As long as hip hop has existed, so too has the debate surrounding beats and bars, and which of the two is more important. Of course, whilst most hip hop fans look for specific qualities in both of these departments, I often hear people say that they like a particular rapper’s production style but not their flow or lyricism and vice versa. D.C. rapper and producer Amir Mohamed el Khalifa, better known by his stage name of Oddisee, has often been lumped into the camp of artists who are highly respected for their intricate and well-crafted style of production, but are also often met with mixed critical responses as a result of what some see to be a rather plain style of delivery, which, in Khalifa’s case, is arguably emphasised by his wordy and sometimes verbose approach to lyric-writing. As a solo artist, Oddisee has been putting out material since 2005 and I personally have always greatly admired his work more than I’ve been head over heels in love with it, but this changed after hearing his last album, The Good Fight, released in 2015. Here, the artist displayed his production chops more than ever before, with a really slick and vibrant approach that created for some colourful boom-bap beats. The production on The Good Fight was most definitely what sold the project for me, but Oddisee’s delivery seemed a lot more refined and focussed as well, with certain tracks, like the album opener That’s Love, finding the sweet spot between a solid, jazzy groove and a catchy, dynamic performance from the MC. Although Oddisee didn’t put out any studio albums last year, 2016 was a fruitful year for the musician, with the release of an instrumental mixtape, The Odd Tape, and a very well-received EP, Alwasta, the latter of which featured on many EP of the Year lists, including my own. Indeed, Alwasta was a succinct and perfect demonstration of how Oddisee’s production style and flow don’t need to be flashy in order to yield great results. With his newest studio album, The Iceberg, it feels as if this is the project that his entire solo career up until this point has been leading up to, with this record displaying the artist’s best beats and best bars of his discography. What’s more, the topics of many of these songs and the way in which the MC tackles them are amongst his most compelling lyrical endeavours to date, and are matched with equally exciting performances. As usual, Khalifa’s production is largely comprised of live instrumentation, often built around boom-bap drums and smooth bass grooves, but this record also features some of the producer’s best use of samples to date. Indeed, The Iceberg flaunts Oddisee’s many talents like no other project of his has previously, and the result will certainly go down as a hip hop highlight of 2017.
Digging Deep opens the record and sets the tone for what’s to come, both lyrically and sonically. The cut is introduced with a lovely horn section before Oddisee busts into his first verse atop a stripped-back beat, primarily based around some light keys and a smooth bass, but later with the addition of a fantastically funky guitar line. As for Oddisee’s performance as an MC, he comes through with some hard and fast bars that act as a sort of mission statement for the record, with the rapper encouraging the listener to pay attention to the topics that the songs on The Iceberg deal with and apply critical thinking to them. Many lines on here allude to concepts that appear later in the record, with a stand-out set of bars being, “when you take the time to understand the makings / Of a man, you comprehend that he’s the sum of circumstance / And that evil ain’t incarnate and if cornered we can all create it”. Not only is Oddisee’s accented flow during these lines as impressive as it is catchy, this topic of evil manifesting in a person as a result of hardship is the salient subject on one of the album’s most outstanding cuts, You Grew Up. Easily one of the most pivotal moments on the album, You Grew Up is introduced by some tense synths before bursting into the first verse, which boasts some super smooth and soulful guitar and bass flourishes. The main feature of the track, however, is one of the most gripping stories told on the entire album, focussing on the way in which circumstance can influence one’s character. Oddisee exhibits his own positive outlook of life during his childhood, viewing his working class status in a rundown area of Cape May County in New jersey as establishing common ground with the other children in his area, consisting of kids of all races and religions. The primary focus of this verse, however, is his childhood best friend, a white boy who gradually became less and less accepting of other races and nationalities as he grew up, largely as a result of his dad being laid off from his job. With these increasingly extreme opinions came a conviction to work for the US police force, and the most recent knowledge Oddisee has of what happened to his friend comes in the form of his appearance in the news after shooting an innocent black man. The most important message of this track, and the reason for telling this story, is epitomised by the rapper’s closing thoughts on the subject: “all I could blame was the cause”. Indeed, the cautionary tale of You Grew Up is one that relates to the way in which people are driven to commit evils acts through their own suffering. The next verse, for instance, deals with this topic more generally, in the form of the story of a young Muslim male who is left susceptible to radicalisation as a result of being bullied for his religion as a teenager; a tragic development that could have been avoided with some simple human decency. You Grew Up essentially embodies the overarching point that Oddisee is trying to make on much of this record; that people are complex, but nevertheless prone to be driven to inflict suffering on others simply by having suffered themselves. The MC’s message of consideration and tolerance is delivered with an intelligence and nuance that can only be admired, and shines as the pinnacle of his lyrical ability.
Not only are many of Oddisee’s concerns ubiquitous on The Iceberg, he also makes time for some tracks dealing with his own problems, whilst remaining self-aware as to not come across as self-indulgent or melodramatic. The second track and lead single from this record, Things, acts almost as the second part of Digging Deep, with regards to the way in which it expounds the rapper’s MO on the album, with Oddisee acknowledging some of his own trials and tribulations, as well as how susceptible people are to letting these struggles blind them from the fact that others around them are suffering from the same misfortunes. Khalifa contemplates the danger of people growing selfish as a result of this (“Everybody queued up in the long grind / Thinking that we next in the short line”) and, although no specific resolution is offered as to how to avoid this problem, it seems as if the MC is more eager for people to simply recognise the risks they run if they grow apathetic to other people’s problems by focussing solely on their own. This message is packaged in perhaps Oddisee’s most vibrant and lively flow on the entire record, with a fantastically colourful instrumental — primarily based on a bouncy rhythm — that boasts some lovely sung vocals. Ultimately, Things and just about every other track on The Iceberg put to rest any doubts regarding Oddisee’s abilities as a rapper, as relates to both his delivery and most definitely his lyrical chops.
The Iceberg really seems like Oddisee’s magnum opus at this point in his career. Not only have his talents as a producer reached their pinnacle on this record, but his rapping displays the best elements of everything that has established his place amongst the most interesting MCs in the current conscious hip hop game. There is as much to talk about here regarding both the beats and the bars, with Oddisee displaying a keen awareness of how to best execute a song that features some ravishing instrumental embellishments without distracting the listener too much from the weighty subject matters that he tackles. Moreover, whilst these lyrical endeavours are incredibly well-assembled and well-performed, dealing with many difficult topics whilst displaying a clear sense of introspection, nuance and justice, the underlying messages are always positive, and presented in such a way as to justify calling this a genuinely feel-good album. Indeed, it seems that Khalifa has improved across the board to an incredible extent, with his work up until now merely being the tip of the iceberg.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8.5/10