Underground hip-hop heads have known this for years, but it needs repeating: Detroit is killing it. From One Be Lo to the late J Dilla to Black Milk, the Motor City has no shortage of dope acts that combine the essence of boom-bap with their own personal touches. One Be Lo, for example, spits metaphor-heavy rhymes that separate him from the crowd while Dilla, well, what else could be said about him that hasn’t already. And when it comes to Black Milk, many critics and fans will argue that he is carrying the torch of the Detroit underground. But, to me, he represents a blend of electro-infused hip-hop that looks to be on the rise, particularly in that city. And after hearing 14KT’s stellar The Golden Hour, that style not only became clear, but instantly praiseworthy. Also, this producer, who has been making records for longer than a decade, is obviously aiming to further establish himself with a sound that bangs as much as it fills the room in reverb-drenched haze.
The Golden Hour kicks off with the pace- and mood-setting “The Waiting Room (The Main Theme)”. It is the first of 20 tracks brimming with sci-fi synths and electro drums, both of which have found their way back into hip-hop. And to a long-time listener, it comes off as a fresh way of injecting the genre’s humble beginnings into a new sound that recognizes its history. “The Waiting Room” leads the boom-bap spaceship into “Surgery”, another lush production highlighted by a brooding vocal sample and some sick in-stereo features. Just as impressive and similar in style are two cuts featuring female vocalists Tiffany Paige and Karla Crawford, who use their voices as instruments rather than as a means to simply belt out lyrics. As dope as Paige is on the warm “The Inside”, Crawford easily takes hold of the spotlight on the rhythm section-led “ICU Smile”. Her smooth voice melts into the gorgeous backdrop before she speaks on enthusiasm and optimism at the track’s end. It’s essentially hip-hop’s answer to Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier”, without the annoying robotic voice. Other choice tracks include the jazzy “Ypsilanti”, the erratic sample-heavy “NNE Mode”, and the aptly-titled “Illustrious (End Titles)”, which sounds like it jumped out of the ‘80s on the rising synths heard throughout.
But this album would not be as successful and well-rounded without a little variety thrown in. While the electro-infused beats tend to steal the show, the more traditional pieces are just as strong. And they also showcase 14KT’s unlimited abilities. On “The D Light in You”, he lays down a patchwork of banging drums that boom with that trademark Detroit sound, which is appropriate since he hails from nearby. Similarly, his tribute to the late James Yancey, “Without Dilla”, is a punchy joint that is short and sweet with some heavy vocal-sample chops. And though it leads into experimental territory with its fuzzy wall of sound, “Ivory Pillars” is more straightforward with hints of 14KT littered here and there. Our host for this album doesn’t only stick to boom-bap, though, which is another reason for The Golden Hour being more than just another banging instrumental record. 14KT also gets a little soulful for a few cuts. “Less Than Enough”, for example, shuffles with a twinkling piano and AB’s choice vocals. And on “Trust Issues,” the producer brings the mood down a notch while blending several pianos and samples with skin-slapping drums.
While the strengths on here are far greater in number than the weaknesses, 14KT does slip up. Some tracks, like “Can We (Chill Again)”, can drone on and eventually lose your interest. And his heavy use of synths and keyboard is bound to turn some listeners away. Also, while the album’s pacing is, for the most part, balanced enough to not feel as long as it is, some portions of this record can drag. But, as mentioned, these minor missteps are few and far between.
As I would say about Black Milk’s Tronic and Invincible’s Shapeshifters, albums like these are what keep my sights focused squarely on Detroit. They also do a damn fine job of keeping my love for hip-hop pure and strong. While The Golden Hour isn’t flawless, it is an impressive showing that comes damn close to perfection.