Angelo Mota, “Crystal Avenue” Review

(This piece was originally published through TeamBackPack.net.  It is republished here in it’s original form. TeamBackPack, the Truest Platform.)

Is there a single art scene in the world more crowded with quality content than the underground hip-hop community in New York City and the surrounding territories?  Probably not, but that hasn’t stopped a younger generation of top tier rapping purists and genuine artists working out of the five boroughs and surrounding areas from stepping into the ring and offering their contribution to hip-hop music and culture.  Angelo Mota is such a voice, and on Crystal Avenue, Mota proves that he has something to say and a unique talent for speaking in a tone that transcends the saturated New New York Sound.  

Listen to Crystal Avenue cover to cover if you haven’t already, and see what Angela Mota has to contribute to Underground Hip-hop

I’ll clear the air and admit from the jump that Crystal Avenue doesn’t sound much like most underground hip-hop mixtapes.  For one, the production is crisp and clear, mostly influenced or directly created by Mota’s own developing hand behind the boards.  And you can’t miss the wider concepts and narrative themes that make this 2015 release sound more like a full album than a typical tape.  But it’s this kind of atypical and hard to characterize approach to music that has made dozens of projects in the past months, from Acid Rap to Civilia, sound more like fully delivered albums than throw away “mixtape material.”  “Almost famous” ish: if Moto is going to make it big, it will be as his own artist.  

From the first track “love my life,” it’s clear that Mota isn’t interested in handling the same old subject matter with the same old hip-hop tricks.  The tracks echoing chorus is at once highly self-aware and touchingly self effacing: “Man I love my fucking life / let’s be hopeful, let’s be high / let’s be ignorant and blind / let’s be children all the time.”  If the semi-sarcastic delivery didn’t cue you off, the sonically shaking “yeah right” following each happy hook should help you listen carefully.  Yes, the production feels bouncy and upbeat and Mota is rapping about all the reasons he “loves his life,” but it’s clear that there is a lot more nuance and darkness in that love than most people Mota’s age usually confront; “loving you is complicated.”  

Angelo Mota knows how to write songs that carry universal themes but sound unique.  See: “I Love You.”

As the project’s themes develop, Mota’s self deprecating and tragically self-aware relationship to his own art and life are put front and center again and again.  Standout single “I Love You” sounds a lot more like a break-up song than the straight-forward “young rapper, young love” track that you might expect from that cliche’d title.  “Another night not alone” is a great example of Mota’s more obviously depressed and depressing song writing, but even as the New Jersey MC croons “I just miss you, I can’t help it,” the track’s production and melody sound like something Chance or Gambino would turn into a bright and uplifting neo-soul genre bender.  

But despite the lure of potential widespread commercial viability, and an obvious ability to write original songs on any subject and in any tone, Mota consistently resists the temptation to tell a happy story that isn’t his.  For every song on Crystal Avenue written in a major key or sporting organic and “upbeat” production, there’s a dozen references to drug abuse and self hate.  For every braggadocios line channeled straight from the young male ego, there are twenty doubting reflections on life, love, darkness, light, and all of the kinds of themes that you don’t hear young voices reflecting on deeply often enough.  

You don’t have to believe that Angela Mota is one of the best Underground Hip-hop voices coming out of New Jersey.  But after listening to Crystal Avenue, there’s an argument to be made.  

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something's wrong

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Yes, Mota has a young voice.  Yes, his music is deliciously dark and deep without being overbearing, and communicates something instantly relatable in Mota’s eloquent handling of the scariest elements of an adult artist’s lifestyle.  Yes, his songwriting is at once musically complex and entirely accessible, but none of that provides the “it” factor that makes Crystal Avenue a success.

Angelo Mota’s music is undeniably good because it is undeniably his own.  That’s underground hip-hop done right: unique art with unique heart.

Mota knows he has a unique and talented voice, and isn’t afraid to defend it.  What’s more NYC hip-hop than that?

Looking deeper at “Crystal Avenue,” the thumping and ambient title track for the project, it’s clear that Mota’s work is about a lot more than cloud inspired hooks and accessible beats.  Here’s a look at some of my favorite lyrics:

Reincarnation of Jimmy, Fuck with me /

Tread past just like gum on his shoe /

Get stuck quickly, turna  dollar and a dream /

To a guap and a buck fifty

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Look, I get that every rapper worth his salt can rap about how dope they are and how much bread they stack.  But someone told me recently: hip-hop ain’t told in novels, it’s told in songs.  Subject matter only takes you so far.  Everyone can talk about their swag and their cash, but Mota proves, again, that tired themes can always feel fresh with the right use of the write words.

This my affidavit, I tried to read up on some Plato /

Tried to master phrasing /

And it don’t take a fucking party song to master statements /

I wrote it by the track between the grass and the pavement

Yup.  There are a lot of layers here.  From some nice wordplay (track like a song, track like a football field at the high school you lost your virginity at,) to some unique references (not many rappers talk about Plato these days,) to a look at his own art (you already mastered phrasing, Angelo,) to some nice statements and some nuanced storytelling, this short pack of bars has it all.

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i'm not done

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And that’s Crystal Avenue in a nutshell; this project kind of has it all, like actually.  (Top tierhip-hop visuals too.)

The features are few, but strategic (shout out to Siimba always).  The details are all there, from some interesting and forward thinking mixing that highlights Mota’s duality with top tier sonic curation to the well composed and loose narrative outlined through Crystal Avenue’s series of very brief skits.  The big picture components are all polished, from Mota’s unique and complex flow to the project’s consistently dope bars and rhyme schemes, to the young MC’s incredibly developed artistic voice.  The songwriting is lush, the hooks are appropriate if not always simple enough to get stuck in your head.  I should stop the fanboying before developing a full blown Mota Standom, because ultimately, no art is perfect.  

But if you are looking for a perfect introduction to underground hip-hop from New Jersey, Angelo Mota gives listeners just that with a unique voice on 2015’s Crystal Avenue, this week’s Mixtape Monday showcase.  

 

Art and Depression in Generation Xany Zombie

This piece was originally published via TeamBackPack. This is an exact re-published copy with updated links.  

(RE: Art and Depression)

I’m sitting in a puddle of sweat on a sofa that Craigslist rejected. I’m in my apartment near the beach, it’s summer, the sun is out, my air conditioning is broken, I’ve just drunken a twelve pack of cans and smoked too much and eaten too much Jack in the Box again, I’m depressed, I’m sweating, I’m listening to Knxwledge and J. Cole mixtapes, I’m Lazy, I’m restless and I’m sweating, I’m hungry and miserable, and everything smells like dirty socks, and these things happen. We are young and alive, and depressive angst is a generational pastime. In those moments of complete and wretched self loathing, I look to escapism just like too many other twenty-something soul-searching artists, running away from an existential crisis with our eyes closed.

One fried brain cell at a time.

And then I sleep it off, I wake up, I get moving, I drink some Orange Juice. I walk to the beach and have feelings. I throw-up maybe, I laugh probably, life goes on, I write something about it, I listen to Bob Marley, I listen to Guru, I make an omelette and lemonade, life goes on. Like every Lost Generation before us, we find art in pain, color in grey, our hands building something beautiful from the fear of nothingness; depression and creation have been at war always, always will be. And we’ve always looked towards escapism while caught in the middle. And we’ve always slept it off; life goes on, nothing new under the sun.

Except I see a new look in your eyes like you haven’t woken up, like you can’t sleep it off. I see a monkey on your back singing old Weeknd songs and forgetting all the words; I see him reach into his purse and pull out another pill, a different color than the last one maybe, an old classic back in rotation that tastes familiar when it deadens your fingertips. I watch lily-white all encompassing nothingness leave his monkey hands, dance over your lips and into a heart that is getting too accustomed to not feeling and not walking to the beach. I see the Zombie taking over.

I want to hold you. I want to scream in your ear until you can’t avoid the ringing. I want to tell you in words that will matter to you: “If we can’t sleep it off and feel again in the morning, art and life don’t stand a chance.”

I know the struggles of a depressive addictive creative with no back-up plan. I know it’s easier sometimes to reach for that bottle again, or whatever you prescribe yourself to blunt the everything. And I know that, eventually, you have to snap out of it; you have to write about it, or dance about it or sing about it, or make in whatever way lets your heart breathe deep from the gorgeous shit that keeps you alive about it. You have to swim in it. You have to process something, you have to feel something; you have to be something that answers your questions, you have to feel something, anything.

I’m afraid of my own worst destiny when I see those dead eyes that haven’t slept it off, and I’m afraid of yours. I’m afraid you won’t make it back up for breath. I’m afraid that everything you could have created, everything you could have been and brought into the world and every fingerprint you could have left on someone else’s heart who needed it, every piece of art you finished in a dream is being stolen from you one pill at a time, one escape at a time, one bender that never ends at a time.

Until there’s nothing left to feel but nothing.

I’m afraid for my generation’s soul when I see another artist I love diving deeper into something they can’t wake up from, and I’m afraid for what’s next if we can’t feel in the morning. If we never stop chasing the deeper grey one chemical reaction at a time, one nihilistic creation-suicide at a time, one denial of anything and everything at a time. “Generation Zany Zombie” isn’t held down by a pill or boxed in by a world too grey; there have always been pills, there have always been clouds that make you forget that the sun’s still warm. Our problems aren’t new, our escapes aren’t novel. But the total acceptance of total numb by so many of us, and the way the rest of us look on totally accepting that numbness, is scary.

I’m afraid we’ll all start believing the statements we make in this forfeit to nothing-grey: that depression wins always and forever, and that art can’t save us anymore. That we need to reach for a pill to survive, when the only way we can truly thrive is by feeling the anything that that pill defeats and bringing that anything to life. I’m afraid of what the world will look like when we lose the will to speak because it all sounds the same anyway, lose the power to express what’s in our hearts because we’ve forgotten how to listen to the beauty they whisper in each beat.

I know we’ll make it through; I’m not sure what that “through” will look like.

Maybe we will chase the nothing-grey too deep. Maybe we’ll never wake up. Maybe Generation Zany Zombie is here to stay, and maybe art lost to depression in all of us, and maybe we’ll all die lukewarm too-grey deaths with empty note-books in our backpacks and songs whispering softly still in our hearts that won’t leave our lips and works of magic only finished in our dreams.

Or, maybe, we’ll sleep it off and wake up and feel. More Chance the Rappers defeating the numbness with sunshine, more Marshall Mathers pulling something powerful from the wreckage of stories that won’t let you escape forever. I know we’ll make it through; I hope that on the other side is a poem that says

“It’s ok to feel sad, just feel something. Set down that escape and make something about it. Your art/life depends on it.”

Summer is gone. I’m getting on a train again, and letting a friend escape a hug that I miss before it’s over.  She looks at me, really looks at me, and begs me, really begs me: “don’t smoke too much up there, ok?  Don’t numb everything, I just saw Andy and he looks like he’s been through hell. Don’t do that, ok?” I smile a bit, not with my eyes, and mean it when I look back, really look back, and tell her “ok, I’m gonna be ok, it’s ok.” I get on the train, sleep it off, wake up, and feel; our art/life depends on it.

 

5 Ways To Support Your Favorite Underground Hip-hop Artist Beyond A “Like”

underground hip-hop

I don’t care if it’s Tech N9ne signing his name on a million Strangers’ titties or Def-i responding to every Facebook comment on his fan page’s timeline; working underground hip-hop artists on every level depend on the same thing for their survival. The support of their fans. And as a fan of hip-hop, it’s in your best interest to support the bejeezus out of every artist whose music you enjoy.

If you want your favorite underground hip-hop artists to make music, support their dreams.  

But what’s “support” really mean?  Here’s a bit of news that shouldn’t serve as a wake up call to too many of you: “liking” your favorite rapper’s page or favoriting their latest tweet is peanuts.

Truly supporting hip-hop art takes more work than that. Here are five things you can do as a fan of underground hip-hop to more meaningfully and productively support your favorite artists.

underground-rappers

1. Spread The Music In Person

This past year, my New Year’s Resolution was to only play local underground hip-hop artists that I know in person and rock with on a personal level whenever the AUX chord comes my way. As a result, dozens of homies now name KWG among their favorite West Coast MCs and slide a track or two by Lost, the Artist or Notrotious next to Chance and Gambino on their own playlists.

That can cause a ripple effect, but it has much more impact than just helping the dude down the street who raps rack up a couple plays on SoundCloud.

Ultimately, artists like Tech only succeed in the long term because every Technician feels personally invested in Strangeland’s unique story. That kind of bond is only very rarely created through a digital exchange; Nina himself built his empire on years and years of touring and countless personal contacts.

Sitting a friend down and showing them an artist you really care about can recreate a shade of that personal experience, and give your homie a more unique reason to check out the rappers you ride for than if you just spammed their inbox with music videos. If you’re a DJ or trusted taste maker in your community, even better, but every fan can do their part in spreading the word on a personal and intimate level.

2. Stop Stealing Art You Believe In

Look, I’m not gonna front and pretend like I bought every album in my iTunes library. But if you really believe in the music that your favorite underground hip-hop artist creates, putting your money where your mouth is is hugely important.

When you can, buy albums outright and directly from artists themselves whenever possible. When you can only spare a buck or two, cop the single or donate on Bandcamp.

keep-calm-and-stream-itIf you hunger for more music than your wallet can support, start streaming things on Spotify or watching YouTube videos instead of reaching straight for the torrent search bar. Yeah, your favorite rapper barely makes a fraction of a penny when you stream things on most services, but it still counts for something if you leave that Tidal playlist on a constant loop.

 

“Buy my music, don’t steal it.”  –Vince Staples

Personally, I try to buy one album per month. Usually that’s my favorite drop by anyone from Nas to Jeff Turner to Kendrick Lamar; whatever I’ve listened to the most in a month or has moved me the most, I will support with my hard earned cheddar.

When I can, it’s a physical copy bought straight from the hands of a hungry artist at a merch booth in the back of a dirty bar. Because that’s just how it should be done. Speaking of which…

3. Go To The Fucking Show, Buy The Fucking Merch

Look, for years the headline hasn’t changed: the record industry is broken and dead and never coming back and probably barely worth mourning. Which is why everyone from Chance to Lil B to Alien Family needs YOU, as a fan of underground hip-hop, to step the fuck up.
Go to the fucking show and buy the fucking merch, or your favorite artist will starve and their kids will starve and they will stop rapping and go work at a bank and you will live in a cold and empty world where the only rapping left is corporate and contrived pop-trap and you will cry the late great real spill of yesteryear and you will only have yourself to blame. Yes, it’s that important.

To “raw-1get to the next level,” no matter what level they are currently on, underground hip-hop artists need to prove to venues that they can bring in heads. Go to the show and you get to support your favorite rapper’s ascension to bigger and bigger venues while seeing them do their thing in person. Win-win.

Plus, many of your favorite rappers probably play shows that are way cheaper than you’d assume. I recently saw KRS for fifteen bucks.

There’s NOTHING like seeing your favorite artists live.

And while most venues either give artists a cut of the door or pay them upfront based on how many heads can be expected, going to shows provides you with an even better way to support the art you want to see winning. Buy the fucking merch.

Shut up and do it: walk to the back of that bar and find that table with a stoned roadie or, very often, the artist you believe in in the flesh. Buy a shirt, have a conversation, and put a dollar into an underground hip-hop artist’s pocket all at once. Win-win-win. Maybe someone from Strange will even sign your girlfriend’s jiggly bits.

4. Support Their Wider Presence On The Hip-hop Interwebs

Unless you are a thirteen year old living in 2009, you probably know by now that there are a LOT of cool places around the web beyond Facebook and Twitter. Hip-hop lives in every single one of those places. And one of the most important ways you can support the underground hip-hop artists you love through digital means is checking out where else they reside around the hip-hop internet outside of the basic social media landscape.

giphyPeeping an artist’s website can be a great way to learn more about them and get all of their media and info in one place, but it can also help the artist directly by providing them with web traffic figures that can be leveraged to secure blog placements in the future.

And while you are on their site, jump on that indie rapper’s mailing list to make sure you never miss an important update about their art. Digital numbers like these aren’t as obvious of a way to show your support as a Facebook like, but they can be even more important for the continued success of artists.

Even better than browsing your favorite rapper’s site? Engage with material when they are featured in the media and on hip-hop blogs. If a blog chooses to do a write-up on an underground hip-hop artist that you believe in and that post gets a ton of shares, comments, and interactions, said blog will be more likely to do more write-ups on said artist in the future.

It ain’t rocket science, just another win-win-win that takes moments of your time but can do a ton in securing exposure for music you want to see supported.

5. Go Beyond Basic Social Media Interactions

If these other four ideas all sound like too much effort (and they aren’t, #BUYTHEFUCKINGMERCH) there are plenty of ways you can support good hip-hop quickly and easily through social media beyond a basic “like” on a page or status.

761.gifGenerally, every positive interaction on social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are a good thing since they will lead to greater exposure, but there is a very significant hierarchy to how much support these interactions really translate into on the artist’s end.

On Facebook and Instagram, likes that come immediately or very shortly after material is posted will help those posts have a further “reach” and cross more eyeballs. Comments are even more important in improving the reach of anything that an artist posts, and Shares/Reposts take the cake for being even more significant. Same goes for Twitter: re-tweets are king.

Don’t worry too much about how or why, just get it through your head: a comment and share does a lot more to show your support than clicking that thumb and hoping that a notification and a warm and fuzzy feeling will keep your favorite rapper’s bills paid.

If you really support an artist, SHOW IT.  

The Bottom Line?

It’s not the 90’s, when big labels had big funds to invest in acts like Tupac or Lauryn Hill, acts that could straddle the too often conflicting worlds of commercial success and artistic excellence. It’s not the early 2000’s, when indie legends like MF Doom could count on regular record sales and a deep catalog to keep the lights on.

In this shit-speckled stage in the evolution of the underground hip-hop industry, artists on every level need YOU in order to keep making music.

Which means it’s up to you to do more than just throw a few “likes” around and hope for a better XXL class next year. Support the music you want to see getting made in the hip-hop scene, and the hip-hop scene will keep producing the kinds of music you want to hear. Fail to show your support, and we can expect more Boats, less Writeousness, plain and simple.

It ain’t that hard. Especially if you stop making excuses and put your money where your ears are.

How else can you support underground music? Sound off in the comments below.