Toki Wright and Big Cats - Pangaea

Toki is nuanced both conceptually and vocally, subtly putting forth big ideas and knowing just how to execute them.

Additional Info

8.2

ALBUM: Pangaea

ARTIST: Toki Wright and Big Cats

2014

Hip-Hop/Rap

A truly well-constructed album will give you more in proportion to how much you give it. Artists who truly dig deep into their own work can embed the final product with multiple levels that encourage the listeners engagement to match their own. Rapper Toki Wright and producer Big Cats are both musicians with the propensity to write in this manner, each pushing further with their own creations to bring them to their fullest potential, but neither party has reached heights like those on Pangaea prior. Toki has been stitching together high-level raps for upwards of a decade that felt constrained by the form's standard modes, moving gradually from the powerful boom-bap of solo debut A Different Mirror to the free-floating, pure-bars experiments of his most recent outing, Faders, in 2012. Big Cats has been producing full-length rap albums with a range of artists, from the gritty shit-talking of RP Hooks to Guante's politically progressive, poetry-influenced concept records. But the opportunity to stretch himself came with solo record For My Mother, a tribute to his mother (who had recently passed) that chopped live instrumentation from professional musicians, putting together a lush soundscape that incorporated the form of sampling without using a single one. Both parties seemed to find themselves at a point where the structure and aim of the average rap song wasn't creatively satisfying, and it's evident on Pangaea that they're approaching writing music with a shared sense of exploration and depth.

It's evident the album's slow, meditative hip-hop was painstakingly crafted, despite its heavily minimalist tone. Two years in the making, each song feels intensely pored over. Both the lyrics and the soundscapes are meticulously detail-driven, but at no point does it feel overwrought. Toki takes his time and gets his ideas across in ways that suit both the concept and the surrounding atmosphere of the song. Not only do the songs sonically flow into one another, but the lyrical themes take the listener on a defined journey and the sequencing is very intentional. There's an overarching theme here about humanity working together as one, which is arrived at gradually, using both specific detailing of personal and community issues as well as broader usage of symbolism and abstract concepts. At times it's rapped, at times it feels like spoken poetry. Rarely are songs in basic verse-chorus format, letting the mood of the track dictate the organization. Often songs will devote large swaths of sonic space to sweeping instrumental portions, breaking beats down to pure atmospherics. Pangaea seems to be intended for a full listen, and songs take different strides from one another but in subtle ways that make the album feel very cohesive.

Toki Wright's rapping is clearly that of a seasoned veteran, tightly concocting rhymes that both sound slick and get a thoughtfully considered point across. But his downturned demeanor and approach is particularly powerful here, especially in times where rap is largely mired in in-your-face club songs. Toki is nuanced both conceptually and vocally, subtly putting forth big ideas and knowing just how to execute them. The beats are consistently remarkable and feature many layers of sound for such a barebones vibe. Vocal mixing and mastering of this level is hardly seen outside of TDE's Derek Ali, and parsing out the multiple floating atmospherics that contribute to the overall presentation of each song provide a richer engagement with the record. Pangaea is a heavy and deeply-concocted record, teeming with powerful, palatable musings that will continually provide new insights as you're beckoned to engage with project again.

"You have wings on your back and planets on your vocal chords. Be what you choose."

1. Mushroom Cloud
Your ear is hit with dark, looming washes reminiscent of Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2, cut immediately with giant bass synths bound to make any trap producer insanely jealous. As soon as you can truly sink into the song, the verse kicks into full gear, with Toki rapping at double his previous pace, and shortly afterwards it's over. We get flashes of drug use and death, loneliness and the meaning of life, hotel sex and inner regret. It's heady, difficult stuff, reflecting the dynamic directions the rest of the album takes, preparing you for the twists and turns by telling you to expect the unexpected.8.5
2. Pangaea
The theme of becoming one as a species is introduced amid a skeletal and jazzy beat, rife with floating backing vocals and breaks that trick the ear into thinking their samples (none appear anywhere on the record). Toki maneuvers through positivist raps that ask questions and pose hypotheticals with a melodic flow that is very easy to groove along with. The challenges posed throughout the record are hardly gratingly avant-garde or philosophically over-your-head, which work to make the listener more likely to truly sit with them.8.0
3. Apex
"Apex" delves into nearly mystical conceptions of astrology, geometry, and time itself, while simultaneously pinpointing highly specific moments like Rodney getting shot on 28th. Moments like these strike the ear hard when in conjunction with loftier, more abstract concepts. It brings the potentially trite notion of building reality from dreams into a real world context, while still exploring more metaphysical ideas in a concrete way. The ever-so-slight sonic allusions to trap music (in the machine gun hi-hats, huge crash cymbals, and background vocal chants) somehow gel perfectly with the flute loops. This is a superb example of both Big Cats' incredible mixing techniques and Toki's fluid writing abilities.8.5
4. Cold World
BJ The Chicago Kid supplies an excellent melancholic soul hook for the sparse piano beat, though the song doesn't return to it after the first time. Even further stripped down than the opener "Mushroom Cloud", eventually leading into a stomping drum verse before again slipping back into a barebones instrumental portion, Toki uses the negative space mostly to speak in a poetic tone, ending a rundown of hunger pains and impoverished negativity with the powerful "fight these concepts with every molecule of your self... be what you choose". The free-floating structure is among the album's most experimental, but, for an album with hardly any features, it could've been made stronger simply by giving BJ a second chorus.8.0
5. Lost Boy
The most straightforward song thus far, with a three verse structure and defined chorus, the storytelling raps follow a young Toki at various stages of growing into a man. He becomes a young father, gets beaten by bored hooligans, and slowly learns and grows from early struggles. The third verse is dedicated to a lost boy from the next generation: his dealing with death, his opinions on fake rap, and his general agitations with the world. The organ and backing vocal parts are excellent, giving this a tinge of a Native Tongues jazzy boom-bap vibe updated for the sample-free generation of hip-hop.8.5
6. Overheard
This was the first song I heard from Pangaea, before hearing any of the other songs, and it sounded more revolutionary outside of the context of the album than it does within it. Shifting back and forth between an uptempo, clap-heavy electro chorus and a slowed, contemplative verse is a stark contrast to the trajectory of most turn-up rap tunes, but the fact that the song's high-energy bookends are one of the few points where the album doesn't lull into ambient territory makes them the song's strong suit. Big Cats has a mastery of low-end heavy club tracks but deploys it like a tease; it works surprisingly well embedded into a largely slow-tempo album, but he almost can't help but retreat back to slow, atmospheric piano parts. Still, this is one of the better tracks on the album.8.5
7. Permanent
Coming out of a song referencing an ex moving out, Toki swiftly moves into a song detailing the beginnings of a potentially forever love. The groove is smooth and simple, with a steady drum beat underneath soul organ and vocal washes. It's an honest and endearing relationship song, one that never lilts from romantic to cheesy.8.0
8. You Know
Toki points out frustrations with the nature of current hip-hop, saying "they treat you like shit if you don't do a song with the triplet snares and arms in the air like this". It's a valid enough criticism, one that seems to affect how the song itself actually plays out. The beat seesaws between both sides of the aesthetics debate: the dancehall horns coupled with Lex Luger crashes and snares giving way to piano loops and a closing afterglow synth wash. It feels somewhat disjointed going from the high-energy verses into the pensive piano loops, almost like they felt guilty about making something that could be danced to. There's a place for questioning the modern aesthetic while still working within it - Kendrick's "Swimming Pools (Drank)" pulled this off immaculately - but the back-and-forth doesn't work as well here as on "Overhead". Using 2Pac and 2 Chainz as flash points for the debate about shifting priorities in music is a bit too easy, but the shots at Azaelia Banks for stealing his video concept for her album cover are a nice touch.7.0
9. Gatekeepers
Tying together issues in his community and the erasure performed by those outside of it, Toki makes a strong argument here about representation, privilege, and racial invisibility. He makes specific criticisms of the local press - "I'd rather we debate though they'd rather play it safe" - relating the idea that underrepresentation has serious implications that extend outward into serious societal issues. The vibe switches at the chorus but remains starkly minimal. It's easy to sink into and nod your head along to, each of which will aid in seriously contemplating the real talk Toki lays down.8.5
10. Cleaning House
Another very brief song that uses a short run time to get a real point across: cleaning house as metaphor for working through issues to find an equilibrium. It's a nicely constructed song with some great acid-synth that doesn't overstay it's welcome: The connections are put together, rapped well, quick chorus and we're out. The duo knows the delicate art of keeping songs from going overlong, which can sometimes be a scant single verse, single chorus.8.0
11. This Man, This Woman
Caroline Smith's excellent hook sinks so perfectly into the darkly variant beat, reverberating a few different tonal mixes to come together as one. Thanks to it's cohesion of trap drums and Weeknd-esque piano parts, i's one of the best beats on the record, though Toki sort of takes a backseat here. He turns in a singular verse about a complicated love triangle situation, and he's enough of a strong songwriter to know when the song needs little else.8.5
12. Heal
Seeing a P.O.S. feature raised the question of how his hardcore rap style would fittingly lie alongside the ponderous meditations that accompany Toki's work, but when the huge drum solo comes in to introduce his punky scream-singing (as opposed to a rap verse) which lies just below the main register, it winds up being a pretty bold and interesting choice that works. Toki again is hardly here, but he begins to conclude the album with his thesis, the culmination of the ideas he's put forth thus far.8.0
13. Rebirth
Toki tackles the idea that we are all one people, that placing judgement based on skin color is damaging, and that we can be reborn in a new direction of equality. He's very careful to put this at the tail-end of the record, after having pointed out all the specific points as to why this seemingly simple philosophy is so difficult to achieve. He is not blinded to the difficulties of racial harmony; in fact, he is more mired in the realities than many who claim to want a society free from these constraints. But he appropriately puts this idea at the end of the journey, after he's taken us through the difficult moments that are necessary to get there.8.0
Written by Jack Spencer
A freelance music writer from Minneapolis that has been featured in the City Pages, Bitch Magazine, 2DopeBoyz, The AV Club, Consequence of Sound, Thought Catalog, and more.

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