Travelogue: Day 2 in D.C. / ON THE WIRE: E. Oks “Back Up, Black Out”

About a month ago, I met Evan Okun purely by accident when I attended his solo show back in at the Bowery Poetry called “Unlearn A Chair.” The title was already bizarre to begin with, and I had tagged along with some revolutionary spoken wordiest, members of DarkMatter, so assuming this was appropriate, I proceeded to prepare a plate of negative sentiments in my mind, maintaining a demeanor of unimpressed boredom from the lack of an overt political agenda in the showcase. The evening hosted some of the most mind bubbling spoken wordists of the tri-state area with performances that actively challenged social constructions of good and bad, tacit and explicit culture, and other conventions that dominate our epistemologies of ourselves and our ability to re-imagine the world. While seen freestyling over an a-rhythmic jazz drum and snare beat, Okun finally caught onto my condescending attitude as I stared him down with a yawning grief, handing off his mic to me to say something. I burned with a spicy burden when the stage lights flooded my seating area, cameras video recording this impromptu performance, capturing every second I was being crushed by this squeezing pressure.

E. Oks @ NYC Bowery Poetry Club
E. Oks @ NYC Bowery Poetry Club

I went into “fight/flight” mode and snatched the mic, thinking I had nothing to lose besides my already depleting sense of self, hopped on stage, and co-spitted a freestyle with Evan for about 10 minutes straight. From this experience, I knew that this kid – the spoken wordist, lyrical genius, battle-rapping ready, college-educated, profound, and self-starting soul – was going to become a serious contender in the ever-growing hip-hop underground scene emerging out of NYC this season. Released back in August of last year, E. Oksmost recent record Back Up, Black Out has made a lot of noise on the indie rap radar from his asymmetrical flow and lyricisms that have earned him much deserved stripes, allowing him to stand strong up against his musical counterparts. After giving his mixtape a hefty listen through this week, I became compelled to put one of his toughest tracks off the EP, “Float,” on EARFLOAT Radio’s Summa Cum Laude compilation mix as an artist to look out for in 2014. Thereafter, I kept the rest of the tape in steady rotation alongside others on the compilation for a little over a week in hopes to one day write up a review.

So, here I am, sitting on this tape for almost a week now, contemplating how I should approach reviewing this piece of cryptic art – a body of gorgeous work nonetheless, incredibly full of layered complexity, themes deep in spiritual science and laws of physics crusting the exterior, molding itself into a glass elevator built in an iron tower with floors made of differential understanding, of knowing and not knowing, of our most burning why’s and how come’s, later liquidated into a broth of earthy stew eaten with the utensils of hip-hop linguistics and symbiotic discourse. Hot off the streets of Washington Heights, the revolutionary hip-hop alchemist has indisputably sparked a lot of heat with his sobering rhymes, screwy logic, spiritual reckoning, philosophical flow, and battle rapping bars. Sampling components of the human voice as fundamental instruments to produce jarring beats and tracks, Oks’ use of harmonic guest vocals, bi-lingual lyricisms, the drum and bass nostalgic of traditional mixtape rap, and boundless vocabulary reveals an audacious character and lyrical finesse that our world’s golden hip-hop age will remember for the decades.

Video for the album. Free DOWNLOAD: e-oks.bandcamp.com
Video for the album. Free DOWNLOAD: e-oks.bandcamp.com

Yesterday, I spent a total of 12 hours listening to Oks’ tape to determine my objective view on this body of work. From the 13 tracks, I’ve picked 8 that I felt were the most exceptional and representative of his aesthetic, flow, craft, reason, epistemology, and overall character as an artist and creative human being. This was a tough analysis, however, here are my final thoughts:

8. Drip, Drop (Ft. Marguerite Golé)

A belly full of alliterated bars and rhymes, E. crescendos with fury in a non-linear tale on the simple yet intricate manifestations of existence and truth over a serenading feature by Golé. A folklore of emotions and sensations anthropomorphized with narratives on the genesis of man in language juxtaposed with unlike meanings, Oks’ transcends the track’s heavy philosophical themes with continuous word play and repetition. Sitting in the middle of an empty room on a carpeted floor, blinds pulled back to let the snowy sun spill into the center of your lap, distorted sounds of a piano echo and reverb in and out of your space. A voice down the hall beckons listeners with a gentle reproach. Ending in a fizzing of matter ceasing to no longer be. A genuine listening experience. I have a large appreciation for this particular track, admiring Oks’ use of bare instrumentation to avoid the risk of grandiose and overly embellished beats drowning out his eccentric rhymes. A really great track to end the record with.

7. Clair De Lune (Written by Claude Debussy, refracted by Ada Okun)

I may be a bit biased with putting this in my top picks for review because I, too, am a composer and singer-song writer. Living with a sister who also fills my home with vanilla warm melodies and congenial ballads from the seat of her piano, I have grown to have a quiet compassion for pianists. Oks’ features his sister on his record with a refracted ballad that swarms the heart with a deepness that adds classical value to the tape’s overall sound. According to Evan, the piece was thought up by writer Claud Debussy, and then “reflected by his hands. The energy of that piece was then absorbed on a piece of paper, then bounced into [his] sister’s eyes and out her fingers. And with each step, it became something different.” This insight reveals to listeners that while synths and midi beat pads can make for a dope track, Oks’ deep appreciation for real instrumentation trumps all. A lovely addition to the EP, this 6-minute interlude is a nice touch and caters to a larger audience that transcends hip-hop and traditional rap.

Additional notes from Evan:The title’s literal translation “Clair de Lune” means “moonlight” in French. It meaning “Moonlight” was a huge coincidence. I had decided I wanted to give [my sister] some shine (her quiet perfection does not get spot light), because at the time, the only track I had of hers was that, so I decided on using it. The idea was that “Clair De Lune” would function as a mirror, through which the first half of my album would reflect into the second. For this reason, each track has a refracted name on the flip side – i.e., 1st one is “Boom, Bang” and the last one is “Drip, Drop”; 2nd is “All Relative” and 2nd to last is “All Dissolve” etc.

6. Boom, Bang

Oks most likely will cringe from this critique, but this track is incredibly nostalgic of the mixtape, 8-mile, battle rapping, brunette haired Marshall Mathers III in his days running with Obie Trice and D12 that we all grew to know and love. An Eminem if he did a sober rendition of Usher’s “Confessions” about his early insecurities in adolescence and youth, E. tours us through this grungy track with a bitter flow, speaking of his path into rapper-dome and of early beginnings of doubt and spiritual reprise. Responding to critics of his method of code-switching in his speech when in and out of the booth, E. proclaims that that inflection in his rapper’s voice is not a result of epidermal mimicry, but of “refracted light”, utilizing lived experience and influences to transform his aesthetic and sound through his rapping medium. Oks has defined this term by moments when light bounces off a surface becomes changed by the material that reflects it – and in this case, manifestations of life, truth, humanity, and knowledge. He compares this moment with a large metaphor of the moon’s illumination at night:

You see the moonshines

When it goes black at night,

Cause a million sunrays

Incessantly pat the white

[face of the] Moon

Then ricochet off my floor and up into my face when I’m pacing my room.

(What the -). This knocking beat definitely bumps nicely; and with the proper stereo speakers, you can also hear West Coast influences of dissonant notes from electric keys that underlay the track’s fleeting flow. Indeed, this track is nothing short of scathing insanity.

5. The Feature (Ft. Tory Mathieson)

I am super critical of artists who flow over tracks by the G.O.A.T.’s. Probably about 4 out of 5 times, I will think the rendition is trash or a sloppy copy of a classic flow already done. But there are those rare times in my life when my ears are in agreement with different flows over familiar beats. Using Jay Z’ s “Parking Lot Pimpin’“, E. lays down a great track, sharp in execution and flow. He begins with a question, asking, “Dawg, what you gonna do with this beat / that my man / Jigga man / didn’t do to at his peak?” Answer: Oks plays with different flows and rhythms, stretching and riding out the beat as long as able to exhaust all possibilities in bar construction. E. transforms The Dynasty‘s track with an incidental element of feminism in allowing his female feature to be able to reverb her vocals clearly in between in his flow – literally “letting the feature shine.” I respect the effort of Oks on this track, though, I kind of wish he featured another emcee on the track to keep to the aesthetic of the original score. Otherwise, well done.

4. Moving On (Ft. Quasimodal)

Thrown down a rabbit hole coated in haunting a’capella harmonies, golden with sounds of sweet sopranos, tenors, bass, blended with calypso hand claps, mushrooming into a explosive choir in a flaring crescendo of swollen energy, and setting up the ground below where E. Oks lands and attacks the track over the human beat-boxed beat. One of his more funky tracks, E. uses his lyrical ingenuity to engineer an incredibly dynamic track with narratives of confusion, passion, and commitment soaked in streams of consciousness, solidified with the harmonious gumbo of voices from Wesleyan University’s oldest coed a’cappella group, Quasimodal. Minimalist in nature, this is definitely one of the more creative tracks off the album that would make for interesting imagery alongside “Clair De Lune”.

3. All Relative

Oks is an extraordinary mad scientist of sights and sound. Philosophical, deep with world knowledge and experience, as well as hold a peculiar perspective on a wide range of topics, this dreamy track takes listeners through the fragments of E.’s thoughts, showing off his singing skills in a floating stream of consciousness, with a ice blue flow, sifting through reversed sounds, overlaid on a bouncing bass and drum beat. His fluency in Spanish and incorporation of his bi-lingual skills in a productive manner really mess with the listeners concentration in trying to catch up with juxtaposed metaphors and digesting their messages all at the same time. Cracking open the window to his struggles in adolescence, listeners get glimpse of the rapper’s naked vulnerability captured quite beautifully on this well made track. I now understand his explanation on reflection/refraction, and applaud him for such a daring methodology.

2. Nadie’s Faded

Probably the most hype track on the album, Oks begins with a skit with a group of quasi-conversational voices in a rap cypher, all of which are heard hackling E. about being “a white boy from the West Side.” E. brushes off the slander and starts off his piece with a mouthful of brass-knucled rhymes, slaying his competitors with: “I rock so hard I got moss in my mic/ Cause all of my life I lived in Washington Heights / And yeah I’m from the west, but the places that I get around/ Make your whole hood look like a Levitt town.” With soft clean guitar melodies, scratchy bass and snare, and a Compton sound that displaces the track from the whole core aesthetic of the EP, the mix of Spanglish and trippy lyrical content makes for an incredible piece that reveals E.’s versatility in and out of his enigmatic suit he wears as an artist. Again using his bi-lingual skills and mixing Spanglish in with bars that would not be traditionally honored to be parallel with each other by conventional grammar, Oks proves he truly has is a mic controller, having absolute control over his rhymes and flow. Overall, this is track you need to add to the soundtrack of your next cypher, all equipped with honey-dipped dutches and seedless swishers.

1. Float

One of the hardest tracks I’ve ever heard from an unsigned artist besides Luck-One Conscious’ “Hold On,” this part trap beat, part siren song, part horror film score, is insane with a minimalist beat, morbid lyricism, raw with incessant critique of suburban and middle-class upbringing, neighborhoods littered with college-aged drug addicts, unmanageable expectations of youth, and dialogue on the social constructions of class and belonging, racism, colonialism, slavery, white terror, and Western political tyranny. I knew from the first listen through, I had to put this track on Summa Cum Laude. Undoubtedly, it definitely deserves its number-one spot on this review, as it brings new meaning and rounded perspective to the conversation on the possibilities of what rap and hip-hop can sound like and become with sonorous evolution. While discussing topics that would be considered conspiracy theories or rants on the political misgivings of our nation’s crumbling government structures if spoken about through another medium, Oks does a great job in being articulate and clear on this track, dodging its compartmentalization into the genre of “conscious rap,”. A beast in its own right, “Float” gets extra points for being bold in content and unapologetic in flow.

All in all, I consider this to be a most impressive record for an unsigned artist. From production value to the creative content building, the dedication, strength, rage, control, inventiveness, and visionary character of this record will surely take Evan to unfathomable heights of success and accomplishment. I am incredibly excited for his career to only sky rocket into unmentionable levels from here on out. There is also some talk of Fuse TV wanting to do a special on “Unsigned Rappers”, and solicited the NYC rapper to participate. Let’s hope this becomes fulfilled fairly soon. I’d be interested in how well the public receives him.

To download Back Up, Black Out, go on our “Mixtapes + Compilations” page.

To stream the EP, refer to the player below.

Remember, to always support local music and movements. Enjoy.

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