Yes, Melanin 9 is one heavy dude. This striking lyric is hidden away towards the end of the London-based MC’s beguiling debut album, spoken candidly over a bed of stuttering, jazzy drums and vocalist Madame Pepper’s ethereal melodies. Yet, despite its less than prominent placing in the album’s progression, the statement could be seen as something of a manifesto which has served as the rapper’s motivation throughout the process of Magna Carta’s production.
On this record, Melanin 9 remains admirably committed to his belief in the potency of hip hop as a socially transformative art form, relating a unremitting procession of stark narratives and honest confessionals throughout its fourteen tracks. Certainly, the young MC should be congratulated for this alone, especially within the context of hip hop’s current ethical climate; that is, one in which Kendrick Lamar‘s often grossly misogynistic good kid, m.A.A.d city has been heralded as a masterpiece of “conscious” rap. Yet, it is the lyrical dexterity and poise of delivery with which Melanin 9 presents his sentiment that elevates this record beyond mere social critique: Magna Carta is a challenging, engaging and endlessly rewarding album.
Having well and truly “cut his teeth” over the last five years since the release of his debut mix tape (opening live shows for GZA and Ghostface Killah amongst others), Melanin 9 has undoubtedly developed a set of supremely advanced rhetorical chops. What is perhaps most remarkable about Magna Carta is Melanin 9’s ability to engage in head-spinning word play whilst maintaining a clearly delineated, structured and dramatically forceful message. Indeed, M9’s striking aptitude for internal rhyme, as well as the complex interplay of assonance and consonance, is actually employed to emphasise, rather than draw attention from, the story being relayed: there is no retreat to the safety of “abstract” lyricism here. These tracks, then, are certainly the product of a formidable, virtuosic talent; a talent remaining steadfastly true to the roots of hip hop as a form of socio-cultural polemic.
Whilst certainly constituting one of Magna Carta’s greatest attributes, such commitment to social commentary can become, paradoxically, slightly wearing over the course of the record’s (perhaps over-long) duration. The seriousness with which M9 takes his position as an audible voice of his community occasionally forces these tracks to edge dangerously close to tiresome lecturing: perhaps M9 should be reminded that although hip hop certainly has a powerful social function it can also be a lot of fun? Although M9 displays a considerable mastery of a range of flows and styles throughout the record, Magna Carta is just not varied or playful enough to reward close and concentrated attention for its entire duration. Yet, a fair degree of diversity is provided by the record’s stellar production; handled by an array of producers, these tracks traverse a range of styles from the old-skool turtablism of Illmatic-era DJ Premier to the wobbly synths of Flying Lotus‘ distinct brand of wonky hip hop.
Magna Carta is an extremely well-executed album; an album made only more striking by the knowledge that this is the artist’s debut record. Melanin 9 does not look to be a rapper willing to play to anybody else’s tune. Indeed, even on Love Stencil, which relays one of M9’s romantic encounters, he is not content simply to run the course of this specific sub-genre of hip hop narrative; instead, M9 amplifies and distorts numerous intimate details to create something that is simultaneously both transcendent and queasily stifling. Magna Carta then, whilst falling short of being a flawless first statement, represents an initial step on a trajectory that will surely see this talented young MC grow in his already fearsome stature.