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Kevin Abstract – ARIZONA baby Review

April 29, 2019 | Posted by David Hayter
Kevin Abstract
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Kevin Abstract – ARIZONA baby Review  

1. Big Wheels
2. Joyride
3. Georgia
4. Corpus Christi
5. Baby Boy
6. Mississippi
7. Use Me
8. Peach
9. American Problem
10. Crumble
11. Boyer

Three sweet years have passed since Kevin Abstract dropped his astonishing, opinion-splitting sophomore album, American Boyfriend, but it may as well have been a lifetime. In the interceding years Abstract’s solo work has faded into the background as his self-styled boyband (indie-rap posse) Brockhampton have become billboard chart-toppers over the course of four agenda setting LPs.

In one sense, Kevin Abstract is at his absolute zenith. In the eyes of most music fans ARIZONA baby is the successor to Brockhampton’s Iridescence. This Abstract’s chance to stake his claim to the rap throne: the voice of a new youth raised in Odd Future’s collectivistic, norm shattering, image. The strange thing is, when you press play on his third studio album, Brockhampton couldn’t be further from the listener’s mind. Kevin Abstract immediately pulls us into far more intimate confines. We are back in the headspace (if not the sound) of  2016’s American Boyfriend, a world of heartfelt over-earnest emotion and dirty looks from society at large.

Abstract’s music is vulnerable in the extreme and easy to critique. It’s not hard to imagine a reviewer running through a big checklist, ticking off each of ARIZONA baby’s overt influences one by one, but that would miss the point entirely. It is transparently obvious that Kevin Abstract is an original, not in sound, but in being. He is going to lay himself out there in a way that invites ridicule, but that allows him to both indulge and invert the well established tropes of hip hop. What’s remarkable is that this largely unanchored, gently meandering album is so thematically coherent: ARIZONA baby is about love, true love, and how, when you have it, it inhabits and re-contextualizes every aspect of your life and past experience.

This might sound like a fairly typical theme for R&B, but it still feels shocking avant garde in the world of rap. What makes Abstract particularly compelling is that his vision of love is almost entirely detached from sex. There are coy allusions – at a pivotal moment he falls asleep on his boyfriend, feeling each breath as he lies on his chest – but these snapshots aren’t erotic in the slightest, they are about companionship, comfort and symbiosis. These sentiments charge ARIZONA baby with a beautiful energy which colors each delicious guitar lick, sultry bass line or breezy fill.

Kevin has a real knack for leading the listener in a familiar direction, only to flip the script. “American Problem” is a classic rag to riches tale of school yard escapist dreaming, that suddenly jerks from a universal narrative to something undeniable specific:

I wanna be paramount/I want to move far away, buy my parents a house/I was obsessed with a blouse/I just liked the way it looked/I thought a brother was cute…/I was breaking the rules, I was a flaming faggot/That’s what my principal called me, not to my face, but I felt it when I was stuck in his office”.

This is a clever narrative trick that Abstract reproduces with regularity. His torment is his own, but his sorrow is not dissimilar to million wannabe rappers. Where his peers might have bumped up against authority for running with the wrong crowd or smoking weed, Kevin saw the same derision in his principal’s eyes for his choice of clothing (dresses rather than durags). He grew up trying to perfect his jump shot, just like you, the only difference is that his vice was kissing boys rather than running drugs or chatting up the wrong girls.

Not every track cuts that deep, in fact, on the whole, ARIZONA baby is an LP that exudes joy. Coming flying out of the gates, the album clearly channels early Outkast as Abstract practically skips across the beat with the strangely effortless intensity of those legendary ATLiens. “Big Wheels” and “Joyride” are perfect scene setters, full of quick fire lyricism and also the record’s two key sonic signatures: a darker, sultry jazz representing the subconscious and the joyous summer horns and acoustic funk of love, respectively.

Remarkably, the album’s one defining lyric is tossed away at a rapid fire pace in the middle of a dense verse, as Kevin spits: “Me and my boyfriend, we looking for hope”. It’s the perfect encapsulation of an album that dives into both a troubled past and an anxious, uncertain future, but whatever the issue at hand, it is always underwritten by the soothing panacea of loving reinforcement. Abstract isn’t exactly where he wants to be and he may never get there, but he has the right man holding his hand and a belief that however unsteadily, he is stumbling in the right direction.

It’s hard to think of another rap album that offers the listener so much positive reinforcement. Across this record, there is a loose unfinished quality. Ideas will float and recede one second and drift off into thoughtless void the next (like a teenager scribbling fleeting thoughts in their diary), but it matters little, because each passing fancy is buoyed by an intense and charming optimism. “Georgia” captures the vibe perfectly, despite including a brief Lil Uzi Vert homage, the track is carried by a beautiful, iridescent chorus: “Call my mom and let her know that everything is alright”.

As the album progresses Abstract moves away from a direct lyrical assault towards more structureless vibing. He alights on a theme and explores it with slow shifting instrumentals and a contrasting blend of natural vocals, auto-tune cries and straight bars. What separates Abstract from this current generation of Soundcloud sad-boy vibesters is that Kevin never runs from specificity – either of emotion (“I feel like crumbling outside your window”, such a precise image) or narrative (he fleshes out even fleeting thoughts with considered, believable verses).

Of course, when it comes to standing out from the crowd, ARIZONA baby is also blessed by a selection of spellbinding choruses and gorgeous, tender playing. “Peach” captures this aesthetic perfectly. The verses are dreamy brushstrokes, a soft blend of hazy half-realised memories and reflections on promises made long ago, but the chorus is something else entirely. Serenely sung and set to a sunny, subtly pitch-shifting instrumental, these dreamy lovestruck words are destined to softly seduce the listener: “I’ll be your baby doll/I’ll be your bodyguard/If you tell me to”. Sweetness is very much the point.

This is another key to ARIZONA baby’s resonance. Abstract is head over heels in love, but he is still all at sea. He wants to please, he wants to improve and he’s tripping on mistakes made and opportunities lost. He’ll be as tough as tungsten or as tender as teddy bear if needs be. It might sound cloying, but it’s not – because his words are never sappy, only sincere and full of plainspoken observations (“I can’t sleep next to no one, who don’t look like you/And all my girlfriends tell me, “you would have been better if you picked someone just like you””).

There is a dark side to ARIZONA baby and plenty of anxiety on display. The staggering “Corpus Christi” opens with a devastating admission: “I was on tour in Europe/I tried coke with this kid/See I need anything that makes me feel less lonely/I get called a snake, a liar, a faggot and a phoney”. This is Abstract in his darkest recesses. He can’t help it, his mind is actively seeking out moments where he went astray and he let down the people he loved. What makes the track so captivating is the way Kevin will drop out of the rhyme scheme to reflect the truth. This is moment of self-recrimination, his chance to let his friends and family know that their pointed criticisms have hit home, but even at his lowest, Kevin keeps moving forward, buoyed by his pillar of strength: “My boyfriend more than an angel, it’s a miracle he stuck by me”.

ARIZONA baby’s highlights are less whole songs (although they are routinely brilliant) it’s little snapshots that catch your attention: the sumptuous bass driven outro of “Corpus Christi”, “Baby Boy’s” gleeful pre-chorus, the mosh pit ready bounce of “Boyer’s” beat, “Crumble’s” incredible opening line, the jazzy interpolation of “Use Me” or “Mississippi’s” one delicious double tracked verse. ARIZONA baby is mesmeric: familiar, but so full of little endearing eccentricities. This is an album to fall in love to and with. Even after multiple playthroughs there’s still room for discovery – for example, the aforementioned “Mississippi” sits atop the glacial drift of distinctly gothic synths – the kind of sound you’d expect to hear on an Austra record rather than a hip hop release.

Brockhampton’s sound will always be bigger and better suited to global conquest, but it’s hard to imagine Kevin Abstract ever releasing anything this powerful or profound as part of a collective. This is the sound of one man laying it all out there, risking castigation and humiliation respectively, with all the over-earnest abandon that made his sophomore album so divisive. But where American Boyfriend was defined by its wilful amateurism and a distinctly teenage sense of self-seriousness; ARIZONA baby is defined by an incredible depth of musicianship and a tender and thoughtful approach to very adult emotions.

Sure, Kevin will always be a wilful over sharer, but by encapsulating the security and support of a truly loving relationship he has not only captured something profound, he has presented something genuinely new in mainstream rap music. He’s not bragging, he’s not saying what he thinks we want to hear, he’s embracing his own state of mind and finding his sense of self in the arms of another – and, frankly, that’s beautiful.

The final score: review Amazing
The 411
Full of recrimination and regret, but charged by warmth of romantic, enduring love, ARIZONA baby is unique in the mainstream hip hop canon. This is a breezy, beautiful album full of wonderful instrumental compositions that thrives on the strength of its over-earnest, over-sharing protagonist's stable, loving, relationship. This an album to be cherished, about the feeling of being cherished.

article topics :

Kevin Abstract, David Hayter