The latest project from L.A.-based rapper is a fascinating, seemingly unfinished collage of spoken interludes, gorgeous beats, and low-fi snippets that reckons with a life of gold and faith.
This record, from a peripatetic, multi-talented twentysomething who uses several stage names, is both so accomplished and so incomplete. The strands used to create it point toward a completely unfamiliar artistic lane for many listeners. That the entire project is as good as it is while remaining defiantly “unfinished” and coming from a little-known artist is a reminder of all the artistic galaxies out there on the web, just beyond reach. It’s enough to bring a digital crate-digger to the point of existential crisis.
Pink Siifu, born Livingston Matthews and based in Los Angeles, has made music under many other names, most prominently Iiye. He’s a kind of a personification of the streaming’s counterculture, all the difficult-to-monetize music that has been passed around among smaller groups of listeners, beneath the SoundCloud rappers whose streaming numbers inflate their names to the point that major labels take notice. Matthews’ music weaves a web between various pillars of neo-soul, and sun-dried California hip-hop—Isaiah Rashad, D’Angelo, J-Dee, Flying Lotus—but at the center, there is a comprehensible Siifu. His persona is fully fleshed out: an earnest poet dependent on prayer but too shy to scan as self-serious, speaking his thoughts through the voices of others and disguising his own in crooked, glinting bars. Pro-black at every turn and implicitly anticapitalist, ensley is a portrait of the artist in fragments that refract Matthews’s image, splitting and tossing it every which way, forming a more complete picture than a traditional album might.
ensley is the latest of the more than three-dozen projects posted on Siifu’s Bandcamp page. Its 25 songs are shot through with spoken interludes, gorgeous beats, and low-fi snippets that reflect the heavy influence of veteran producer Knxwledge. The decaying loops shimmer like the gold that Siifu mentions throughout the songs here, almost as often as he brings up the power of prayer. Add to those two motifs the mysterious, insidious element identified on “tht bag” and you’ll begin to understand the struggle that defines the album. Gold and prayer are the weapons at Siifu’s disposal, the first granting a sense of aesthetic well-being (not economic) and the second a sense of spiritual well-being. The “bag” is figurative, standing for any element that threatens to rob a subject of those senses: the weight of alcoholism, racism, all forms of moral turpitude.
That none of this is immediately clear is a blessing. ensley is not pedantic. Its lessons have been hastily shoved into corners and wallpapered over with a wonderful selection of beats that make use of everything from classic hip-hop to ballads and old technicolor movie scores, shredding many of the samples beyond recognition. Those disguised sources are just one of the record’s many secrets. If you listen closely, the prospect of death is raised frequently: it’s there on “birmingham skies,” an ode to Matthews’ hometown on which he describes a friend who tells him, candidly, that she’s tired of breathing. He echoes her several songs later on the gorgeous “stay sane,” which turns a sampled dirge into high art. Siifu raps that he’s pacing on a tightrope, trying to ward off the devil and receiving encouragement from loved ones long gone. Faith, far more than technical ability, is the tool that he’s interested in sharpening. To evaluate Siifu’s rapping ability seems beside the point: He’s as scrutable as he wants to be from song to song, and he switches frequently from mumbling and muttering to clear pointed verses and back again.
The songs on ensley often arrive paired or tripled, reflecting each other in various ways, with other tracks slipped in-between those that are too closely related. The frayed horns of “outlet” only help that song shine more brightly, but its inverse arrives in the form of “trauma.” The beat that set “outlet” aflame is hollowed-out and Siifu mutters about his father being “drunk as hell,” praying that he puts the bottle down. A more cheerful pairing comes at the end of the record in two comic skits, “Black Woman is God” and “No Mo Fux” that are entirely given over to the voices of black women. ensley is filled with women, from the pride Matthews expresses in his sister throughout to the fire mid-album verse on “Golds and Smiles” from the rapper Maassai.
ensley is long and occasionally repetitive. But even on its more challenging tracks, the album seems like a natural next step, a work in motion like The Life of Pablo, a set of collaborations midwived by the web and positively bursting with soul like Anderson .Paak’s Yes Lawd! It would be tempting to label it a proclamation, the introduction of an “important new voice,” but Siifu has been here for a minute and ensley feels more like it’s supposed to be passed around in private. The whole thing is hush-hush. The features, the samples, there’s so much to be recognized in Pink Siifu’s new world that stretches from the heavens down to the worst things on earth.