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MIKE - Black Soap Music Album Reviews

MIKE - Black Soap Music Album Reviews
The 19-year-old rapper’s latest project is a quest of self-discovery that serves as a reminder of the power and dexterity New York’s new vanguard of artists.

The easy gripe with what most people consider “lyrical” rap is that it’s preachy, that it fills space with excessive pontificating. True, words are messy, easy to trip over and to misuse. But the best artists know that the right words can hit you over the head, landing squarely in the quietest corner of your mind. MIKE, a 19-year-old rapper living in Brooklyn, works diligently to find out which words do exactly that. Over the span of several self-released projects, including last year’s excellent May God Bless Your Hustle, the rapper exhibits a knack for packing big ideas in just a handful of phrases. On his latest, the seven-track EP Black Soap, words are a tool of liberation.

The album is billed as “a collection of songs for black and brown excellence,” and a recurring theme is the discovery, and ultimate love, of self. Black Soap is itself a product of self-discovery. Last fall, MIKE traveled to his childhood hometown of London to record the record as well as reconnect with his mother who, after challenges with immigration, was separated from MIKE when he was a child. The record opens with a prayer from his mother spoken in their native Yoruba dialect. The language centers MIKE’s existence underneath his mom, the first of many tendrils of this sort of cultural specificity. The album art, made by the Brooklyn-based designers Abraham El-Makawy and Isaac Baird, takes its inspiration from black soap packaging found all over West Africa. The ebullient syncopation of the track “Of Home” is likely familiar to anyone who's ever attended the types of Nigerian celebrations that extend into the wee hours of the morning. “You can tell by my nose I’m a king” he raps on the song, alluding to distinctly African facial features as a source of pride.

As a lyricist, MIKE is fleet. He earns comparisons to baritone rappers MF DOOM and Earl Sweatshirt by exhibiting the same penchant for inventive and unexpected rhyme schemes, but MIKE isn’t a mere copycat. It’s more like the lo-fi style of those benchmarks found him—a means to get out what he needs to say. “I know the truth I’m tryna get it out my teeth,” he raps on “Ministry.”

Thematically, Black Soap is dead-set on growth. Challenges with depression color the lyrics across all of MIKE’s projects, but rather than languish in gloom, he finds the power within, and much of Black Soap feels like the first ray of light after a bout with darkness. “Remind me that I’m real/Remind me that I’m still here/Remind me that I will,” he raps on “God Save the Queen.” One of MIKE’s greatest strengths as a writer is his level of self-awareness, of both his physical presence as a black man in America, and of his emotional self. “Love is scary but it’s cheap,” he reminds us on “Ministry,” juxtaposing the brutal financial reality of New York with the need for connection.

The instrumentation on Black Soap was provided by Standing on the Corner, a crew of creatives in New York that, like MIKE’s sLUms collective, offers a decidedly more ground-level perspective of life in the city. It’s a commitment to authenticity that makes MIKE one of the more exciting young voices in rap today. If the darlings of the streaming era are the glitzy glass skyrises that litter Brooklyn, MIKE and sLUms are the neighborhood bodega still going strong. And while lyricism has slowly become synonymous with holier-than-thou didacticism, Black Soap reminds us of what’s possible when you choose your words carefully.

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