Back in the early half of the last decade, when Anticon was more of an abstract-rap collective and less of an experimental indie pop label, Sole was arguably the crew's most intriguing figure-- a self-lacerating prophet figure who jumbled the personal and the political into a blur of half-formed conceptual syllable-spray. He rapped so fast that you actually needed the lyric sheet he'd helpfully include in his albums, and those lyrics would be so dense and jangled that you'd also need the little mini-essays he'd pen about each song and its inspirations. Self-seriousness was his thing, and it could sometimes be a weakness; it's a big part of the reason he came out on the losing end of a terrifically entertaining beef with El-P (El: "I feel like Selena, the president of my fan club trying to kill me"). But that intensity also turned him into a compelling figure. "The white man's the fucking devil," he almost-famously roared in 2003. And yes, he's white. Obviously.
But the twisty, blown-out form of indie rap that helped birth Sole (and El-P, and everyone else in that scene at that time) has largely disappeared from the map, sending an entire generation of underground rappers scrambling to figure out ways to remain relevant. On his new Hello Cruel World, Sole tries harder than most. As he has on most of his recent releases, Sole teams up with Arizona's multi-instrumentalist trio the Skyrider Band. But together, they chase a different sound this time out: the sort of diffuse synthetic soul that's slowly taking over the rap mainstream. The beats on Hello Cruel World are full of simple, understated new-wave melodies and empty space. Sole has largely curbed his frantic, out-of-control, sometimes-arrhythmic rap style, going for a measured and controlled thing instead. There are song where Sole sings. There are songs were Sole sings through Auto-Tune. At times, he sounds like a dreadlocked, anarchist-bookstore version of Drake. It's a truly odd album-- and in its own way, it's a brave one.
"Bad Captain Swag" is the best song here, and the one that best encapsulates the sound Sole chases all throughout the album. I'm not even really sure what "Bad Captain Swag" is about-- credit card debt or something. But with its truly unexpected Lil B guest verse, the song works as a summit meeting between two very different generations of indie rap, and it shows that the two rappers may have as much uniting them as they do separating them. These are two messy artists, and both verses have their goofy moments. The Based God is in his spaced-out, the-world-is-crazy mode. Sole, meanwhile, offers up this as a boast: "You don't wanna battle me; you're better off enlisting in the upcoming war against China." (He also becomes maybe the first rapper to ever use the word "stagflation" in a rhyme.) And yet there's a sort of outsider-art chemistry at work here, with the weirdly catchy zoned-out synth track and the airily crooned hook from Denver electro-noise producer Pictureplane. It's nuts-- and not in a bad way-- that Sole and Soulja Boy are now just one degree removed from each other.
Nothing else on the album touches that track, but it's intriguing to hear Sole push his old style in different directions. Hello Cruel World is an album that flirts with accessibility, but you're not exactly going to crash radio playlists with lines like this bit of anti-Red Cross invective, from "We Will Not Be Moved": "Want me to donate? We gave helicopters to Israel, free health care to the Middle East. Now who's gonna fix my teeth?" And things get downright silly when he leaves behind politics entirely and indulges in dorm-room philosophizing: "Someday I'll leave this place, be it by bullet or by rocket/ And they can use my corpse to fertilize another planet" (from the title track). But nobody's ever going to this guy for clear, concrete ideas; abstract obfuscation is what he does. On Hello Cruel World, he finds some new ways to do it. They don't work out as often as we might hope, but at least he's trying.
Review by Pitchfork