uniformly impressive. If popular hip hop sounded like this in five years, it would not be at all surprising.