A powerful, well-orchestrated introduction can do wonders for anybody, regardless of field, situation, or purpose. Musically, not much rivals the extreme importance of the first track of an album. For any who still listen to a project from start to finish, the beginning moments and minutes of a record are vital. If I don’t like the first track, chances are I won’t love the album. The possibility of perceiving the entire work as “special” is diminished immediately.
Fortunately, I did not just like the first song from Seattle-based rap duo Grayskul’s new album, Zenith, but I thoroughly loved it. Legendary Wu-chef Raekwon provides the opening words over solemn, calmly played notes on a keyboard before, like an invasion, warped instrumentation floods your ears. As the hook and its accompanying melodies slide into the frame of the track and the organized chaos of the verse subsides ever so slightly, the success of Grayskul is already apparent: They are capable of creating experimental, abrasive, and loud music while retaining enough form and sonic satisfaction to make for an enjoyable experience.
To put it simply, every song that compiles this project is different. “Come On” sees Onry and JFK rapping viciously over a beat that, while rooted by boom-bap influence, reaches so much further. On “The Gift”, the versatility of the group is evident. The somber emotions captured by the production, which is the most atmospheric thus far, conveys the “overcast” weather and indie sensibility associated with so many artists from Seattle: “Poking holes in the overcast, I guess it’s just a symptom of the atmosphere / But that’s what brought us here”. The influence that Seattle holds over Grayskul’s music (and therefore, their success) is not forgotten by the two group members.
However, “The Gift”, along with many others tracks, is not perfect: the lack of vocal dexterity and flow-related slip-ups are issues that poke holes in an otherwise high-quality release. “I Adapt” features an over-produced chorus with a rather forgetful middle verse, while “Wide Awake” boasts production that treads the line between “mainstream” and “experimental” well, but unimpressive lyricism slows the addicting, impeccable pace set by songs such as “We Vanish” or “ Apollo 11”. For instance, Onry—who more often than not raps very well—contributes a verse that houses lines as cringe-worthy as, “We could fly away / Pelican”.
It is also worth noting that, after repeated listenings, it became undeniably clear how similar JFK’s vocals are to Joell Ortiz’s. This makes for an interesting dilemma: The Seattle rapper’s voice is differentiated from everyone else… except, unfortunately for one man who has already established a larger following. It’s like Action Bronson getting called a Ghostface Killah impostor all over again, though clearly Grayskul has been bouncing around the underground for a minute. Also compelling is the dynamic between group members Onry and JFK. Onry serves as the solid rock in the foundation, constantly providing well-delivered raps that resonate well, but also lack in variety. JFK, the far more animated element of Grayskul, always hits a certain energy level and does not advance nor regress. This phenomenon actually yields a result similar to that of Onry: both rappers grow mildly boring by the time the hour-plus-long Zenith comes to an end.
Like so many other artists before them, Grayskul created an album that was just a little too lengthy, and just a little under-focused. At times, one cannot help but wonder how much better this already solid project could have been with an increased dose of quality control. A great intro does not always guarantee a great album, but in the case of Grayskul, it may very well hint towards something great that has yet to come. Here’s to hoping it arrives sooner rather than later.
3.5 out of 5
You can purchase Zenith on Amazon.