Song of the Week: "Penmanship" - Kooley High

The Raleigh/Brooklyn stalwarts give the first glimpse into their forthcoming collab album with producer Tuamie.

Song of the Week: "Penmanship" - Kooley High

Life often imitates art, as the old saying goes. But what about the art-making process itself — how attached or separate is it from the art it ultimately produces? In the case of Kooley High's recent collaborative work with Atlanta-based producer Tuamie, at least, the two seem to be fully intertwined. The fact that a chromed-out, levitating infinity symbol dominates the artwork for their upcoming album, All Infinite, is merely a coincidence. Or is it?

For a group defined over the years by its fun-loving, go-with-the-flow musical sensibility, it would make sense for a healthy degree of spontaneity to influence Kooley High's real-life creative process as well — one offhand conversation leading to another, then to a single song, and before you know it, a whole album. To hear Charlie Smarts tell it, that’s not far off from how the group's newest release actually came to be: DJ Ill Digitz hearing Tuamie perform at Beathaus in Brooklyn, the Mutant Academy producer later playing "jam after jam" for Digitz and Smarts, and the initial pursuit of a one-song collaboration quickly expanding into a full-fledged, 18-song album. Going with the flow can be nice like that.

It can also lead into new and unusual territory. K-High is and always has been, after all, a full-service, multi-disciplinary rapping/producing/DJing crew, a structure that doesn't naturally lend itself to the outside-producer collab album arrangement of All Infinite. With the notable exception of their 2011 album David Thompson — on which most songs were produced by DJ Prince, Teknowledgy and Napoleon Wright II, rather than in-house producers Sinopsis and Foolery — Kooley albums have largely been family affairs.

On All Infinite, then, Tuamie's mission is nothing less than to thread a (space) needle: bring enough individual flair to justify the extravagant, 18-track romp, but channel enough of the group's decade-plus ethos to stay safely within the Kooley universe. On this week's single, "Penmanship" — built on a spacey, intoxicating loop of bleeps and robotic twangs, like if Pong had come pre-installed in 1972 with head-nodding, NBA Live-style menu music — we got the first indications of how it might go: just fine.

Smarts and Tab-One both sound completely at home over the chunky, just-barely-on-time production (and Ill Digitz' cuts), but it's in their approaches that the longtime sparring partners diverge. Each released a solo project since the last Kooley album (Charlie’s Charlietape alongside Digitz in 2023, and Tab’s Glory In The Weight in 2022), and the echoes of those distinctive — and different — projects seem to still cast an influence over the two emcees.

Charlie's relaxed, unhurried drawl wouldn’t have him being confused with a bar-stuffer like DaBaby, but as would be expected coming off a mixtape that was full of energy and lyrical showmanship, he makes economical use of the relatively wide-open nature of the beat, emphasizing the closing syllables on "My son turned one, how your rhymes nur-ser-y? We learned that the streets is open, Se-sa-me" and finding room for the subtle delights that are his trademark, like “The places I perform so small, like how I’m supposed to get glory from a hole-in-the-wall?”

Tab’s most recent album, far from a throwback-style mixtape with radio drops and punchlines, had been about as mellow as it gets: a slow, laidback meditation on life that felt like a leisurely walk through the woods. More concerned with tone, texture and piece of mind than it was about pure bars, Glory In The Weight had trafficked in more than a few lyrical standbys and reliable themes familiar to any old-school hip-hop fan — and as I wrote at the time, it undeniably worked.

Glory In The Weight
Over its 13 unhurried, meditative songs, Tab-One’s 2022 release ‘Glory in the Weight’ drips with wisdom and peace of mind.

On "Penmanship," Tab continues to play the straight man, providing the sober POV that made Glory In The Weight so great, and as usual, weaving in his own journey in music: “Thought of quittin', but his spirit wouldn’t listen/Lookin’ in the mirror for the only competition." These aren't the most complex, clever lines of his career, but opposite of Charlie's exploits, they don't have to be. Whether or not they'll settle into those roles for a whole album — like the larger question about the over-arching sound Tuamie is going to create — is something we'll just have to wait and find out.

Things didn't have to be this way. A long time ago, it would've been easy enough for Kooley High to slip into the comfortable, straightforward identity of a sort of “Golden era hip-hop” tribute band, doing mildly Raleigh-flavored songs that were otherwise impressions of Mos Def, A Tribe Called Quest and The Pharcyde. But while the group did originate from a shared love for the boom-bap era ("They say we reminiscent of the 90's... well no shit, Sherlock... who the hell you 'sposed to be, Morgan Spurlock?"), they haven't stayed there — consistently changing and evolving their sound within the alt-hip-hop, old-school lane. With "Penmanship," and the album to come, it feels like they're penning the latest chapter in that evolution. 


"Hot Spot" - Mez ft. Isaiah Rashad

The rollout for Mez's Loading EP continues, this time with the special guest appearance of TDE's Isaiah Rashad — a "full circle moment" according to Mez, who directed the "Headshots (4r Da Locals)" video for Zay in 2021 (featuring... a lot of circles). This one is more R&B than usual from Mez, bringing to mind another song he featured on years ago: "Passcode" from the Revenge of the Dreamers III Deluxe Edition (amazing line: "you threw my shit out the window, said 'fuck me and my Nintendo'... it's a PlayStation, by the way"). Anyway, seems like some kind of preoccupation with IT. Passcode, Hot Spot, what's next... Modem? We'll be here all week (and next).

"Grammy Party" - DaBaby

Whether a byproduct of mainstream cancelation following his repugnant AIDS comments in 2021, a string of formulaic, one-speed releases in the years that followed, or some combination of the two, DaBaby's light is undoubtedly dimmer today than it was just a few years ago. But when your starting point is as one of the biggest acts on the planet (see: multiple Billboard No. 1 albums), you can fall quite a ways and still cast a long shadow. His characteristically hyperactive, larger-than-life "Grammy Party" is unquestionably the biggest song to drop from the Carolinas this week. Whether his current trajectory positions him to keep doing that for years to come is another question entirely.

Bars Is Back EP - Kamus Leonardo and Neem The Animist

Released earlier in February, there's nothing to hate and everything to love about this fun collab EP form Triangle-based rappers Kamus and Neem. Give it a spin this weekend, and thank me later.

"2nd Chance" - Phil.

Purists for classic beats and lyricism need not tune in — Phil. has bars elsewhere in his catalog, but on "2nd Chance," he sinks into melodic rap/soul/R&B fusion.

That's our third edition of Song of the Week in the books! Try to work a few NC songs into the rotation this weekend alongside Blue Lips, and otherwise, we'll see ya next week.