The opening guitar lick on “No Kings” is oddly similar to the Frank Ocean produced first song off Kanye and Jay’s “Watch The Throne”, this is more significant than it seems. Now, by no means is NK a “rebuttal” record to the supposed crowned kings of current Hip-Hop. Although I do find it strange that Sims — in the record’s opening verse — mentions: “You’re so vain you probably think it’s about ya/Well it is, and it ain’t… and it ain’t, but it is.” By the time fiery Mike Mictlan steps up to the mic — on the record’s second verse — you know what type of people you’re dealing with: a group of people, or family… a crew, who would just as soon cast away the predetermined laws of the world to shape their own lifestyles and art.
“No Kings” is aptly titled. The album’s themes and content all oddly tie into that meme, even the more surreal passages. And quite a bit of the lyrics are surreal. I’m not talking Aesop Rock level imagery here, but as a whole the group isn’t pointing the listener at any certain topic or philosophy, more like a general direction (North, for Minnesota… Haha). They tackle the rap world at times: not to call anyone out, not to bitch, not to lecture. To say: “This is how you all do it? Well, we don’t really care. This is how we do it.” Not to look down on other rappers, not to start trouble, just to play by their own rules, and to do it from the heart. Some of the imagery hearkens back to the past also, a time when the culture’s movement wasn’t weighted down by what one is “supposed” to do; no doubt a product of producer/MC Cecil Otter who has quite a bit of influence here throughout.
Cecil gets credited on helping create a large portion of the music, so do P.O.S. and Lazerbeak. The beats vary a little, but there’s a cohesive sense to the production that is probably a result of all the producers working together collaboratively, rather than going off into a room and coming back with a fleshed out beat. Lazerbeak (who once fronted The Plastic Constellations and makes incredible solo material) likes to blast punchy horns and booming kicks and snares, just give “Hand Over Fist” or “Bad Time Zoo” a try and you’ll know what I mean. That punchiness is toned down a little on “No Kings”, with most of the tracks feeling like contemplative pieces, not party music (besides, ironically, the 5th track titled “Punch-Out”). Even the beats Lazerbeak produced by himself. P.O.S. brings his signature percussive sound to the table, but this also is toned down a bit to add to a more cohesive whole. All this results in — from a production standpoint — an album that is very self-aware and calculated. It works well for a crew record (each member can, after all, unhinge their style a little more with each successive solo release).
The vocal performances mirror that sense of calculation. By this point each member has worked on a number of solo albums and tracks, so they’re all comfortable with what they do. It’s like they know when and how to strike, to add to the whole rather than distracting from it. Dessa enters swiftly and calmly: sometimes singing, sometimes rapping, sometimes both. She often bridges the gaps in songs, giving transitions just the right touch and latching onto previous themes to reinforce their weight. P.O.S., for my money, is one of the best rappers today. He’s just good on anything he does (and I’m assuming he’s going to blow up even more with his next solo record). Cecil Otter, like I mentioned, holds more influence over almost anyone else on this album both lyrically and musically. Due to his style, he’ll likely never have that mass appeal of a guy like P.O.S. — or even Dessa — but he deserves any sort of success he gets. Honestly though, I was most surprised with Sims and Mictlan’s verses. I’m not sure if it’s because they’re being used in a better way (at the right times?), or if they’re both refining their styles more and more; whatever the case, to me they are the standouts when it comes to rapping.
The greatest compliment “No Kings” can receive though is that it truly feels like an “album”. Quite the feat for a group of 7-ish people who all sound starkly different when creating their own work. Again, this is probably a result of the collaborative sense that went into making it. When you’re renting a cabin in Northern MN (or WI) and shutting out the rest of the world, that is bound to happen. If you can’t tell, I’d reccomend getting this. Especially anyone who is really into Hip-Hop and wants to try something new. There is talent to boot, but the best thing about “No Kings” is the lack of rules. And that is refreshing. Maybe Jay and Kanye would actually dig this? Although, I gotta admit, drawing the “No Kings” symbol onto the cover of the golden shine of “Watch The Throne” would be awesome.