Hip-hop ain't dead, it went underground instead

Review: ANKHLEJOHN & Big Ghost Ltd’s Van Ghost Is A Cinematic Venture Into The Depths Of ANKH’s Violent, Chaotic World

Like I said tho my guy ANKHLEJOHN is next up.. This muthafucka hit me wit the Jedi mind tricks the first time we ever had any interaction.. Son told ME we would do a project. I told son I wasnt sure cuz this that n the third but that I thought he was nice n whatever n he it me wit the “It will happen” on some “these ain’t the droids you lookin for” shit. I said to myself YO CAN YOU BELIEVE THE NERVE OF THIS KID.. Then by the next day I started formulating ideas in my head n whatever. That muthafucka had me inspired too…
-Big Ghost Ltd

Big Ghost and ANKHLEJOHN are no doubt familiar names to those following the explosion of the lyrical underground scene over the last few years. The two have their hands in some of the finest pieces of hip-hop to grace the ears of rap heads, future classics already under the belt of each artist in a span of just a few years. Though traveling on separate paths until now, last Friday saw the two finally come together for a striking and eye-opening 30 minute trip into the underbelly of Washington D.C. Fueled by the artistic vision of Big Ghost and the iconic paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, Van Ghost is a cinematic collaboration between the underground’s chief trash talker and the grimiest rapper south of New York. Strap yourselves in.

“I turned my idols to rivals in less than one year, bout to find another hustle, this rap game, ain’t no fun here,” rings ANKHLEJOHN’s distinctly gritty voice on The Night Cafe, the ambitious intro track to Van Ghost. A two-part affair, ANKH begins by weaving a story of codefendants and corner hustling, rapping over an uncharacteristically soft piano sample served up by Big Ghost. Just after the minute mark however, the instrumental abruptly shifts to an industrial sound that would have easily found a home on the MC’s February album Lordy By Nature. ANKH delivers an introduction to the duality of his existence, split between ‘Southside Pennywise’ and ‘Knowledge Born’, torn between the unforgiving streets of his home and a rap game saturated with ignorance and mediocrity.

Peering into Van Gogh’s corresponding piece, parallels between the audio and visual depictions of the work quickly emerge. Antonia Lant described the painting as “a shocking perspectival rush, which draws us, by the converging diagonals of floorboards and billiard table, towards the mysterious, curtained doorway beyond.” ANKH’s floorboards and tables might be graphic imagery and fearless raps, but they nonetheless accomplish the same task. As a lonely electric guitar-driven instrumental concludes The Night Cafe‘s final moments, a grim air is left lingering long after ANKH’s vocals fade away.

Vincent Van Gogh, The Night Cafe, 1888

Familiar gunshots and grinding bass serve as a welcome to The Yellow House, the record’s filthy second cut. ANKH shepherds listeners into the pits of his underworld, spitting graphic raps about how he’ll either rob you or else “put all force in one punch, knock ya whole skeleton out.” Big Ghost expertly manipulates the boards to build an ambiance similar to that of 2017’s The Red Room, a powerful and effort highlighting the emcee’s ruthlessness. While varied throughout the record, keen ears will catch that Ghost’s production never steers far from ANKHLEJOHN’s usual soundscape, yet brings a newfound energy that pushes the rapper to go above and beyond anything he’s ever dropped. The Yellow House is also an ode to his home of Washington D.C., a city split between the glitz of politics and the reality of decades of neglect to the needs of its black community. “I’m more Minnesota Ave, at the Yellow House,” ANKH snarls on the very first bar, immediately bringing up images of the iconic breakfast joint just off the intersection of Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road. Much of the area still bears wounds from the drug epidemics that’ve ravaged DC, its anger and desperation fleshed out in the form of gruesome metaphors delivered by a young man in a Shaap Records cap.

As any rapper must do, ANKH take the time on Sorrow to emphasize to listeners that he is the king of all this. Growling but subdued percussion leaves plenty of room for the emcee to big himself up, reminding all the wack rappers that the work they put in’s got nothing on him. Discarding the need for frills or flowery language, he hammers in his greatness with simple, cutthroat bars. ANKH sounds almost disinterested as he delivers rhymes about people trying to jack his style, fed up with the copycats consistently failing to steal his drip. If there was ever a song that could be so concisely summed up into the two words “y’all trash”, this would undoubtedly be it. 

Two Crabs introduces another track with clear parallels to Van Gogh’s works. Depicting a scene with (predictably) a pair of crabs, viewers will notice that one is on its back while the other is standing on its legs, one helpless and stuck while the other is free. The same rules apply in ANKH’s world, the helplessness of being an overturned crustacean replaced by the trappings of drugs and poverty cycles. The emcee however states that he’s given up the petty trappings of lesser men, and despite being born the same ‘crab’, ending up on the floor is the last thing on his mind. “It isn’t what you have, but what you do with what you have” as the saying goes, and no amount of obstacles, interpersonal or institutional, are going to stand in his way.

Vincent Van Gogh, Two Crabs, 1889

After a series of aggressive, industrial-sounding cuts, The Church at Auvers and The Starry Night act as a rest stop in the center of the album. Paying homage to the religious themes of Van Gogh’s work, Big Ghost laces the instrumentals of both tracks with dampened choral samples akin to something from a vintage Christian music CD. ANKH’s bravado and sharp pen still firmly in control, the familiar themes of violence evolve into a more intricate depiction of the emcee’s world. “It was written in Supreme Wisdom documents, I strive for opulence,”  he asserts on The Starry Night, further opening listeners’ eyes to his world of Supreme Mathematics. Meandering, twilight-esque piano keys soften the tracks as Southside Pennywise makes way for the Knowledge Born, poetic narratives temporarily moving into the driver’s seat.

“Uh, it’s Wavo” rings out Hus Kingpin’s voice as Almond Blossoms kicks into gear, the first track on Van Ghost featuring another artist. The two rappers go way back (relatively speaking), first coming together on Original Man on ANKH’s debut album The Red Room. With a stringy bass line and snappy drums, the production sounds distinctly similar to Hus and Big Ghost’s 2017 masterpiece Cocaine Beach. The emcees sling rhymes about what they know best, Wavo flipping coke metaphors while ANKH “busts black heads like pimples.” Whether you’re having a late summer night sesh or relaxing by the ocean, Almond Blossoms is a fusion of lyricism and cabana vibes perfect for rap heads of all types.

The Pink Peach Tree and The Red Vineyard see ANKH vent his frustrations at the rap game and his surroundings. At the same time, ANKH appears determined not to get hung up on temporary setbacks. He knows he’s dope, even if some haven’t come around to it yet. Through the passing of family members, slimy moves by fake friends, and the challenges holding back anyone trying to make it as an artist in the nation’s capitol, emcee’s emerged stronger and wiser, using painful events as stepping stones to grow rather than get pulled down. The Red Vineyard‘s staticky ambiance is also a callback to earlier projects like Benning Road Shrimp Boat, once again demonstrating Big Ghost’s commitment to a familiar (albeit much more fleshed out) sound design.

As the record begins to draw to a close, At Eternity’s Gate comes making sure you’re paying attention. After all, what’s an underground album without a posse cut these days? Featuring contemporary underground powerhouses Lil Eto, Fly Anakin, and Crimeapple, it’s a whose-who of the scene’s brightest stars. Each brings their own unique quality: Anakin’s erratic flows, Crime’s constant stream of quotables, and Eto’s gritty street lyricism yield a change in pace, further accentuated by a significantly more traditional boom bap instrumental. All coming together from different cities and scenes, the chemistry between the emcees throughout the track only goes to show that the modern underground era is perhaps the best we’ve ever seen. 

While generally containing himself to proclaiming supremacy over his city, ANKH expands his horizons on The Potato Eaters, the 11th and final cut on the album. Keeping many of the same braggadocious themes of past cuts, he makes it clear that he isn’t content with just reigning over DC. In fact, it’s the entire DMV that must now bow down to their king, a new age Roc Marciano of the Mason-Dixon line. Taking particular aim at the region’s breakout megastar Logic, ANKH rips into the region’s faux-conscious representative.  Even the title acts as a subtle dig towards the fake deep rappers, both ANKH and Van Gogh attempting to depict the realities of life rather than mask them with surface-level glamor.  

“For them hunnids my fingers sticky like Onyx,
The game filled with corny niggas like Logic,
Sittin like who this dude, twistin up his Rubik’s Cube,
Feel he conscious,
His head down like he lookin at a compass
I robbed him, I heard you the new Sinatra,
Aye what you got up in them pockets?
A few Pokemon cards, ya shit is garbage”

As the credits roll and a familiar piano sample fills the final moments of the album, ANKH’s chaotic world becomes slightly easier to understand. Pain and loss haven’t broken him, instead serving as motivation to reach the very pinnacle of rap itself. A better rapper and a better album, you’ll be hard pressed to find. Isweartagawd!

Purchase the album here

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