Burns Like Hellby Eli Zeger
Musicians across different genres have been manipulating sound to achieve a phenomenon of temporal nonlinearity. Although a song plays for a set duration, the format can be reworked to function like a painting or piece of literature. Unlike drone, this kind of music isn’t static—it’s obviously ever-changing—yet compositions applicable to this approach each feel like a solid, contained space. For example, multi-instrumentalist Jim O’Rourke wrote a piece for the Whitney’s 2017 exhibition of Alexander Calder’s sculptures. At thirteen minutes, Calder Walk evokes nonlinearity in how it lays out instruments and shifting passages less like a song structure than a visual structure; you can listen for the trumpets, or direct your gaze towards them.
Brooklyn rap collective Standing On The Corner explore nonlinearity much more comprehensively in their 2017 album Red Burns, a sonic canvas of hip-hop and hard bop hues disguised as a pirate radio transmission. Because the individual song names are so tough to discern (the track list is a long column written in small font on the cover), they act more like place markers listed in a DVD’s scene selection feature, tying into how they want each listen—like a proper film viewing—to go from front-to-back. On Bandcamp, the album is divided in half, into sides “X” and “Y.” But the Mediafire link on their website offers Red Burns full and uninterrupted by the track breaks. In terms of internet meme-speak, which is intrinsic to SOTC, the latter option presents this hour-long release as an “absolute unit.”
The title is SOTC head member Gio Escobar’s symbolic term for the irrevocable forms of pain (physical, textual/narrative, etc.) white people have inflicted on people of color for generations, including Escobar and his Puerto Rican family tree. He described it, in The Fader, as a phrase representing “a curse” on people of the diaspora.
At the same time, this album is a meditation on the importance of movements like Black Lives Matter and on the racial hatred summated by the 2016 presidential election. This is thematic nonlinearity for music which simultaneously roots itself in history and insists on its status in the present moment.
Internet memes serve the purpose of grounding Red Burns as a significantly relevant product. SOTC’s website is a potpourri of memes spanning the page: captioned jpgs, gifs, screenshots from schoolyard fight videos of punches hurling into cheeks. One viral gif shows a kid seething at a table, resting his forehead against his hand; suddenly he’s throwing a millisecond-long tantrum before going still again. “If we had to choose a thesis for the [mixtape], it was that kid,” Escobar told The Fader. That gif embodies the confusion of feelings, in how emotional responses don’t necessarily follow an understandable progression.
Escobar delivers a monologue around the eight minute-mark that reflects this confusion. Observing his neighborhood on a summer night, he sees a mother “...crying for her baby / Somebody got a new baby, sadly, or happily / You can never really tell.” The parent’s true feelings over something as momentous as having a new child are neither clear nor congruous and they don’t align with those expected by society, while the tantrum kid’s inner rage comes out looking too gauche to be taken seriously. Escobar and SOTC have felt similarly inconsistent—so many emotions in flux to settle into just one, all of them randomly clashing with each other—in responding to the current sociopolitical climate.
The lo-fi production serves to represent emotional confusion and convey it on a smaller scale. Distorted, tinny sound quality gives Red Burns the semblance of a late-night radio program with poor signal (the noise of flipping between different stations leads to a mock 1010 WINS newscast at one point), but it also obfuscates tender, major-key melodies. One passage has a droning hiss and Vincent Price’s “Thriller” cackle play over a loop of G-major guitar, culminating in a jarring mix of warmth and mildly sinister vibes.
Another moment has a rap airhorn cutting over a low, slightly distorted Badalamenti-style chord, making a device otherwise used for hyping shit up instead sound vulnerable and trapped in the Black Lodge. SOTC’s decision to emphasize musical elements as free and discrete shapes, such as the airhorn and the looping guitar, rather than pack them into typically compartmentalized song structures, helps render the album as something like static visual art. In Red Burns, there’s a powerful sense of space and dimension; it’s right before your eyes.
Red Burns inverts mixtape traditions in order to posit itself as evergreen. If and when rappers incorporate radio, they tend to use it merely as an intermission skit, but in SOTC’s case it’s the crux of their album and, as a result, makes their work sound permanently urgent. Freestyles are an outlet for spontaneity and formless creativity—SOTC infuse these two aspects (without explicitly referring to any of the tracks on the release as “freestyles”) into their artistic core as a means to meditate on the racism and other disparities on which America is built and continues to thrive. Clear-cut songs would’ve meant breaking up and conforming their message, which is why the Brooklyn collective opted to conceive Red Burns as a gigantic sonic canvas. This rejection of restraint makes their music feel, in spite of their youth, ageless.
Eli Zeger is a writer and musician originally from Montclair, NJ. His work has recently been published in Van Magazine, Red Bull Music Academy Daily, Vinyl Me Please, and other outlets.