“I think underground is whatever your mood and your feelings might be at the time — so long as it’s the truth.”
Curtis Mayfield invoked those words before performing a live version of the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” in 1971. The soul singer’s musings on the mentality of the musical underground could be stamped bold across the cover of the Brooklyn-based rapper Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire’s Power & Passion EP. His first release since trading a life on the indie mixtape circuit for a deal with the major label Universal earlier this year, eXquire has repaid his new check-writers with five songs (and one a cappella rant) that are extraordinarily uncompromising. In eXquire’s hands, the idea of pitching from the underground is invigorating.
When eXquire inked with Universal earlier this year it caused a few ripples of surprise. His profile boomed when his song “Huzzah” was remixed to include independent all-stars EL-P, Das Racist, Danny Brown and Despot. Those names (and a video smartly spoofing the remix to Craig Mack’s “Flava In Ya Ear” flick) saw eXquire’s music increasingly reported on in mainstream outlets. But despite the viewing figures for the remix — which sit just shy of one million YouTube clicks now — eXquire stood apart from the other highly touted New York City artists who were being duly herded into the major label fold. Harlemites A$AP Rocky and Azealia Banks rapped over music that nodded as much to Texas’s screw scene and vogue-ish European dance tempos as New York’s rugged and ashen hip-hop past. For his part, eXquire’s key song had him drooling his wonderfully liquefied flow all over an instrumental of a song titled “Scumbags” that Necro produced for one-time Non-Phixion member Goretex — two names who came to prominence in the mid-’90s as part of a grass-roots reaction to rap’s increasingly glossier mainstream moves. eXquire’s music since the heights of “The Last Huzzah” has mined from similarly uncompromising production and Power & Passion resolutely follows suit. If eXquire has now been given the major label opportunity that his spiritual peers positioned themselves in opposition to, he seems to be nodding his head in due deference by grabbing it on his own unyielding terms.
So from the get-go, the tenor of Power & Passion distances eXquire from any of the mainstream trappings or casual fans he may have picked up over the last year. The production prospers in a gumbo of deep bass tones and dusky drums. “Cari ZaLloni,” named for the designer of the Cazal line of eye-wear, is eerie and elegiac, almost gothic-styled rap. In the context of the rest of the EP, the throb of scuzzy guitar running through the SpaceGhostPurrp-produced “Aggin Laer” seems like a rare moment of sweet lilting melody. The whole short shebang isn’t too far removed from a better-mastered take on RZA’s early backdrops for the Wu-Tang Clan.
“’Passion & Power’ is eXquire pulling stings and pushing buttons while showcasing an unbridled confidence in his ability as a rapper.”
eXquire’s lyrics take their cue from the production, appearing to an outside ear to consist of a stream of willful curse words and other things you’re not meant to use in polite conversation over the dinner table: “faggot,” “fuck,” and the introduction of eXquire’s “million-dollar dick” are cornerstones of the Power & Passion lexicon. But this is just part of eXquire’s ruse. On “The Message Part 1 and 2″ he tops off a series of lines bursting with industrial language by quipping, “This the only line that the radio won’t censor.” He’s in on the joke; the profane pranks are just there to catch the ear. eXquire is an exceptionally smart and sassy writer of raps and he knows damn well what he’s doing: He’s the kid at school who guffaws it up for his friends while also knowing the answers before the assignment was even given; he’s the wag at the bar ordering shots for everyone knowing that soon he’ll be the only sober one speaking and standing. Passion & Power is eXquire pulling stings and pushing buttons while showcasing an unbridled confidence in his ability as a rapper. Like Eminem, eXquire can turn run-on-rap-sentences into performance art. If you find yourself stuck on the coarse outer layer of his lyrics then, well, maybe that’s all part of his point.
Underscoring Power & Passion is a sense that eXquire was equal parts angry and contrary while recording it. At times he blasts out at those who’ve taken a shot at pigeon-holing his music. “The Message Part 1 and 2″ has him ragging on “all these cracker-ass bloggers trying to downplay my intelligence — fuck ’em.” (Despite the success of the “Huzzah” series of songs, eXquire has always insisted they’re not representative of him as an artist, and that “Huzzah” isn’t really a song about “drunk driving on a Wednesday” anyway.) This backlashing is complimented by eXquire’s creative contrarian streak. You suspect that sometimes he’s motivated to deliberately confound expectations. On “Cheap Whores & Champagne” he raps, “I was in Austin rockin’ a fur hat like fuck the weather/ I’m from the passion, we don’t respect weather, we only respect texture.” This sort of sentiment leaves Power & Passion sounding willfully unlike the sort of project that usually heralds an artist signing to a major label. There might be more industry figures milling around him now, but eXquire won’t be taking his hat off for them any time soon.
Just under 20 years ago, Curtis Mayfield’s short statement about the underground was sampled by the rapper Masta Ace to open the song “Late Model Sedan” on his Slaughtahouse album. Ace’s project aimed to hold a mirror up to the one-dimensional nature of gangsta rap stereotypes. Commercially, it bombed, with Ace either misjudging his market or finding his message simply ignored. The album is remembered fondly now though, and at heart Slaughtahouse was a truly underground moment that hit Mayfield’s formula: It was an artist steadfastly sticking to their beliefs and applying them in the context of the world around them. With Power & Passion, Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire can claim a similar feat. Respect the texture.
Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire’s Power & Passion is out today via Republic Records.