In a recent interview about the creation of their collaborative The City Under the City, producer L’Orange and Kansas City spitter Stik Figa described the album as a tentative step out of their respective comfort zones. A chance to play “with a sound that isn’t completely unfamiliar, but unique”. It’s an attitude to the creation of the album that is reflected in the outcome; they are both audibly pushing themselves, but not engaging in any sort of grandstanding or out there experiments.
In effect they are poking around a little outside their known realms in order to better harness what they can do within them. L’Orange, whose beats usually twist 1920s era jazz into nifty head-nod loops, here not only moves forward chronologically to extract his beats from the fertile well of swing music, but also adds a more obvious boom-bap sensibility to better accommodate his new partner. Stik Figa, meanwhile, is a dependable but unremarkable MC who obviously thrives on being pushed a little, bringing more to the table here than it would at first appear.
Stik is one of those rappers with that most frustrating of problems; a lack of charisma or character that masks both his technical ability and his lyrical clout. At first, he sounds pedestrian, and his flow is so honed and in the pocket that what is actually a demonstration of well-oiled skill at first seems bland and washes over you. But after subsequent listens, it becomes clear that he is actually a rapper of rare depth and thoughtfulness. Over the course of the album he dissects memory in a way that is almost literary, wrestles with indecision and indiscretion, describes the “smell of blood and sweat from the horn section” and offers “a shot of purgatory with a splash of heaven”. It all paints a powerful picture that with perseverance renders any concerns of charisma or ‘swag’ totally irrelevant.
He’s helped along by L’Orange’s production work, of course, which retains a certain classiness at all times despite its effervescence. He twists aching vocal samples on “Monochrome”, bumps dusty guitars toward the back half of opener “Dusty Speakers”, and elsewhere spends his time updating the timeless bounce of swing music into the perfect bed for a rapper of Stik Figa’s caliber to spread his words of wisdom out on. It all combines to form something that most recalls that period in the first half of the 00s when the hip-hop underground briefly fell in love with a clearly defined strain of slickly executed classicism.
L’Orange is having fun here though; mid-song beat flips are common and perfectly judged, and he lets himself go on the small smattering of instrumentals, particularly the sublime “Bravo Bravado”. Here he sounds like nothing more than Deadringer-era RJD2, chopping up horns and guitar into a riotous instrumental hip-hop cut. When this same buoyancy is laced with Stik Figa’s bars the results are some of the album’s most powerful moments.
The City Under the City probably won’t change anyone’s world. It suffers slightly from its occasional lack of character and inventiveness. But as a slab of thoroughly well-produced, thought-provoking hip-hop, it won’t disappoint. The beats knock but are richly textured, the flow is on point, and lyrics are ripe with substance; for a lot of heads, that’s all that is strictly necessary.
3.5 out of 5
You can buy the album on Amazon.