Review: Shahmen – California Is Cold

Rapper/producer duo Shahmen have been a very lowkey yet distinct force in alternative hip hop for the better part of a decade. Consisting of rapper B L S, or Bless, and producer SENSE they released an EP in 2010 titled Enter The Circle, displaying an dark and almost tribal sound largely unheard in the underground scene at the time. They expanded the effort into a full-length album five years later, dropping All In The Circle in April 2015. After a three-year wait the duo has returned with their sophomore LP California is Cold, filled to the brim with social commentary laced with the bitterness that comes with struggling your whole life.

Bleak and desolate California is Cold gives a new perspective on what it’s like to live in sunny California. The name right away paints a dreary picture of the environment Bless is from, a far cry from the warm and beautiful state most perceived it as. If you are unfamiliar with Shahmen, the first thing you’ll notice when spinning the album is the deep brooding production, it immediately paints a picture of darkness. Once the production sets in, you get hit by Bless’s incredibly deep and powerful voice.

The synergy of his vocals and the production is just perfect, each adding to the atmosphere of a dirty and grim environment with little hope. Bless’s lyrics accentuate the feeling. His dark and detached rhymes are often filled with themes of hopelessness, lost love, evil imagery, and animalistic activities. These concepts exemplified in lyrics like

“Witness the bliss I’ll get when I get rich,
Or dig the ditch, the pitch, when I get lynched,
Poems all red like I wrote with a slit wrist”
(Suicide Drive)

“Walking down these streets singing songs
Where the sidewalk never ends
And they never lead home, bleeding out a palm
From the wrist all alone while I’m stoned in the morning
Trying to turn it into gold before my heart’s frozen
Standing in the garden full of roses
While my twin brother is in the ground decomposing”
(California Is Cold)

“Water is all polluted
Beach is all just sewage
And I’m just tryna find my girl
Before it all is ruined”
(Poison)

“Summer skin with my winter eyes
Hunting and searching for something that’s always been inside
Till’ the tides run low and I’m standing at the beach side while the palm trees blow
A calm breeze grows but I still feel nervous
All these accidents I did it on purpose”
(Ghost Town)

It’s easy to see that Bless is a hell of a lyricist, and he consistently manages to impress the listener with his dense vocabulary and often poetic phrasing. “Written by Wolves” even features a traditional poem delivered over spacy production that flows into the album flawlessly. The MC creates the impression that he is just an animal trying to survive in a cold world, his cares limited to the quality of his bars, and most importantly, his bud. Bless consistently brings up his hardships, addiction, and the desolate environment he resides in, and if there ever was a rapper that personified a blood hungry coyote lurking in the cold desert, it would be him.

The quality of the hooks stands out as another impressive part of the album. I normally don’t expect much from hooks on underground records, but on California is Cold they are surprisingly well written, even occasionally catchy. They add dimension to the overall themes of the track, with the potential to end up stuck in your head after just one listen. I would never think a dark and hellish album would be so catchy but I have found myself reciting these hooks for weeks, bringing me right back to another listen. Clocking in at a concise 38 minutes it doesn’t waste a second on filler, rather giving the listener a solid front to back experience of bleak and animalistic goodness. Fans of dark and atmospheric hip-hop would be amiss if they didn’t give this records a play through as it is definitely one of the year’s clear standouts.

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