October 9, 2018

Reader Review: Hilltop Hoods - Drinking from the Sun (March 9, 2012)




(Today’s Reader Review comes from Miguel, who first wrote about the Australian hip hop group Hilltop Hoods (*checks notes*)…damn, nine years ago? Wow. Anyway, here’s the follow up to that review, in which he discusses their sixth album, Drinking from the Sun. Enjoy, and leave your thoughts below.)


The best part about reviewing international artists for Hip Hop Isn't Dead are the perks Max provides. For the follow-up to my last, extremely well-received Hilltop Hoods review, he was willing to give me all the money he has acquired from the Amazon links littered throughout his blog over the years so I could better understand the Australian hip hop scene. I imagined flying first class on Qantas, taking a kangaroo taxi from the airport to the coral reef before eating dinner, playing with koalas, and asking locals what they thought about Iggy Azalea before saying, "just kidding mate" and chugging some Foster's. 

Sadly, all Max could give me was $0.06 for my research (support the blog!), so I just went to the nearest Whole Foods and stole a jar of Vegemite before illegally streaming every episode of Flight of the Conchords. I was no better suited to write about Australian culture or Australian hip hop when I first drafted this review in 2015 (yeah, I’ve held on to this one for a while) than I was six years prior when I first wrote about Hilltop Hoods. Three years later as I edit this, I'm somehow even less attuned to the land down under, immense knowledge of 76ers star Ben Simmons aside. (Possibly because the Conchords are based in New Zealand.) A lot has changed since than: Trump got elected; fidget spinners came and went; Donald Glover is now this generation's renaissance man. It's understandable why Max went on his hiatus  ̶  I feel odd writing a serious review about any album considering the current state of the world. So it goes.

Drinking from the Sun, the sixth album from Hilltop Hoods, was their umpteenth national success, topping the Australian charts and going double platinum before all was said and done. Like State of the Art before it, the instrumentals are laced with a wide array of samples, but unlike State of the Art, the production was not handled exclusively by group member Suffa, as One Above, Jaytee, Pokerbeats, and K21 take on the majority of the songs throughout. Also unlike State of the Art, this album has far more notable guest features, ranging from fellow Aussie Sia to The Roots' frontman Black Thought.

They released a conceptual follow-up to Drinking from the Sun in 2016 called Walking Under Stars, which I'll probably get to reviewing in 2022. Stay tuned!

1. THE THIRST PT. 1 (INTERLUDE)
Audio of an audience waiting for a show to begin gives way to a sparse piano line punctuated by some nice strings that Pressure raps over. He sums up what has occurred in the group member's lives in between albums, but if one skips the song before the rapping starts, did the rapping ever actually exist in the first place?

2. DRINKING FROM THE SUN
This title track works much better as an introduction to the Hoods than the prior track. Suffa breathlessly raps over the sound of a string quartet, and as the violins hit their crescendo, the music stops and the awesome instrumental, largely formulated around a sample of Ten Wheel Drive's "How Long Before I'm Gone", drops. The hook largely consists of the DJ Premier-perfected method of scratching in timely mixed-and-matched vocal samples, and Suffa hands off mic duties to Pressure for the last two verses, which are largely composed of shit-talking and boasts. All in all, a good way to start things out.

3. I LOVE IT (FEAT. SIA)
Soon after its release, "I Love It" quickly became the Hilltop Hoods' biggest hit, which remained the case until 2014's unfortunately-titled "Cosby Sweater" and 2016's "1955”, neither of which I have listened to. A lot of that success stems from the inclusion of then-future A-list collaborator Sia Furler, whose contribution doesn't do much to amplify the track beyond its station. (Had the Hoods waited two years, they wouldn’t have even been able to afford Sia’s quote, as her “Chandelier” was a monster hit.) It isn't that the song is bad, but nothing about it stands out, aside from the time-honored pop tradition of yelling out a random list of cities that have nothing to do with one another. Still, of all of the songs named "I Love It," this would rank second: (much) better than Kanye West and Lil Pump's, but worse than Icona Pop’s.

4. LIGHTS OUT
A much more dissonant affair than anything that has come thus far, "Lights Out" seems to both applaud and disdain its main topic: fame. It's a bit jarring coming after the saccharine positivity of "I Love It," but it seems like the contrast is intentional. The guitar sounds like it was lifted from The Beatles' The White Album sessions (a compliment), but otherwise this track ends up being more interesting than it is good, although the gospel-tinged addition to the chorus at the end was a nice touch.

5. LIVING IN BUNKERS (FEAT. BLACK THOUGHT & LOTEK)
While State of the Art seemed to feature the Hoods perfecting their specific, 1990's-influenced style of hip hop, Drinking from the Sun finds the group more privy to experimenting with as wide an array of sounds as possible. For example, on “Living in Bunkers”, we have a mixed meter piano line, a rarity in our almost exclusively 4/4-time signature genre. Maybe it's a way to appeal to the jazzy inclinations of guest rapper Black Thought, who, unsurprisingly, finds a way to flow around this off-kilter instrumental effortlessly. The classic sample swiped from Black Moon's "How Many MC's..." is a nice touch, and all three emcees deliver, but with the pedigree involved, you kind of wish this knocked just a bit more.

6. SPEAKING IN TONGUES (FEAT. CHALI 2NA)
I appreciate how the group tailors their beat selection to their featured guests  ̶  Australians are known for their hospitality. The instrumental, based on a sample of Body and Soul's "In the Beginning", sounds like a leftover Jurassic 5 track, so the Jurassic 5’s Chali 2na fits it like a glove. Suffa and Pressure do their part to keep things lively and upbeat, but mostly know to leave well enough alone.

7. NOW YOU'RE GONE
You would think “pas terrible” in French would translate to "not terrible", but really it means "not good." How does that apply to “Now You’re Gone”? It doesn't, really. Songs about being burned by a former flame have long been played out, and talking about, "crawling on the ground like a millipede" doesn't do anything to make this one stand out.

8. GOOD FOR NOTHING
The beat is so guitar-reliant and rock-heavy that it'd cause Eminem to go into a dopamine-induced seizure (which, considering his tolerance levels, is saying a lot). The bars are a mixed bag of braggadocio, but the line, "beat you single-handed like I'm Def Leppard's drummer" was specific enough to make me chuckle.

9. RATTLING THE KEYS TO THE KINGDOM
In Australia, the music video for “Rattling the Keys to the Kingdom” seems to be considered controversial. From what I understand, it featured multiple other hip hop artists from the country, but didn't include any members of the nation's second-biggest rap act, Bliss N' Eso. Fans think this may be a subliminal dis because Bliss N' Eso "stole" the beat from the Hilltop's "Riding Under One Banner" for their own "Then Til Now”. I’ve listened to both tracks, and all of this boils down to the fact that the same sample was used for each. In my mind, it’s less Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” ripping off Marvin Gaye than it is someone claiming that Eminem's "My Name Is" is the same song as Miguel's "Kaleidoscope Dream". I mention all of this because it’s far more interesting than the song itself.

10. THE THIRST PT. 2 (INTERLUDE)
At least the first installment had a verse at the end. “The Thirst Pt. 2” uses the same exact piano and string lines, but inserts a few different vocal samples in lieu of a new verse, a beat switch, or, you know, anything that could be of interest to a prospective listener. Many believe that the birth of interludes and skits in hip hop comes from labels writing up contracts that stipulated a set amount of tracks per album, meaning that if you were legally required to give the label thirteen tracks per album, you could fulfill the obligation with ten songs and three skits. I'm not accusing the Hilltop Hoods of anything specifically: I'm just saying you can't prove it's not true.

11. THE UNDERGROUND (FEAT. CLASSIFIED & SOLO)
Suffa's beat samples Mama Cass Elliott's "California Earthquake" to great effect. The two-step drum pattern is infectious, and while the Hilltop hosts decidedly out-rap their two guests on this track, all four give commendable performances. And thanks to this song, I’m now aware that McDonald's is referred to as "Macca" in Australia. The more you know.

12. SHREDDING THE BALLOON
A Suffa solo track, one where he details his struggles overcoming alcoholism. He has always been a capable rapper, but the number of flows he works with here is really impressive. What could have been a corny effort works because of the honest details littered throughout, although it is odd to get a line about "crawling on the wall like a centipede" after the earlier millipede reference on the album. They've broken the hip hop record for  arthropod references on an album by two, at least!

13. THE THIRST PT. 3 (INTERLUDE)
We return to the same piano line from the first two entries. The only thing useful about this interlude is that it gives away the name of the group’s next album, which would have been fun to know at the time Drinking from the Sun was released. With that, we've finished.

(Every version of Drinking from the Sun I’ve found online comes with a fourteenth track, a remix of the earlier “Good For Nothing” produced by K21. Did Miguel just forget this remix existed, or was it omitted with purpose? Good news is, you can go listen to it and draw your own conclusions. Or maybe Miguel will throw something into the comments, who knows.)

FINAL THOUGHTS: With Drinking from the Sun, the Hilltop Hoods have fallen into a trap that artists such as Nas and Lupe Fiasco still find themselves stuck in: taking this all a bit too seriously. On all of their prior albums, the group struck a nice balance between levity and consciousness, but on this project it leans a bit too far towards the latter. Pressure and Suffa are as technically sound as ever, but Drinking from the Sun falls flat far too often. When it works, it really delivers, and the experimental flourishes and featured guests are welcomed. It is difficult to recommend a project that has just ten actual songs on it when only half of them are even worth listening to, though. Maybe their follow-up, Walking Under Stars, will help contextualize some of what the Hilltop Hoods decided to include on this project, but if a different album is necessary to make sense of this one, then they should have been released together. As they were not, I must judge them as separate, and on that basis Drinking from the Sun is an alright album that likely would have sounded much better if it hadn’t been following the best work the Hoods have ever done.

BUY OR BURN: Feel free to pick around this like a buzzard on your streaming platform of choice, and for those of you who still have a laptop with a functional compact disc player, a burn would be sufficient. 

BEST TRACKS: "Drinking from the Sun"; "Speaking In Tongues"; "Shredding The Balloon"

- Miguel

(Questions? Comments? Concerns? Leave your thoughts below.)




1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review, definitely never heard of them but will search this out on youtube.

    ReplyDelete