Recent claims that hip-hop is “dead” have been confirmed by its increasing lack of identity. In the modern age, hip-hop has become something of a false art in many respects, a medium distorted to fit the commercial expectations of many a listener and few an artist’s vision. It says something about how the medium has changed that, when you ask somebody at a party to play a hip-hop song, all you hear are the abrasive synths of Lil’ Wayne or – even worse – the weed-whiny, self-righteous rhymes of Wiz Khalifa. Blue Scholars’ claim that “hip hop is not dead / it’s just malnourished and underfed” surely can’t be right either, because nobody seems to be feeding the point of the medium in the first place. Hip-hop has become, to quote New York rapper J-Live, a medium that is exploited by many yet understood by few.
Behold The Doppelgangaz, a duo from the out-outskirts of New York – a little town called Peekskill – who realize this painful deterioration. A generation of rappers inspired by the raw, masked poetry of MF Doom, the duo (Matter ov Fact and EP) attempt to find the role of the poet – the storyteller – in hip-hop, and Lone Sharks, their second LP which was released in 2011, both acknowledges and heals the decay of the medium while returning to the organic realness that characterized the best of the golden age of 90’s hip-hop.
A haunting vocal sample over a nostalgic piano sequence opens Lone Sharks, repeating “although you are full of misery / you have to learn to show a happy face.” It’s a haunting interlude even the first time you listen to it, precisely because of the way it defines the whole album’s sinister yet nostalgic atmosphere. It is the next track on the album, “Nexium,” which demonstrates the duo’s poetic ferocity: “On hip hop and nexium for three months / And still sober as day but acid reflux free,” EP says over a warm, steady piano sample complimented by a fixed, rhythmic beat. EP’s honesty is real, and the awareness of the “acid-reflux” free rhyme and production is something the duo maintain throughout the album.
“He seems so placid / It’s cuz his diet is lacking in essential amino-acids,” rhymes EP on “Get Em,” a mournfully charged allegory about a kid who, malnourished and unable to eat, cannot even go to the hospital to “even pay the stitchin’ fee.” Looped around a lonely rising sax sample, the song’s chorus screams “Get EM!” In its allegory, the song recalls Common’s classic “I Used to Love H.E.R” yet in the yearning of its beat the song becomes something of a dirge for the near-death of hip-hop.
The duo’s lyrical mastery is subtle and their flows are never forced, rather smooth, but there is something about the selection of their words and images which carries weight. The production of the album – co-produced by both members, without a single track from any other external producer – also carries this biting, sinister atmosphere. It’s certainly not inaccessible; in fact, it’s inviting precisely because of its mysteriousness. Characterized by its organic piano, guitar, and keyboard samples and matched by deep bass and drum lines, and haunted by its eclectic vocal samples, the production is thick and authentic, but most importantly, it is consistent.
It’s the final track on the album, “Suppository,” which matches production and rhymes masterfully, confirming The Doppelgangaz as nothing if not poets: a sample of bats leads way to a vocal sample of a laugh out of a horror film, as an enigmatic, airy piano chord loops around a rising, thumping bass and a simple jazzy snare. “Society’s secrets / black cloak mystique needs sequence,” rhymes Matter ov Fact in a smoothly assured manner. “And yo it’s cloaks not capes,” he rhymes. It is clear here the notion of the artist: like the masked MF Doom, he needs to be cloaked, not exposed; he needs to be man, not machine; and most importantly, he is not one figure but many.