Hip-hop is Ex Mykah’s toy to play with: there is nothing the avant-pop Cuban-American loves more than to turn conventional sounds inside out, to flip them around, fuse them together.
His input of discordance contorts itself into an infectious output. It seems the less sense it makes to the ear, the deeper the impression it leaves. Ex Mykah’s propulsive debut album 16,17 is a tapestry of style, but also social significance. Running in the same vein as Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean, 16,17 bleeds in consciousness, taking a decisive aim at the nuances and hypocrisy of the society we live in.
About a month after his father passed away, Ex Mykah was performing at The Royal Opera House as part of his Carbon Life ballet when Donald Trump was sworn in as U.S. President. The absurdity in the towering highs and plummeting lows of those months inspired him to write about specific issues in society in ways that deviated from the hip-hop baseline of the time.
"The album ended up being written from beginning to end and initially felt like a concept album based on societal issues to me,” he says, "but as it unfolded, I realised that in some ways there was kind of mixtape feel that drew from hip hop happening. Once I saw that I tried to embrace that in the production as well and here we are."
The album seeps into the distant chant, “Immigrants are welcome here! No hate! No fear!” on "Faceless", the opening track. This rousing cry for unity is an all-pervading theme on 16,17 that Ex Mykah wants to be upfront about from the outset. The instrumental has a distinctive American sheen: passionate saxophones meet the uptown gloss of piano. Yet this smoothness is frayed at the edges by plummeting vocal distortions, as a way of Ex Mykah ruffling perfection, kicking a sandcastle, or turning a picture upside down – because it looks better like that, anyway.
The forerunner track to 16,17, "Suspicions", is a plea to turn away from giving into our prejudices, and instead base our judgements on the content of a person’s character. This meaning of "Suspicions" was charged by the rise of senseless police brutality suffered by the members of the black community in the U.S. The sound of hands pattering on drum skins is anchored by soaring, distinctly American riffs. "Suspicions" is one of the most cinematic tracks on the album. Its anthemic, choral chant is one you return to. Ex Mykah’s verses groan like a rusty switchblade over crystal-clear synth. For every moment of mellowness, there is a moment of intensity; for every moment that is a blur, there is a moment of clarity.
Ex Mykah paints, at times, a bleak dystopia on the album. "An Island" begins with mournful violins, with the plodding pace of a funeral dirge. Wailing brass recedes into a shower of rain that trickles onto "Interventions". While "An Island" laments, "Massacre" twists this bleak future into a parody. The violins are this time demanding and immediate, while cymbals slice through indulgent riffs. It’s like listening to a strange contortion of a cinema trailer. Every dramatic trick in the book is ramped up to a hundred – and if Ex Mykah could have it his way, a thousand.
In "San Pedro", Ex Mykah plays a game of Don’t Buzz the Wire – with the worst hand imaginable. The instrumental runs smoothly, until it’s interrupted with a gurgling drone. An acoustic guitar meanders throughout, keeping the track just-about grounded.
"Thinking of New York" is the sole instrumental track on the album. Without words, it manages to vocalise a great deal. Eastern-influenced strings crown a thumping beat; strings are trilled, saxophones howl. Its tugged in a thousand directions, a thousand different influences: it’s a melting pot of sounds – just as our society is a melting point of culture. Despite their conflict in tone, they blend together beautifully. That, it seems, is exactly what Ex Mykah is trying to tell us.