Underground hip hop group uses experimental music to interrogate tough topics

WRITTEN BY: Charlie Gstalder, Opinions and Editorials Editor

Photo courtesy of Pitchfork.com

New York’s underground hip-hop scene is a throbbing, panting, hard-hitting, eclectic, jazz and soul sampling storm of everything music should be. Perhaps no one encapsulates this better than New York collective, Standing On The Corner. 

I first learned of Standing On The Corner by following their work on Earl Sweatshirt’s “Some Rap Songs” and Solange’s “When I get home,” and I was familiar with former member Slauson Malone’s collaborations with rappers MIKE and Medhane. Until last weekend that had been the limit of my knowledge. 

By the 33rd minute of Standing On The Corner’s 2017 release, “Red Burns,” founding member Gio Escobar cries “You like that new sh*t, better get that old sh*t first!” So, I did. 

“Red Burns” is a masterpiece, without a doubt one of the best albums I’ve heard in years. Sometimes described as an audial film, (think Good Kid m.A.A.d. City) Red Burns is a journey into the subconscious of primary vocalist Gio Escobar and primary producer Slasuon Malone. 

Rather than being divided into individual songs, the album was originally a continuous 62-minute-long track that was then divided into two sides, X and Y, on streaming services. While songs titles do exist, they are hand written on the album’s cover with time stamps serving as the listener’s only guide. 

Upon listening, you’re first struck by Slauson Malone’s production — it is a genre destroying twist of free jazz, ambient and hip hop that chops samples ranging from Helene Smith to A Tribe Called Quest.

Then you notice the vocals. On “Red Burns,” Standing on the Corner largely avoids traditional rap in favor of spoken word pieces, improvisational and free styled sections, filtered singing, affirmations, Yoruba prayers, Spanish singing, narrative hip-hop, ambient vocals, poems, Five Percent Nation and Nation of Islam teachings. 

Thematically, “Red Burns” addresses colonialism and immigration, the intercommunity violence of gangs and hustlers ruminations on the existence of the Devil – he is within each and every one of us and perhaps most importantly, the nature of New York. 

Explicitly, the project opens by explaining the record is about the inability to breathe, a direct reference to the murder of Eric Garner. Moreover, the titular character evoked in the album is Red Burns, a gangster that may or may not be from this mortal plane who ascends to new levels of evil and power upon jumping the Devil himself. 

The project is distinctly New York, referencing being on the block in “Puerto Rican Slippers” on Fiesta para san Lasaro Babalu and stressing the importance of respecting one’s Timberland boots on SahBabii/Now Nations End, “Step on these Timbs and the Revolution is right now.” 

Sadly, I fear I may have done this album a disservice in this review. Nothing I have written can come close to depicting the power and beauty of Red Burns. It is nearly infinitely dense, although each listen provides a new insight I may never truly understand all that it encapsulates. Quite simply, you must listen to this album… “right now.”