Apollo Brown: Thirty Eight
Mello Music Group

Apollo Brown's instrumental album Thirty Eight arrives with an admonition, specifically that one should not approach the recording as a “beat tape” but rather “as an expansive cinematic composition for the theatre of your mind.” Fair enough: the twenty-two-track collection certainly does qualify as a reimagining in instrumental hip-hop form of a gritty Blaxploitation film of the ‘70s with Richard Roundtree in the lead and Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield on the soundtrack. One imagines the film's colour stock washed-out and its landscape populated by hookers, pimps, drug dealers, beat cops, and shady characters aplenty. And just as a typical film will explore a number of contrasting moods, Brown does much the same in dotting Thirty Eight's boom-bap world with soul tunes, torch songs, and bluesy ballads.

To be more precise, Thirty Eight is an instrumental album, but it's also one featuring an abundance of vocal samples, some high-pitched and sped up (see the deliciously soulful “Learn the Meaning” and bluesy “Lonely and Cold” as representative examples) and others left in their original form (among the more recognizable ones is a line lifted from “The Long and Winding Road” for “Never Disappear”). It's these snippets, of course, that cumulatively generate an album-length narrative, even if only by way of allusion; in that regard, a plot could be fashioned from titles such as “Shotguns in Hell,” “Cleo's Apartment,” “Black Suits,” and “Lonely and Cold” alone.

Adding to the evocation of an era now decades gone, the tracks are smothered in crackle and hiss, as if they've been exhumed from dusty bins in used record shops. To go along with the vocal samples, Brown sprinkles his arrangements with flute, organ, strings, vibes, horns, bass, clavinet, and guitar—key elements all, though none as important as the downtempo boom-bap reliably in place as the material's foundation. As pleasing to the ears as its hypnotic vocal-and-vibes combination is, “Dirt on the Ground” receives its most potent kick from its drum pattern, while a sultry soul ballad such as “Wise Man's Woman” is similarly boosted by a thudding groove. Brown's soundworld is even expansive enough to accommodate the croon of a lounge lizard (“Sweet Revival”), though once again the glue connecting it to the other cuts is its head-nodding groove. And when a hushed choir intones against a strings-drenched boom-bap pulse during “The Answer,” the effect is less kitsch than transcendent.

At twenty-two tracks, Brown's first instrumental album since 2011's Clouds is a generous offering, so much so that the two alternate versions featuring added verses by New Yorker Roc Marciano have the feel of bonus tracks. If anything the inclusion of two MC treatments, as satisfying as they are on their own terms, lessens slightly the project's sense of unity. Given that, it's nice to see that Mello Music Group has packaged the CD release such that the Marciano tracks appear on an accompanying five-inch vinyl disc (the release is also available in a full-vinyl format that itself comes with a 45 featuring two bonus instrumentals). Format details aside, instrumental hip-hop heads would be wise to check it out.

June 2014