I know this is not an appropriate response to a hip-hop album, but my immediate reaction to Weekened Cult by The Fist Fam is both to cheer and to buy those guys a round of wheatgrass shots. Mainly I say the second part because I like this band as much I like this new album and I want them to keep going to make a next collection of fiery, fierce songs. I want to keep them healthy.
But I don’t think Fist Fam is interviewing potential den mothers. They’re doing what they do best — fiery-fierce hip-hop underscored by thick grooves (more music, fewer canned beats) that serve as a platform rather than a foil for high-minded, close-to-the-mic rhymes. The LP opens with a powerful punch to the gut. And an f-bomb in the first sentence. But the rhythm is so smooth, such an even rocking, that the politically-charged lyrics are easy to gloss over (on an initial listen) and the ear just goes with the beat.
“Stripper Glitter & Cognac” blossoms right out of the previous track without so much as a pause for breath. This track features Harvey Merkulson (a Fist Fam alum) — he has an immediately identified voice, an acute nervous energy and a clever sense of word play, toeing a line between gangster and jokester. Merkulson returns on “Ratface.”
“Our Life is Marble” creeps and struts with syncopated beats and lyrics that weave between politics and mythology, plumbing the archetypes of the lower classes and the aspects of life that might feel unworthy of allegory and yet are such an integral part of the human experience. “Feel like I spend more time on my job than in my castle,” says one poignant verse. “Apparently therapy ain’t covered in my health plan. Maybe take a class and try to get a Pell grant.”
But this album is not all the politicization of poverty and meditations on mortality. There are many moments of levity, though perhaps none more exquisite than “Drinkin & Smokin” with its groove so heavy and its rhymes so aggressive you can’t help but bob your head. “You’re wearing a skirt and playing a bagpipe? Man up fool, take a shot of this, act right.” Seriously, I don’t even know what to say to that. There are moments when I love a bagpipe. But still — “You can’t stop smoking (you really give a f*ck?), if you got it in your pocket break it out and blaze it up” — I mean, come on. The skipping, rollicking beat, the way the words roll from the tongue, the way the attitude is so perfectly, brilliantly reprobate. It just feels good.
North Carolina is mentioned in nearly every song (second only to liquor), which might come off as homesickness in a band based for the last several years in San Francisco. In fact Fist Fam (at least Gus Cutty and Philo) are in the process of moving back across the country. If you follow Cutty on Twitter, you have some idea of how much of a psychic shift this move is, an emotional roller coaster of excitement and dread. But the album reveals another side: This is a band that has kept at least one foot firmly planted in Carolinian identity (rewarded by a significant mention each year, as best hip-hop act, in Xpress‘s annual Best of WNC readers’ poll). And one foot firmly planted at the bar.
So, it’s worth mentioning (wheatgrass aside) that there’s some rough material here, especially for those listeners of a sensitive nature. Substances are imbibed, weapons are purchased, the word “bitches” is not used in reference to dog breeding. It can be argued that this vocabulary is the framework of hip-hop, a musical aligned with a lifestyle that isn’t interested in glossing over the dark nights and anguish of being human. But Weekend Cult is is smart album and it isn’t satisfied with coasting on cliches. The track “The Man” is an enunciated depiction of a particular and individual sadness: “So my sheets stay warm, my heart stays frozen,” goes the rap.
If those are the low points (emotionally, not artistically), here are some high notes: “Post Work Drank” mentions San Francisco’s Mission district (and Johnny Walker). The music here — a tasteful guitar lick, some jazz piano and a low and mellow flute run, all juxtaposed with nimble percussion — is an apex on an album that’s already musically intricate.
“Oil Lamp Hash” is another standout. Lush, both instrumentally and lyrically, it floats on a heart-beat drop with a hook that’s sung all sleepy and behind the beat. This one could be a single, edging toward neo-soul.
In a dozen tracks, Weekened Cult spins its listeners through a thug’s paradise of street scenes, dreams, desperation and elation. Here, bravado is underscored by an almost spiritual self awareness and the studiously-informed sense of rhythm, rock and soul are so deftly executed that the culmination would feel like an illusion were it not so downright, undeniably danceable.