Imagine Erick Sermon swinging by the chillout tent...
Kane Mayfield was one of the many rappers I lumped into the "Guys Who Think It's 1993" category in SPIN's "Hip-Hop Issue" infographic from December of last year. He's from Long Island and he sounds like he's from Long Island, and over the past few years, he's built a reputation that has gotten him some love on, well, the kinds of sites that are mad at a jokes like, "Guys Who Think It's 1993."
The first track on Rhymes By Kane is a burst of expertly-rapped, hot-sounding, lyrically-lyrical nonsense; and in lieu of a hook, there's a cool, calm, and collected speech from a kung-fu movie. Pretty typical stuff, except that over the aphorism-spewing sensei, Mayfield provides running Mystery Science Theater 3000-style commentary:
"Victory and defeat are the same.”
"I have no idea what the hook is saying; he's like a yoga master and he's saying stuff..."
"Seek detachment. Fight without desire."
"Fight without desire? You'll get beat up. Where you from? Like, Tibet and shit?”
He cleverly begins the second verse by riffing on that useless advice, "Okay, so don't fight without desire / My psychic's retired, so when meanings aren't clear, I ain't the type to be quiet," and continues rapping his ass off. Kane's third verse is particularly verbose and Canibus-like ("I'm wordplay on a work day / My workplace is the world weight, worst way…"), and then, he abruptly ends the song with, "Okay, that's enough rappity raps." Apparently, he's as sick of MCs spittin' heat rocks as we are. The song's title? "Rappity Raps." Kane is a knowing nostalgist.
That tendency to gently subvert '90s-indebted hip-hop is most apparent on Rhymes By Kane's production. All of the beats are based on samples of Thievery Corporation songs. The chilled-out downtempo Washington, D.C. DJ duo are actually the ideal group to use in this fashion. They're neither cool or cutting-edge enough for the project to seem like a cheap grab at hype (they're the kind of group your friend's nice-enough roommate loves), and though it's quite possible that some Thievery Corporation fans will pick this up and dig it, chances are they will not. There's a weird vacuum of context here, which allows Kane to do whatever he wants over these appropriated tracks.
Often, he's riffing on a Thievery song title like "Beautiful Drug," or a single sonic detail, like the group's Middle Eastern jangle, which here, inspires "Patriot," a track that takes that loaded word back from stuffy neo-cons and gives it to the working-class victims of police brutality, and a friend of Kane's who refuses to pay taxes because he doesn't think his vote even gets counted. On "Vampire," he raps over Thievery Corporation's Femi Kuti-assisted song of the same name, pinning his outrage to the Kuti family's tradition of protest. "I see a man, they see a nigger / Life ain't sweet, he had Skittles / Thought it was a gun, it was an Iced Tea / Riddled with slugs, no surprise," Kane raps, shifting into a sing-song rhyme that, like Fela (when he crooned about the death of his mother or systematic corruption), finds some semblance of joy by turning horrors into a catchy, shuffling melody.
"Ghetto Almanac" glides with the chintzy bittersweet sincerity of Tupac's "Changes," turning early Kanye ("Black man buy Jordans / Crackhead buy crack, and the white man get paid off of all of that") into a defeated howl of a hook, mocking crack rap ("If everybody's a dealer / Why everybody broke?") and deconstructing the rhetorical trick of accusing someone of "playing the race card": "This is not racist / Race cards were played in this game long before I sat at the table." Then he takes his own conscious-rapper hubris down a few notches, adding, "I don't wanna preach because I got a lot of flaws / If I had a 100 Gs, you think I wouldn't ball?"
Although Kane isn't connected to the forward-thinking, backward-sounding NYC rap scene that's varied enough to include both Action Bronson and Himanshu from Das Racist, he might as well be. All that's stopping him, it seems, is the right publicist, because Rhymes By Kane: Thievery Corporation Edition, a mixtape from a self-aware throwback rapper riffing on post-racial hypocrisy over chilled-out beats, is as witty and inspired as any of this year's more high-profile New York-not-New York rap releases.