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Marlowe - Marlowe Music Album Reviews

On their first collaborative album, Seattle producer L’Orange and North Carolina rapper Solemn Brigham craft spirited, old-school rap that owes a hefty debt to Madvillain.

L’Orange is a rare specimen of one of hip-hop’s most endangered species: the loop digger. Over the last five years, the Seattle producer’s dusty, sample-based beats have caught the ears of classically minded MCs from all over the country, but he tends to avoid selling them piecemeal, preferring to engage in album-length collaborations with rappers like Kool Keith, Mr. Lif, and Jeremiah Jae. For his latest such release, L’Orange has teamed up with the largely unknown North Carolina rapper Solemn Brigham under the name Marlowe. True to the producer’s form, it’s an album of austere rap that evokes the turn-of-the-millennium underground: There are no synths, no hooks, just bars, bars, bars over a collage of vinyl chops.

For a new duo, the pair ignites an impressive number of sparks during the first half of the self-titled album. “Demonstration” sounds like a drugged-out after school special about the dangers of wack MCs (“I don’t change the clothes, DB minus the old,” Brigham boasts). A sumptuous soul flip forms the foundation of “Tales From the East,” over which Brigham lays down the kind of breathless, jam-packed lines that encourage rewinds (“Me, loose chain on the door off the hinge, don’t peek”). “Palm Readers” plunges into rap’s psychedelic deep end, with layers of tremolo-soaked guitar and heavy panning. Standing on this shifting ground, Brigham issues mission statements like, “Just to dig crates for the brakes, tryna move thangs.”

As thrilling as these high points can be, Marlowe lacks the consistency of the classics it seeks to emulate. While the album barrels forward with remarkable momentum in its first half, the duo starts to flag just past the midway point. L’Orange’s production is solid throughout, but the kitschy snippets of dialogue he wedges in between songs begin to feel on-the-nose, homages to Madlib that devolve into mere mimicry. And Brigham doesn’t quite possess the versatility or magnetism to carry all 17 of the record’s tracks. While he’s a reasonably adept rapper, his wordplay and lyricism are lacking; despite hinting at other topics, he has little to offer beyond braggadocio. Listening to Marlowe, it’s difficult not to wonder what Earl Sweatshirt’s technique, milo’s personality, or Chester Watson’s energy would sound like over these beats.

Most contemporary hip-hop producers operate in mercenary fashion, selling their creations à la carte to the highest bidders, though the pendulum has begun to swing back in recent years. Some of the best-known producers in popular rap, including Metro Boomin, Zaytoven, and Noah “40” Shebib, have become sought after for their ability to architect full albums. L’Orange might eventually achieve a similar status within the traditionalist set, if he ever finds a foil capable of doing his instrumentals justice.

While both halves of Marlowe approach their collaboration with plenty of enthusiasm, Brigham doesn’t seem to be that MC. Still, for a certain type of listener, their nostalgic album will scratch an itch that few other rap records in 2018 could reach. If you’ve worn out your copy of Madvillainy—as these two obviously have—you could certainly do worse than give Marlowe a spin.

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