Mysterious Phonk: The Chronicles of SpaceGhostPurrp
(4AD, Released June 12, 2012)
The moniker of this twenty-one-year-old Miami rapper/producer who recently released a solid debut album is SpaceGhostPurrp. Now let the name marinate. The “SpaceGhost” part clearly refers to the Hanna-Barbera intergalactic crime fighter of the same name from the mid-1960s who hung up his trademark yellow cape and black cowl in the early ’80s, but in the mid-’90s was yanked out of retirement and placed behind a desk on a talk show (the hilarious, Dadaist Space Ghost Coast to Coast). Now for “Purrp”: Understanding that we’re talking about a rapper, your first guess would also be your best. The non-word alludes to “purple,” short for “purple stuff” (or “lean” or “syrup”). A wicked concoction of mostly grape soda pop and a lot of prescription-strength codeine, the libation was originally dreamed up, drunk down, and glorified in late-1990s Houston by a coterie of rappers affiliated with DJ Screw, a producer who revolutionized underground rap by failing to get the pitch knob on his turntable working correctly. Along with “chopping,” a production technique in which rappers’ words or syllables are repeated several times briefly in succession, creating a weird stuttering effect, Screw invented beats that oozed from speakers like molasses and pioneered slowing and lowering rappers’ voices, as if they were coming from a 45 record spun at 33 speed—listening to “Screwed-up music,” as it was called, allegedly mimicked the effect of being stoned on purple stuff. DJ Screw died of a drug overdose in 2000, but his influence (and his retail outlet, Screwed Up Records & Tapes, in H-town) is still a large part of the underground conversation.
But like Space Ghost and all that he represents—the cosmos, the afterlife, adventure, pop culture, absurd humor—DJ Screw is deep in the background on Mysterious Phonk: The Chronicles of SpaceGhostPurrp, a collection of twelve previously released tracks remastered at Abbey Road Studios in London, plus three new songs, everything produced in grand minimalist style by Purrp. None of the tunes has that particular syrupy timbre or lurching tempo, and the rapper’s voice—viperine and often devoid of emotion—is neither slow nor low. You’d have to do a lot of research (read: search Google once) to discover that DJ Screw’s influence went only as far as SpaceGhostPurrp’s high of choice—“went,” because the young rapper has reportedly kicked the purple habit. All of this is a really long way of saying that, while SpaceGhostPurrp is not changing the underground rap game, he is making a statement. Unlike most of his peers, Purrp doesn’t have nine hundred guest artists contribute vocals on his songs, even though he belongs to a rap clique, Raider Klan—his is the only voice on every track—and the removal of some of the samples that appeared on previous recordings hasn’t done any appreciable damage. Most distinctly, Purrp doesn’t try to pass off diamond-encrusted fantasy as reality.
Well, most of the time.
Most of SpaceGhostPurrp’s lyrics are absolutely, outlandishly filthy, full of vulgarity and a generous serving of the N-word. Worse, they’re not redeeming, meaning they’re not witty or illuminating or even giddy with wordplay. But no one other than Purrp is allowed to determine his music: a glaringly obvious statement, yes, but one that at least one music critic needs to come to terms with. After all, the big-wigs at 4AD don’t care. Though their record label is home to such writerly indie-rock acts as Bon Iver, Camera Obscura, and St. Vincent, they haven’t tried to diminish SpaceGhostPurrp’s, um, excitable tongue. The three new tracks are just as smut-loving as the rest. (In literature, when a male writer spends a little too much time describing a babe or hot sex, he’s accused of writing with his dick instead of his pen, which is perhaps the ultimate criticism: “Not only is Joe Author’s work masturbatory, it’s, well, masturbatory!”) As with abstract-expressionism and weekend-warrior golf, however, spirit—vitality, zest, chutzpah—is ultimately what matters and ultimately what registers, and SpaceGhostPurrp’s unique spirit is alarmingly haunting.
Mysterious Phonk is a dark, brooding, ominous record, its doom underlined by Purrp’s aesthetic perspective as that of a young disenfranchised black man in the early twenty-first century constantly wrestling demons and lamenting his poverty while trying to remain positive and inspire listeners to share his optimism. “The world is a house with a yard full of snakes,” he raps on “Mystikal Maze,” a slow-burner of wispy synthetic winds over traditionally tinny Casio-sounding beats. “I don’t have money / I don’t have cars / All I got is the truth and a couple of bars.”
The most inspirational moment comes, surprisingly enough, in a song that involves MTV, “robotic hype” (?!), and a young woman with “pretty feet,” “The Black God,” in which SpaceGhostPurrp rap-talks, “Everybody, keep your head up / I know that everybody fed up / See, the world is not a safe place / Gotta keep a smile upon your face / Gotta believe in the god of black.”
A sense of the spiritual pervades Mysterious Phonk. SpaceGhostPurrp forgoes the Christianity hinted at (or, maybe more accurately, brandished) by most other underground rappers for a religion of his own, a belief system based on self-actualization with a dash of ancient Egyptian mysticism. “I’m gonna say it like this, man,” Purrp continues on “The Black God.” “The world is no place to be in if you’re not in the right state of mind, y’know what I’m sayin’? All you gotta do is maintain, stay true to yourself, love yourself, believe in yourself, and you will be your own god, and the universe will make your life better.”
“Osiris of the East,” referring by name to the Egyptian god of the underworld, would seem to be a literal manifestation of SpaceGhostPurrp’s DIY mode of salvation. The song starts off strong. Over a semi-danceable beat kissed in time by a short whistle, Purrp raps, “Feel the savage of the underground / The young underrated motherfucker who came through with the flame-sound / Now they know his name now / Young, real-minded, always reject him / Now they wanna pray now,” conjuring up all manner of messianic imagery, an ancient scroll written in graffiti. Too bad cliché isn’t far behind. “The pussy is top notch like butterscotch, then I slay now,” he goes on.
Mysterious Phonk is a serious record, one that actually could have benefitted from a little levity. The closest the album comes to pure joyousness is “Don’t Give a Damn,” in which Purrp goes against his normally sluggish nature and raps excitedly—in-your-face and non-confrontational à la Audio Two or old LL—over swirling synths and an utterly cheesy, bass-light beat. There’s also a lyrical flight of fancy that’s as charming as any you’d fine on an old-school hip-hop hit. “Comin’ hard on the beat / Ain’t I fuckin’ it good? / Hear my bass down the street / Through your whole neighborhood / See you up to no good / ’Cause you thinkin’ you slick / Fuck around with Florida / Come for you and your bitch.”
Sigh. But of course you would, Purrp. Of course.