Some artists create their own context. Lushlife, aka Philadelphia producer/MC Raj Haldar, works harder than most to situate himself within a very specific web of hip-hop allusions, musical reference points and cultural signposts. He’s a very savvy and intelligent bricoleur, grabbing disparate elements from his environment and compiling them into little bursts of joyful, optimistic hip-hop. Listening to his newest album, Plateau Vision, is the aural equivalent of staring into a Web browser with 18 tabs open, 12 ongoing G-chat conversations and Fruityloops loading up in the foreground. Just look at the guest appearances: Andrew Cedermark of Underwater Peoples, Styles P of the LOX, Heems of Das Racist and Cities Aviv. The album feels like the result of some very fun Skype conversations, but the eclecticism feels both deeply personal and oddly communal. This is ecumenical hip-hop.
The danger with taking such a freewheeling and referential approach to creativity is that sometimes an album can become a closed circuit, an insular world that is only the sum of its Wikipedia sources. When Lushlife spoke to CMJ back in March he described the album by saying, “In some weird sense, from the lyrical standpoint, the narrative of Plateau Vision is somehow about this idea of anthropology… How it relates to the advent and growth of hip-hop culture and seeing B-boy nostalgia culture through the lens of classic anthropological tropes.” The album carries that weighty and vaguely academic intention lightly, but it’s undoubtedly present. Anthropological tropes are good and all, but the more pressing question is this: Does Haldar want to be more than a tour guide? At one point on the record he describes himself as “half-Delorean, half rap historian,” and it rings true as a fun description, but he’s also selling himself a bit short. There’s something fun and personal about this album; at his best Haldar feels less like a historian and more like a cool older brother showing you his record collection and saying, “This matters to me, and it could matter to you someday too.”
This familial energy is felt in the bright, swirling opener, “Magnolia.” Through references to Burt Bacharach, graffiti culture, Polo fleeces, Henry James and Zola Jesus, Haldar conjures a mystical aura while still staying firmly rooted in the specificities of daily life. While Haldar’s flow often gets compared to Nas or Black Thought, there’s something starry-eyed and bewildered about his delivery, like he’s surprised by his own thoughts despite their density. He can get growly as his delivery increases with intensity, and he rarely slows down. Sometimes the words pile up so fast that I wish I had a Walkman to rewind with, just to hear the cranks roll back as I searched for a particular punchline or a startling image.
On tracks like “Glistening” and “Big Sur” Haldar crafts little flip photo books of urban life, unspooling memories and dreams until the two become indistinguishable. “Hale-Bopp Was The Bedouins” is built around a sparse, bucket-like drumbeat that allows Haldar to ruminate on his own origin, spitting, “I don’t remember if I ever had a troubled youth.” Instead he chooses to focus on the positives: memories of concerts, stray moments with friends, drinks, drugs, women. “Anthem” is a self-conscious and wordy Pete Rock-aping track that earns its name with a blown-out, shout-along chorus, but in the verses the listener gets a better sense of what really makes Haldar tick. “I spit a one-liner fuse/Magic puff cabbage on the daily/Now we live lavish/Lushlife, I put the Ls up and live like it’s ’99/I got some problems with the way I live,” he raps. These moments of self-reflection can be difficult to spot beneath all the joyful celebration and pugnacious bravado. Sometimes Haldar’s obvious strengths as producer can drown out his lyrics, turning the experience of listening to the record on repeat into a dizzying blur. Like a tour guide who occasionally gets lost in his own museum, Haldar’s unbridled excitement about his subject matter can be both exhausting and infectious.