Have you ever dreamed of a place, far away from it all?
Where the air you breathe is soft and clean, and children play in fields of green
And the sound of guns doesn’t pound in your ears.
From the moment Shawn Phillips’ disembodied voice glides across a soothing blend of strings and acoustic guitar, it’s apparent that Apollo Brown’s new instrumental album will travel far beyond his usual boundary of sample-heavy boom bap, punctuated by the throaty wails of soul singers and nostalgic crackling of old vinyl. That’s not to back the prominent Detroit producer into an artistic corner, but it is difficult to imagine Apollo constructing anything but dirty, methodical compositions, over which Journalist 103, Boog Brown and others wax poetically about better days and surpassing strife. On Gas Mask, for instance, Apollo’s urgent soundtrack painted an intricate landscape of angst and urgency within the Motor City. On Brown Study, the mood was relaxed, as the producer’s stripped-down approach played well against Boog Brown’s fluid storytelling.
Perhaps on purpose, Apollo is equally restless and subdued on Clouds, a thoughtful 27-track opus that remains true to the producer’s gritty hip-hop roots, while resurrecting the reflective spirit of J-Dilla. With his latest recording, Apollo does what few composers are able to do: He crafts an instrumental project so compelling that vocals aren’t needed to emphasize his point. In fact, words would’ve gotten in the way.
Instrumental albums teeter dangerously between exuberance and monotony. The best projects tend to have quick song transitions that take listeners on an efficient journey through sonic space. Conversely, instrumental albums with long, repetitive loops have shorter shelf lives and tend to plummet upon consumption. It’s a fine line that only a handful of producers can balance, given the immediacy of our current Internet-driven music industry, in which projects are outdated just months after being released. And it can be even more challenging in hip-hop, since the focus has shifted from the extended break beats of its infancy to the overconfident lyricism of its adulthood.
To simply call Clouds a “hip-hop record” is a disservice, as its calm feeling is similar to the breezy melodic ambiance of pianists Burt Bacharach and Sergio Mendes. With Apollo, however, he blends strings and chilling piano chords with booming drums, resulting in a sophisticated recording more suited for thinking than freestyle rapping. “Drinking Life”, for instance, stands out as a captivating, synth-heavy arrangement that’s also perfect for ciphers. And if producers are measured by their crate-digging abilities, Apollo proves that he’s worthy of praise. On “Tao Te Ching”, he composes a leisurely interpretation of the oft-sampled “Humpty Dumpty”, released by Placebo some 40 years ago.
In other circumstances, an album with so few standout songs could spell doom for the project. In Apollo’s case, the lack of noteworthy tracks on Clouds adds to the project’s cohesiveness, resulting in a seamless recording that easily ascends to the top of his brief discography. If Apollo Brown’s last instrumental album — Make Do — was drenched in upbeat hip-hop with vocal loops, Clouds is equally saturated in nocturnal hip-hop with fewer samples and scratches. Here, dusty Inspectah Deck and Nas vocals are replaced with horns, finger snaps and hollow echoes. All told, Clouds is moody without being overly emotional. It’s reflective and not too brooding.