noun sub·stance \ˈsəb-stən(t)s\
the quality of being meaningful, useful or important
A couple weeks ago, my youngest son, in his child-like wonder and innocence, determined that he needed to utilize half a roll of toilet paper to wipe his little 6 year old butt. This caused a toilet backup, flooding my 2nd floor bathroom and leaking into the first floor through several light fixtures and door frames.
Having dealt with water coming through the ceiling and its painstaking aftermath before when a bathtub drain pipe broke, I made full use of my experience in these matters by immediately taking a double shot of whiskey.
Life is full of opportunities to learn from your experiences. From the first time it happened, I learned that freaking out was pointless, calling your homeowner insurance company over a couple grand worth of damage is really pointless (and expensive – thanks for jacking my rates up, fuckers), and you can’t do much besides wait until all the water comes out before you can do anything. It’s also a perfect opportunity to drink 2 hours after waking up; y’know, generally making the best of a situation out of my control.
It’s impossible to be perfect at life, but you can always take the opportunity to stay constructive and take something helpful away from adverse situations. There’s little substitute for experience, and if you’re particularly fond of learning, you can even go out and make your own to gain knowledge and insight from, instead of, say, waiting for toilet water to come through your ceiling.
Sammy Warm Hands is someone who’s had a lot of experience to learn from – so much so that he wrote a book about it. You can’t google “how to make a second album with Ogar Burl” like you can “how to hang drywall on a ceiling by yourself” – you gotta do it by doing it and learning what not to do. Over the last two years he’s pooled that collective experience into helming a collaborative effort that, at this point, is easily the strongest singular album in his catalog.
Why the qualifier? Well, Sam’s catalog is pretty diverse, making it difficult to compare one album to the next. They all happened at different points for different reasons, most with different people, and even comparing this release to the first Sammy/Ogar effort from a few years back is pretty unfair to both albums. A lot’s happened since then, and the evidence of that is abundantly clear throughout Rare Form.
But hey, let’s give it a shot.
Awhile back, I was chatting with one Sammy Warm Hands at a show. He’d driven from Eugene, OR to Portland to do a few songs with Ogar Burl, who was the opener slot. Sam noted at some point that he wasn’t too keen on playing “Some Fuckin’ 8s” these days. I told him “8s” is a solid cut. Sam informed me that their upcoming stuff was so much better that it makes “8s” sound like a warm up, and definitely not indicative of their skill level or musical relationship anymore.
According to Sam (and Ogar, despite his fairly quiet offstage persona not really allowing him to get too visibly excited), the new album was going to be light years ahead of the old one in every way. I took his word for it.
I love the “old one”. Break The Bank is fun as fuck. You don’t have to think about it, just nod your head – great album to do boring, monotonous shit to… like sheetrocking a ceiling. Despite a few obviously regrettable moments, it plays like a road trip with your friends – nothing but fun times – and maybe somebody brings something less-than-appropriate up and it’s weird for a minute. BTB could easily be improved upon, but why bother? It’s good the way it is for what it is, and Ogar was introduced to the world doing what he does best – brag rap to boom bap.
Sammy and Ogar didn’t bother outdoing Break The Bank. They let it be, and moved right on past it to some other level shit – like taking the opportunity to completely redo a room because you had to rip the ceiling out. Rare Form has plenty of moments that recall certain older material, but Sam and Ogar do a great job of leaving BTB wholly as a moment in time all its own. I dare say Rare Form is so far past and different from Break The Bank that I’m left to wonder where the usual 2-3 albums in between that much advancement are.
Sammy’s made some serious strides as a rapper and really tightened his production since BTB, to be certain. Bears Repeating was and is a testament to his chops in every department, Freewrites is a solid stylistic experiment, and Famous Last Words saw possibly the most glowing review I’ve ever done. Vacant Eyes showed Sam’s willingness to collaborate and give up some of his much-beloved artistic freedom, resulting in a massive multi-party effort that paid off in spades. I suppose those function nicely as the in-between learning experience, and Sam’s improved in every area in the interim.
Ogar Burl, on the other hand, was without a doubt the star of Break The Bank. He’s the type of rapper that just shows up and immediately makes whatever he’s doing stronger. I’ve tried to articulate what’s so interesting about his particular style of delivery and lyricism, even to him in a manner that could only be described as awkward, and I’ve never fully been able to get it right. It’s simplified and concise, yet clearly not simplistic or brevitous. He chooses just the right words, opting to mold them to say as little as it takes in just the right way to get his point or idea across. He doesn’t skimp, but he doesn’t ramble. If it’s a metaphor, it’s the best possible metaphor and we’re done here. Ogar is as natural born of a rapper as the best of them, and his thunderous baritone voice says anything the words he chooses may leave out.
Sammy Warm Hands is one of the better songwriters I’ve been lucky enough to know of. Sam knows how to meticulously construct every aspect of a song, from the slightest instrumental nuances to lyrical complexities you won’t pick up on until years later. He’s a multi-genre, multi-instrumental production-oriented output machine with a catalog to back up every boastful claim and internal musing.
Both of them are good on their own in their own way. Ogar’s a proficient and direct lyricist who writes memorable bars and killer punchlines, and tends to rhyme very in the moment. Sammy’s a bigger-picture type, ensuring songs stay on point and maintain purpose, willing to be however crude or cripplingly personal it takes to best suit the song at hand.
Together, they’re a symbiotic force of golden dynamite – two guys who’ve been collaborating in some capacity for years and years who know how to work off each other. Break The Bank showcased this relationship dynamic in a fun, rap-about-rap way. As Sammy put it on “Lovejoy“, “There’s no message in this music / it’s strictly braggadocious”. Rare Form takes specifically that trade-off dynamic and adds not only better writing, concepts and construction, but actual substance.
Don’t worry, there’s still plenty of rap-about-rap stuff happening on Rare Form, but it’s in the minority and done so well that there seems no point in trying to go further with it. Rare Form finds Sammy and Ogar with little need to focus on the external, instead opting toward internal drive and pushing themselves out of their comfort zones, especially Ogar. For someone who’s at his strongest writing about how awesome he/whatever he’s doing is vs. how not awesome someone else’s version of it is, Ogar Burl can get down with some introspection – a welcome surprise.
There’s a near-perfect balance to be found on Rare Form, in more or less every aspect, and the result of that hard work deserves attention in multiple areas.
Sammy’s beat choices are historically pretty solid, and Vacant Eyes fully displayed his penchant for clever and appropriate collaborations, but I’m hard pressed to come up with any criticism in regards to production. In the same conversation noted earlier, Sam told me how many beats were sifted through to narrow it down. Believe me, it was a fucking lot over a long period. (Also, how many beats is Graves 33 sitting on? Thousands? We may never know.) Props to Graves, Danny G (dubldragon.), ODAR, Blueprint and Sam himself for the sonic aesthetic.
As far as sequencing goes, I’m not envious of that task – any number of combinations would’ve worked in different ways to different results. I’ve been told track order was reworked a few times, and I think it paid off. A couple tracks are still interchangeable, but Rare Form plays nicely as a whole product.
During the process of this review, I did something I rarely do in general, and definitely have never done for a review.
One of the standards I hold every album to is how well it plays as a whole. Is the album itself an experience, or is it just a bunch of songs in a row? Neither is inherently “better” than the other, but there’s something special to me about a cohesive project and sequencing to back it up. I listen differently and apply more specified reasoning. A collection of songs usually results in me rearranging track order until I can make it play concisely.
Regardless of how an album is set up, I never rearrange track order if I’m reviewing it. I listen to it as is as many times as it takes to properly analyze the album as it’s presented, from start to finish each time. I don’t necessarily think it’s a “better” method than any other, but it’s the process that makes the most sense to how I go about things. If I can’t enjoy it as a whole through multiple consecutive listens, I don’t bother taking the time to compose my thoughts onto paper.
In the case of Rare Form, I ended up breaking my own rule, in the best way possible. Sometimes you’re cutting holes for lights in drywall and just need a change of pace.
Rare Form is one of those (for lack of a less redundant term) rare albums that plays equally well as a whole and as single tracks. After several listens, I ended up skipping around a bit, listened in full a few more times, and skipping around some more. I’ve never done that during a review period, as I’ve always felt it wasn’t in service to the work that went into constructing the full product. I may very well be right in that approach, and Rare Form (title too on the nose?) may very well be the exception to the rule.
I’ve spoken with Sam a few times regarding sequencing over the last couple years, and I know how seriously he takes it, both as a songwriter and producer, but I was curious how they each played as a solo track. Answer: quite well. I don’t normally get to find that out until later on. Cool. Might start doing that more often.
The feature list in the Sammy Warm Hands-related catalog is a doozy of bucket-listers: Blueprint, Carnage, Fashawn, Casual, Kristoff… I’m always curious to see the track listing before any Sammy release, but this one particularly piqued my interest. Obviously, Myka 9 knocks it out of the park, as you’ve probably heard by now, and somehow 8 rappers fit into 3 minutes effectively on “Amateur Hour” with the Architex. Ebb One comes back to rip it up one more time on “The Exodus” (which contains one of my favorite Sammy verses ever).
The Grayskul guys are so other-level, stylistically, that I had no idea how they’d work in the Sammy/Ogar equation, but these vets aren’t to be underestimated – “Marrow” might be the most solid track on the album. The combo of Sam, Ogar, Onry, JFK and Graves 33 on the beats is like watching “Goodfellas” – so many amazing performers at their best in the same place isn’t to be taken for granted.
Sammy and Ogar each have a solo track, as well, which is rad. It really seems like they took as much advantage as possible in every opportunity Rare Form provided, not unlike me and this goddamn remodel. Ogar goes the motivational route, while Sam takes on religion in no uncertain terms, sampling what is easily the best written dialogue scene in the last several years of television.
I didn’t mention one track, beat or person behind it earlier, and for good reason. Durazzo has seen some good exposure as of late, and it’s not undeserved – he’s truly talented and thoughtful, only wanting to serve the project at hand and scene he’s part of as best he can. Durazzo’s beat for “Good Old Days” closes out Rare Form quite a bit differently than I expected. It’s sunshine-y, feel-good aesthetic isn’t what I’m used to hearing from a Take 92 release (outside of maybe certain elements of Gradient’s Ambition), but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t leave me feeling elated and a bit proud to have repeatedly spent my time continuously analyzing Rare Form. Kind of like taking the measurements for this drywall, only not annoying as fuck.
Historically, Sam closes out his albums in something of a somber fashion. Perhaps he learned from Vacant Eyes that it doesn’t hurt to end on a happy, funny or even inspirational note. Ice Cube ends all his sets with “It Was A Good Day” for a reason, and it seems Sam may have taken a cue from that line of thinking. I, for one, was very appreciative, and it turns out both Sam and Ogar can mellow it out and just enjoy themselves.
There’s nothing forced on Rare Form, creating something of a timeless aesthetic. There’s little to inherently indicate it couldn’t have come out at any point in the last 15 years, if you don’t compare it to any of Sam or Ogar’s other work. By comparison, it took a lot of learning experience to get to the point where Sam and Ogar could create an album this solid.
On its own, Rare Form is simply an efficient, pointed and thoughtful endeavor. It speaks volumes to the upside of surrounding yourself with people who want you to win, and exemplifies what can happen when you take your time to create the best final product you can.
Rare Form is available for preorder at Take92.com, and will be released on Aug. 12, 2016. Until then, have a stream of the whole thing, on us.
08/12 – Portland, OR
08/13 – Eugene, OR
08/14 – Hood River, OR
08/15 – Boise, ID
08/16 – Salt Lake City, UT
08/17 – Fort Collins, CO
08/18 – Denver, CO
08/19 – Kearney, NE
08/20 – Des Moines, IA
08/21 – Cedar Rapids, IA
08/22 – Madison, WI
08/23 – Minneapolis, MN
08/24 – Sioux Falls, SD
08/25 – Bismarck, ND
08/26 – Billings, MT
08/27 – Missoula, MT
08/28 – Seattle, WA
Joel Weichbrodt is a pacific NW-based music writer and the editor of Ripped Laces.