Sinister horns and trickling piano notes float over a stuttering beat on “Slow Horn,” while quirky emcee Priest chants: “This is that powerful music.”
Well, yes and no.
Both Antipop and Shipp thrive on a form of controlled confusion, the former with free-form rhythms and off-kilter rhymes, the latter with free-form rhythms and stupefying piano work. Both are willing to experiment; both appreciate the other’s talent. With this in mind, the two artists got together in an attempt to create method from madness. Unfortunately they succeed, and in doing so cancel out the very essence of their own strengths.
When Shipp’s disorderly jazz is juxtaposed against Antipop’s tumultuous brand of hip-hop, the distinction between each artist’s interpretation of chaos becomes very obvious. One or the other always seems to be in control, and the result is not so much a collaboration as it is an album with sequences by Antipop and sequences by Matthew Shipp. The problem is not a lack of talent or vision, but rather one of non-compatibility. Turns out the “Vs.” in the record’s title manages to upstage both artists.
This becomes clear in the first 30 seconds of the album. Shipp pounds away on his piano, the melody (I use this term lightly) slowly forming, when out of nowhere comes a hi-hat and a piano loop with notes that were nowhere to be found in the first 28 seconds. It is clear that Antipop is now in the driver’s seat. This pattern is repeated throughout: Shipp runs rampant until Antipop throws down some lyrics, at which point Shipp must control himself while Antipop claims center stage. When Shipp gets antsy, Antipop is once again delegated to the background.
Shipp’s strength lies in building order from anarchy. When that order is maintained artificially with samplers and drum machines, the spirit of his performance is taken away. At the same time, this album isn’t just for Shipp to show off his chops. We’re also due some of Antipop’s trademark schizophrenic beats and mind-bending rhymes. So why are there 264 piano solos on this album?
The problem seems to be that neither artist wants to step on the other’s feet, politely getting out of the way when the other has something to say. A balance of sorts is struck on “Monstro City,” where notes fall from Shipp’s piano like rain as Beans cooly recites his abstract poetry Gil Scott-Heron-style. The song is not characteristic of one artist or the other, but that’s the nature — and beauty — of collaboration. This is the moment where opposing forces finally push equally — but these three minutes cannot save the album.
Fans of Matthew Shipp may appreciate the introduction to Antipop, but will likely be disappointed. Fans of the now-defunct Antipop will experience the reverse. The album does get points for difficulty, as the mere attempt to fuse two styles as unique as these is daring — like good music is supposed to be. However, an album must deliver what it promises, and the lack of synergy indicates a disappointment in the collaboration department.