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When Words Dance

In their annual year-end critics’ poll, The Seattle Times ranked When Words Dance as one of the very best Seattle albums of 2020, saying:

For his first release since parting with Sub Pop — an intriguing match that never quite found its rhythm — the veteran emcee pulled from his vault this jazz-steeped set recorded just after completing his label debut. Porter Ray’s flow is like a butterfly in slow motion — appreciate the natural grace and beauty he makes look easy.

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Black Babylon

Black Babylon came out in March, so I’m a little behind in writing about it. Artist Donte Peace calls this work his “three-year diary,” and it’s full of reflections on the passage of time and the rejection of labels. “Trapped Folk” reminds us how the game is gamed, disadvantaging black communities through urban living, poverty, and lack of education. The song “Ghetto Boys” is a contemplative, thinking man’s number punctuated with pensive pianos. Much of the production is courtesy of producer D-Sane who brings gravitas to these tracks, alongside reverb-heavy classical music instrumentation that recalls the best work of Raz Simone. Indeed, lotsa innovative producers on display here, including one of my personal favs Max Watters, who works some magic on “Soufside,” with a funky beat and a never-ending slowdown over the final two minutes of the track. “Flaw” features UK rapper Just Jess, providing an accented counterpoint to Donte’s often relaxed flow. These are 12 songs worthy of your contemplation.

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Watercolor

Someone said the slow-burn groove of Porter Ray’s 2017 Sub Pop release, Watercolor was “decidedly wavy.” It’s a good descriptor of the push-pull forces at work here: just as songs begin to take off, they slow down again. It’s this ongoing tension that makes the record so fascinating and so perplexing.

This is headphone music, demanding your attention, full of hushed lyrics, buried voices under the verses, mumbles deep in the mix, and smooth ass bass lines. (Shout out to BRoc on the production.)

I’m a huge fan of Porter’s back catalog of mixtapes, but even then, it took me a dozen listens to make sense of this 18-track double vinyl. We live in a time of five-second sound bites and snap judgments, and this record defiantly rejects both. It builds slowly. It demands investment and patience.

Watercolor starts to kick into gear around track 4, “Past Life” (feat. Ca$htro), before easing down again into an instrumental interlude.

Watercolor slowly primes you to achieve that moment where you’re ready to receive bold truths. This record is musical yoga, held in stasis, where the smallest movements are rendered epic, practice through repetition, recurring themes, and verses throughout multiple songs and MCs. Just breathe. Those bangers come later: “Lightro,” “Beautiful,” “Sacred Geometry”—all on the latter half of the record—deliver in spades. The longer you spend in this dream space, the deeper the dream goes. Lay in corpse pose. It’ll come to you.

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FNDMNTLS

FNDMNTLS is a 2014 mixtape from vowel-adverse Porter Ray. This record is filled with studies–of stasis, and of the crystallization of memory. Take for example “Ruthie Dean” a 5 1/2 minute song of rambling recollection, while in the background the same piano loops over and over again. Porter’s stream of consciousness storytelling repeats reoccurring motifs across multiple songs: dice, his absent brother, shorty, the District, after parties, countless blunts smoked and bottles raised in honor of some lost time before, as Cam The Mac intones throughout “Blackcherry,” sex, drugs and money dominated his days. Or, as Porter himself says wistfully on “Meditate,” “I wonder where this rap shit is taking me.” This record was released around the time he signed with Sub Pop. Two years on, his first official SP release, Watercolor is finally, imminently due, and we’re about to find out where.

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BLK GLD

He’s releasing a new EP tomorrow, so today let me cast some love towards Porter Ray’s skeletal 2013 debut, BLK GLD. Mixing downtempo production with literary rhymes, spoken softly over loops and beats, this record took me a while to get into. But now it’s probably the hip-hop record I play the most, as it slowly reveals its sublime truths. (Also, beautiful cover art.)

Seattle hip-hop blog 206UP picked this record as one of the “Top 10 Albums of 2013,” saying that:

Porter Ray is the most buzzed-about MC in Seattle these days. Lofty comparisons have been thrown around — “raps like Nas”, “the next Ishmael Butler” — but when it all shakes out, the best thing about Porter is that he doesn’t really sound like anyone else rapping in the Town. BLK GLD is not your garden variety rap debut, the kind of record looking to chart on Billboard and rack up hits on YouTube. Porter takes his time, laying out visceral, observational bars about inner-city life, over dense, elemental beats featuring dusty percussion and rare sample flips. To draw yet another comparison, Porter’s rhyme ethos shares much in common with Earl Sweatshirt’s: Both are still-budding MCs whose only fear seems to be making mediocre hip-hop. The youth is not wasted on Porter Ray.

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