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.