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Darkthrone - A Blaze in the Northern Sky Music Album Reviews

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit a tense, beautiful, lo-fi landmark from the second wave of black metal.
In the fall of 1971, a child is born in a remote village in Norway. He will one day rechristen himself Fenriz, after the Earth-swallowing wolf, Fenrir, who appears in Norse mythology and the Satanic Bible. But for now, he is Gylve Nagell, being raised by his grandmother, spending inordinate amounts of time alone. The pivotal moments of his childhood occur while listening to records, music introduced to him by an eccentric uncle named Stein. Pink Floyd catches his ear; a few songs by the Doors hold his attention; but it’s the English progressive rock band Uriah Heep that blows his mind. He’s entranced by the heavy organ sound, the cryptic lyrics, and the mysterious men with long hair who appear on the album’s cover. He cherishes the triple-fold LP like an heirloom from…

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IDK - Is He Real? Music Album Reviews

The major-label debut from the Maryland rapper clearly wants to appeal to the thinkers, but even at its most lucid, this loosely conceptual album falls well short of lofty ambitions.

Maryland rapper IDK wants to be rap’s next great aesthetician. His major-label debut, Is He Real?, is a concept album of sorts, in the way all of his projects are; there is a theme and a structure but it isn’t actually beholden to them. The “He” in the title is God, the framework around which the album is built. It opens with a kid denying God’s existence, and an uneven discourse unfolds from there, with rap theology serving as plot points along the album’s arc: a DMX prayer, a conversation about divinity with Tyler, the Creator, a hood psalm from GLC, and IDK playing Devil’s advocate.

In the end, these outlooks crescendo into the PG County rapper arguing that humans don’t have the capacity to dispute His being; the end result of his probe is basically the shrugging emoticon. His unspooling scriptural thread is easy enough to follow. It’s what happens in between that makes the album perplexing. It doesn’t always track, and its pursuit of grandiosity feels largely fruitless. Even at its most lucid, it falls well short of lofty ambitions.

IDK, whose name stands for Ignorantly Delivering Knowledge, considers himself a polymath and educator. (He helped people get their GEDs in prison.) He clearly wants his songs to appeal to the rap thinkers, for listeners to have to peel back the layers of meaning and have epiphanies. He has labeled his music “suburban trap” or trap with substance, trying to collapse a nonexistent lowbrow-highbrow trap binary, as if Jeezy’s The Recession never happened. His songs aren’t deep enough to warrant or hold up under dissection and they aren’t ignorant enough to scan as brainless amusement. A student of Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar, he aspires to hifalutin aesthetics and big ideas. This album is a self-professed effort to lay a foundation for future classics. “This will be the Section.80 mixtape before my good kid, m.A.A.d city,” he vowed in The Fader. But Is He Real? isn’t the raw display of talent Section.80 was, and it is far less inspired—musically and conceptually. There is a whiff of self-importance that IDK struggles to live up to. He is an intriguing, occasionally even stimulating rapper who has yet to really bring any of his (sometimes bland, sometimes bold) visions to life.

In this instance, IDK never really gets to the point. What is to be gained by posing this question here and now? What is to be gained by failing to answer it? The aesthetic argument claims that art itself is proof of God’s existence, but this album never scratches the surface of something that meta, much less a conclusive purpose. Given the heavy Kendrick influence, IDK almost forces a comparison he can’t possibly do justice to. It’s hard not to wonder how much more depth the Compton rapper could’ve brought to this idea.

IDK can be a clever writer, but he doesn’t have nearly the skill or the range to prevent a subject this huge from crushing him beneath its weight. Neither preacher nor parishioner nor nonbeliever, he has a hard time saying anything definitively and with emphasis. Within a clusterfuck of thoughts, he strains to connect songs like “Alone” and “Digital” into his larger spiritual saga. The songs are designed to transition seamlessly from one to the next but the shifts are inconsistent; sometimes hollow, sometimes overwrought, sometimes challenging.

His singing, however, is pleasantly surprising. He ably flips the dancehall classic “Murder She Wrote” (on “December,” with a more than game Burna Boy) and Amerie’s “Why Don’t We Fall in Love” (on “I Do Me … You Do You”), interpolating the latter and using the former as a backbone for an afro-fusionist jam. He also doles out his unexpectedly malleable voice to expound upon on the album’s lesser ideas: the collective consciousnesses’ diminishing attention span (“No Cable”), money as the root of all evil (“24”), and golddiggers as embodiments of sinfulness (“Lilly”). In one instance, he’s jaded and mournful; the other, he’s flamboyantly flexible; the third, he’s impish. He cites Frank Ocean as an influence, and his croons are a nice chaser for his rap bravado.

The album’s best song has nothing to do with its almighty dialogue: “Porno,” a libidinous collaboration with Pusha-T and J.I.D., feels like an extension of Pusha’s “Sociopath.” At its core, it’s a song about a sexualized society that, among other things, finds space to mimic the intro of “Wannabe” by Spice Girls. (IDK’s attempt to weave this into the wider narrative is to simply rap, “Bad hoes is the devil, like 666” and “The bible say beatin’ my dick and killin’ is equal/But that don’t add up.”) Unlike so much of what happens on this album, “Porno” is fun-loving and low-stakes. He isn’t overthinking it. Along with outliers like “No Cable,” it is the nexus of an interesting thought experiment: If IDK wasn’t so married to tawdry themes, his music would be much better. His songs wouldn’t be undermined by his desire to be recognized as a philosopher and auteur.

For all the album’s shortcomings, Is He Real? has many really exciting compositional flourishes. A team effort helmed primarily by IDK with beatmakers Eden Eliah Nagar and Rascal, the production is rich and diverse, often familiar but never derivative: the Pi’erre Bourne-ish funhouse thrills of “Digital,” the ugly, “HUMBLE.”-esque piano mash of “24,” and the meditative sampling of “No Cable” and “Julia …,” are all satisfying in their own ways. “Julia …,” for its part, also happens to be a gut-wrenching remembrance of his mother, who died of AIDS in 2016. The album could’ve used more of those personal revelations and less biblical revelations.

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