From Boogie Down Productions’ The Bridge Is Over to Jay-Z’s Dead Presidents, Kanye West’s Heard ‘Em Say to Kendrick Lamar’s HUMBLE., the piano has long been a staple of rap tracks, maybe because it maintains a fine balance between melodic and percussive. Jazz piano has specifically been a very popular sample source for producers like Pete Rock and Stones Throw labelmate Madlib, so it seems a logical next step to incorporate actual jazz piano into laidback hip-hop instrumentals as Kiefer does on Happysad.
Horns join in on opening track Dope Nerd while Temper sports delicious jazz guitar riffs, but Kiefer’s piano playing is very much the star of the show here, which is sometimes looped as part of the instrumental (see Thinkin Of or Socially Awkward) but most of the time skates over the top with freeflowing solos. The beats are punchy, setting a steady groove as a base for improvisation, and the basslines alternate between doing the same and occasionally providing a more direct counterpoint to the piano.
Kiefer’s quantisation is deliberately sloppy, reminiscent of J Dilla or Flying Lotus, and as a result none of these tracks would be out of place on a “lo-fi hip-hop beats to relax/study to” mix. The album’s mood is generally introspective, sometimes moving into more overtly melancholy territory as on the beautiful Memories Of U. There is also a nice conceptual touch in the album’s second half, as Agoraphobia (fear of public places) blends into Fomo (fear of missing out) with the same elements signifying two sides of the same coin.
Highlights are hard to pick out when so much of Happysad pursues the same vibe, but overall the album is an easygoing yet expressive release, highly recommended for fans of jazz and Stones Throw’s output.