The New York City listening party for Seattle rapper Raz Simone’s new album, Cognitive Dissonance: Part One, was held last week at a midtown recording studio with a familiar address. Googling the building number returns a New York Times article from November 30, 1994. That’s the day three assailants shot Tupac Shakur five times as he was on his way into Quad Studios, presumably to add yet another set of songs to his already hulking rap catalog.
While it’s reasonable to assume the shooting curtailed a recording session that might have resulted in yet another classic piece of hip-hop, the five bullets that entered Tupac’s body that day provided a vital fuel for the lore his disciples continue to recite well after his untimely death. Without these violent episodes, the rapper’s mythos is diminished, and, in a tragic way, so is hip-hop’s. Those bullets – rigid articles originally invented to end lives – are the same savage elements that give breath to much of rap music.
And so goes the cycle of tragedy begetting enlightenment on Raz Simone’s Cognitive Dissonance. This is hip-hop’s version of the law of entropy, where the isolated system trends dispassionately toward a maximum state of existence while simultaneously not allowing any of the pain, violence and regret to escape. Raz fuels his creative fire with all of it. He originally learned to rap over movie scores, which explains the crests of crescendo and nadir on album opener “They’ll Speak”, a nearly-five-minute autobiographical crash course where Raz’s voice rises and falls with Hans Zimmer’s dramatic Inception instrumental. Raz’s approach to making songs is thus far moderate and calculated. His previous solo debut EP, Solomon Samuel Simone, contained nothing that could be qualified as a “banger,” which was all the better for introducing a rapper who doesn’t clock in and out with styles of the moment.
Likewise, much of Cognitive Dissonance allows for quiet spaces where Raz can find lanes for his impassioned speech. “Don’t Shine” is another cinematic opus: thundering drums break delicate keyboard plinks amidst Raz’s lyrics about hustling in an environment that suffers from constant moral decay. “So Far, So Far” is, ostensibly, a gentle coming-of-age ballad but grows far darker upon closer inspection. The production work on Cognitive Dissonance varies, in turns, between emotive and turbulent, but the greatest instrument here is Raz’s voice: a gruff, gravel bed of timbre (they didn’t used to call him “Razpy” for nothing) that ranges from a harsh whisper to world-weary preacher levels of bombast. When paired with more conventional beats (“Thirsty”) his voice does all the heavy lifting. “8 Rangs” is the closest Raz comes to taking a victory lap, and his understated flow in the song’s first two verses requires close listening to understand that, even on the cusp of music stardom, a darker past continues to shadow him.
Raz has no boundaries in subject matter. He talks openly of familial rape, infidelity, shoot-outs and drugs deals. He stretches the seams of visceral hip-hop writing, showcasing a movie director’s knack for allowing emotions to swell behind music.
Yet, there is rarely a moment when you want to immediately rewind a section of a verse, no blink-or-you’ll-miss-’em metaphorical workouts. In this way, the record is also kind of a bummer. A self-proclaimed “thinker,” Raz isn’t focused on making “fun” music, which for some is a necessary precept in hip-hop. Cognitive Dissonance is a totally immersive experience – a major accomplishment – but that immersion also becomes its greatest weakness: sometimes you feel like you’ll drown in it. Raz smartly maintained the album’s length at ten tracks; anything more and it would have collapsed under its own weight.
Cognitive Dissonance is the culmination of a now months-long creative partnership between Raz’s independent Black Umbrella record label and Lyor Cohen’s new music venture, 300 Entertainment. It defies the standard label deal and I don’t think the myriad blogs that have covered the signing fully understand how it works. News that a rapper from Seattle not named Macklemore had signed to 300 was an industry-sized announcement. While Mack’s songs are Cliff’s Notes for the liberal, educated social agenda, Raz’s are fervent entries, scribbled outside the margins of an intensely pensive street hustler’s notebook. Cognitive Dissonance — and other albums like it — are important in the way student-led rallies at major universities are important: dissenting actions fucking up the grounds of stifling institution. Macklemore’s The Heist, though it would like to be otherwise, is merely status quo for its intended audience.
Raz uses cognitive dissonance at once to proudly claim his hometown (the Adele-sampling “Hometown”) and also to dismiss its confined area and approach to “making it” in the rap game (“Swim Away”); he seems to pray to God in one minute (“Don’t Shine”) and then raises his head in defiance while everyone else is kneeling in the next (“Bow Down”). In the circumscribed realm that is hip-hop, there’s no other method of practice other than the one that breeds conflict. The only redeeming endgame for Raz’s gangsterism is the type of consciousness he displays on “Natural Resources”, where he documents how America’s downtrodden routinely turn dirt into diamonds. This is all-at-once, multitudinous-type shit; the kind of artful woe that Tupac lived for but died making.