ARTIST: Toki Wright and Big Cats
A truly well-constructed album will give you more in proportion to how much you give it. Artists who truly dig deep into their own work can embed the final product with multiple levels that encourage the listeners engagement to match their own. Rapper Toki Wright and producer Big Cats are both musicians with the propensity to write in this manner, each pushing further with their own creations to bring them to their fullest potential, but neither party has reached heights like those on Pangaea prior. Toki has been stitching together high-level raps for upwards of a decade that felt constrained by the form's standard modes, moving gradually from the powerful boom-bap of solo debut A Different Mirror to the free-floating, pure-bars experiments of his most recent outing, Faders, in 2012. Big Cats has been producing full-length rap albums with a range of artists, from the gritty shit-talking of RP Hooks to Guante's politically progressive, poetry-influenced concept records. But the opportunity to stretch himself came with solo record For My Mother, a tribute to his mother (who had recently passed) that chopped live instrumentation from professional musicians, putting together a lush soundscape that incorporated the form of sampling without using a single one. Both parties seemed to find themselves at a point where the structure and aim of the average rap song wasn't creatively satisfying, and it's evident on Pangaea that they're approaching writing music with a shared sense of exploration and depth.
It's evident the album's slow, meditative hip-hop was painstakingly crafted, despite its heavily minimalist tone. Two years in the making, each song feels intensely pored over. Both the lyrics and the soundscapes are meticulously detail-driven, but at no point does it feel overwrought. Toki takes his time and gets his ideas across in ways that suit both the concept and the surrounding atmosphere of the song. Not only do the songs sonically flow into one another, but the lyrical themes take the listener on a defined journey and the sequencing is very intentional. There's an overarching theme here about humanity working together as one, which is arrived at gradually, using both specific detailing of personal and community issues as well as broader usage of symbolism and abstract concepts. At times it's rapped, at times it feels like spoken poetry. Rarely are songs in basic verse-chorus format, letting the mood of the track dictate the organization. Often songs will devote large swaths of sonic space to sweeping instrumental portions, breaking beats down to pure atmospherics. Pangaea seems to be intended for a full listen, and songs take different strides from one another but in subtle ways that make the album feel very cohesive.
Toki Wright's rapping is clearly that of a seasoned veteran, tightly concocting rhymes that both sound slick and get a thoughtfully considered point across. But his downturned demeanor and approach is particularly powerful here, especially in times where rap is largely mired in in-your-face club songs. Toki is nuanced both conceptually and vocally, subtly putting forth big ideas and knowing just how to execute them. The beats are consistently remarkable and feature many layers of sound for such a barebones vibe. Vocal mixing and mastering of this level is hardly seen outside of TDE's Derek Ali, and parsing out the multiple floating atmospherics that contribute to the overall presentation of each song provide a richer engagement with the record. Pangaea is a heavy and deeply-concocted record, teeming with powerful, palatable musings that will continually provide new insights as you're beckoned to engage with project again.
"You have wings on your back and planets on your vocal chords. Be what you choose."