It doesn’t take much for hip-hop to scare people. For a nation that has “conquered racism,” we’re stock full of people who think an MPC is more dangerous than an AK and are all too happy to put a Soundcloud beats page up on the same criminal pedestal as running down a mob of people. In the hip-hop world, a modicum of cockiness is enough to put people on edge, which makes the work coming out of Seattle’s Underworld Dust Funk collective all the more unusual.
Sonically defined by their use of menacing, wide open spaces and warning bell tones, UDF is poised to be a minimalist response to Bay Area bleak beat crew Black Sky Blue Death, favoring chiming single note riffs over the more synth pad oriented style BSBD often deals in. UDF’s releases so far have featured a handful of producers backing up main emcees Caz Greez and Bolo Nef, but it’s Bolo Nef’s Sol Invictus, produced exclusively by UDF mainstay Khrist Koopa, that really establishes the UDF aesthetic in full and creates a standard for future UDF releases to be judged by.
Starting with Nef’s declaration that he’s “lost his fucking mind” on “Mud,” Sol Invictus unfolds like a macabre exploration of psychosis, Nef’s emotionless concern that he’d “hate to see my momma cry/if she knew her son committed homicide” revealing the sociopathic desires of the character he depicts; this is remorse not for an action, but for how that action will make him be perceived by family. Like the album it introduces, “Mud” unfolds at a deliberate pace, with Nef’s delivery hopping between rhythms, cadences and melodies seemingly at random to match the random confessions he makes, about the demons he sees at night, about his conviction that suicide is the only answer for stopping his disturbing thoughts.
Koopa’s production takes a more prominent role on “Downward Spiral,” where it’s fleshed out with more melodic and atonal elements, acrobatically dodging the staccato flows of Nef and Greez, culminating in a disturbing sing-song hook that checks off the flashy fashions of the emcees’ targets. “Downward Spiral” is an early standout on Sol Invictus, a catchy slice of horror rap that has trace elements of Odd Future’s MellowHype project and Dr. Octagon without being beholden to either. But where both of those projects are lyrically fixated on larger-than-life but still basically human personalities, Nef has far more grandiose notions on Sol Invictus.
“Pocket Fulla Secrets” takes party swagger self-promotion to a new level, as Nef brags about meeting a girl who “thinks I’m in the Illuminati” which he corrects by telling her “Sorry I’m a god/then she sacrificed her body.” It’s a clever flip of both the hip-hop standbys of stating your VIP status and your sexual potency, but the running theme of psychological deterioration on the album grants it a darker subtext– does the Nef of Sol Invictus think he’s a demigod in a metaphorical sense? Or is his Messiah Complex a symptom of a larger mental issue? Suddenly Tyler the Creator’s violent therapy sessions on Goblin seem tame.
Not coincidentally, “Animal,” the album’s longest track at just under four minutes, explores that god status from a more depressing setting, with Nef sleeping on the streets, telling cops “I don’t even know where I live/I’m a homeless ass nigga/Got hoes on my dick.” The track is an unflinching takedown of the status pursuits that dominate so much of hip-hop, a bid for authenticity that isn’t just street, it’s sleeping on the streets, fighting cops over more than intoxication citations and unauthorized patdowns. Koopa provides a claustrophobic audio package for Nef’s purposefully deranged ramblings, digital hi-hats splintering against endlessly looping alarm sound synths and a low rumble kick dialed in straight from some Elder God abode.
Rather than use gimmicky, straightforward horror sounds and samples, Nef and Koopa are able to construct a genuinely terrifying environment of horror, reflecting the sounds and thoughts of a certain kind of street life, where “snorting Molly even though I know it’s meth” is a commonplace escape from demons that won’t go away. If you’ve spent time in the U-District area of Seattle that UDF call home, you’ve probably even seen the kinds of characters Nef is narratively occupying, skittish alley dwellers fucked over by their own brains and a broken system. A vivid exploration of a universal fear of being devoured by your own mind, Sol Invictus hints at a darker, bolder future for both Bolo Nef and the UDF collective.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with Dylan Garsee on twitter: @Nick_Hanover