Candidates for top 10 albums of 2002: Non Phixion - The Future Is Now
very fall, you’ll find frantic “albums of the year” lists. But, since some albums are still honeymooning, others are stuck in the just-play-out phase, and you haven’t given radiohead albums enough of a chance yet, any judgment is premature. So, every year (as of last year) I don’t do that. But I do something very close: I make “albums of the year” lists for 10 and 20 years back—stuff from my own lifetime that’s had enough time to pickle. Hindsight’s 20/20, right? (Then again, isn’t everything backwards in your rearview mirror?) 2002 is going to be especially tough to get down to 10 records. In fact, I may go up to 25. We’ll see. In the meantime, I’ll throw up some re-reviews) on the candidates, over the next few weeks/months.
It’s a lot of fun to go back and cement yourself in a specific moment in music (and memories.) I recommend it. I’m a sucker for chronology. It constantly blows my mind that two records I associate with completely different moods or even phases of my life—let alone the chronicles of music itself—came out a few months apart. (For example, In a timeline/family-tree of rap, it feels like The Chronic and Rage’s self-titled are generations apart.) Some of this has to do with my own relationship with the records (I was aware of Rage at the time but didn’t discover Dr. Dre until 8th grade so when I heard The Chronic it felt like traveling way back in time) but it’s also true that the music often speaks for itself. On that note, here is best attempt to speak for it…
The Future is Now
Uncle Howie Records
Concept albums are ambitious and they usually suck. They’re especially rare in rap and even more unlikely to work. But The Future is Now isn’t a continuous narrative the way Mr. Lif’s I Phantom (from the same year and also a candidate) tries to be. So maybe this isn’t a concept record as much as an aptly titled album with incredibly consistent content. Anyway, it’s awesome.
This concept I’ve been crooning about is absurdly simple: the future is now. You think super-surveillance and thugged-out self-preservation is going to dominate our dystopic future? It is. Here. Now. The message: forget the future; the present is just as preposterous and deserves our attention. This is raw-urban-pseudo-politics, somewhere in between the excited criminal storytelling of Rae/Ghost and the socially conscious criticism of Immortal Technique. There’s rampant paranoia but no actual accusations—other than “they put poison in the weed.” Track titles like “The C.I.A.’s Trying to Kill Me” and “Black Helicopters” are indicative (and the two best songs on the album.) It’s worth mentioning that Non Phixion is fully aware of any irony in their paranoia: before the chorus to “The C.I.A.’s Trying to Kill Me” (that starts with the words “I’m paranoid”) the group’s most dynamic emcee, Ill Bill, raps:
“Jesus Christ was a gangsta rapper
They killed him then he came back and made a platinum album
The path I travel’s like the dragon shadow
Invisible to CIA camera angles
They got a file on every rap group
They killed the last man that had proof
They after me for information that I have too”
The Future is Now brings together impressive lyrical skills, unique content, bare-bones but brutally hard beats, and convincingly aggressive vocals. It’s underground in both form and content. Another telling lyrical excerpt from Ill Bill is laced with impressive multi-syllable rhymes and rambling suspicion of authority archetypes: “Who decides truth? Guys in ties and suits? / Violent coups from private schools? / We got rules of taunt, duals of war, using thoughts like swords / Pay for groceries, the DNA clothes in your vocal cords.” But there’s also a lot of raw truth tangled up in these urban blues. This isn’t exactly “the black CNN” but discussing the future (i.e. now) offers opportunity for comment on the bizarre reality of the present. More indicative words from Ill Bill: “I don’t trust religion / I don’t trust the police or the justice system / Peace to whoever’s a hustler locked up in prison.”
There’s only one track with production (read: music) that fits Non Phixion’s cartoonish concept of the present/future. And that’s actually fortunate because it’s the biggest disappointment on the album. That song, “Strange Universe” featuring MF DOOM—who works in almost every other context—has a wonky beat that, despite intentionally tapping a theoretically apt outer-space vibe with lo-fi loops and twilight zone era effects, feels as out of place as DOOM’s half-assed verse. Thankfully, it’s the record’s only musical digression. (Sticking too staunchly to a concept record’s concept can get in the way of the music—see: prog rock.)
Throughout the album, the production is as straight up as can be, without ever being dull: looped strings, guitar, or piano, on top of a no-frills/no-distractions beat designed for rhyme. (I recommend checking out the instrumentals they released in 2004, for freestyling purposes especially.) And, somehow, the semi-yelled—think Ghostface, when he’s hyped—but never sung choruses are actually surprisingly catchy. (On “Say Goodbye to Yesterday” there’s an R&B guest-chorus that is very much sung but I don’t think that counts. That used to be a song I skipped but, in ten years, it’s grown on me. See why I do this?)
The problem with this record (like this review) is that it’s too long. The first nine songs make up a blistering masterpiece. But it takes a clumsy turn at “Strange Universe” and never recovers. The last track on the record, “The C.I.A. Is Still Trying to Kill Me” (a rap-rock remix) puts the nail in the coffin: it’s the exact recording of the song you heard 20 minutes earlier but cheapened by chug-a-chug palm muting and more cymbals.
Nonetheless, this is a great record with almost infinite drinkability. Even the relative political ignorance (at least, compared to Immortal Technique) demonstrates the boldness to name-drop and thoroughly own topics without fully grasping them but, more importantly, lays out the street-level distractions that demonstrate why a deeper understanding isn’t a high priority. The record is a diagnosis: we’re too distracted by phony notions of the future to actually get our shit together and deal with the present; the future is now.
Non Phixion gives us the concept—be aware of the absurdity of our cacophonous society—but they don’t preach about how we’re to handle the self-awareness they encourage. It’s actually refreshing: a concept album without a narrative allows you to own your own reaction. It’s more like a painting than a book or a movie; they’re showing you everything all at once, to stir your emotions, rather than insisting you stay the course through a specifically delineated journey with a predetermined conclusion. Although, the conclusion of this record is technically the rap rock track and, if that’s what the future looks like, that’s the best argument on the whole album to focus on the present.