Song of the Week: "Other Side" - Kooley High

The Raleigh quintet leans away from Earthly matters like sales and streams, and into mortality and eternal life.

Song of the Week: "Other Side" - Kooley High

Over the past decade-plus of hustling up and down the I-95 corridor, Raleigh's five-piece Kooley High crew have been no strangers to the unglamorous reality that 99.9% of rap acts — good or bad — are one day forced to reckon with: that is, being less-than-famous, and relying on forms of work beyond hip-hop to sustain their livelihoods.

Of course, theirs is an enviable version of that well-worn path. Widely respected in underground circles (and boasting a GRAMMY-nominated group alumna in Rapsody), their records are distributed by the legendary NYC label and record shop Fat Beats, and alongside in-house producers Sinopsis and Foolery, heavy-hitting guests like 9th Wonder, Khrysis and Eric G. have also dotted their production credits.

Still, exhausted and likely disillusioned by a game that's seen Kooley (like others before them) expend great energy for minimal financial or popular return, it's not hard to see where the inspiration might come for an album like the one they're set to release next Friday with Atlanta producer Tuamie — one that seems less preoccupied with Earthly matters of prestige and streaming counts, and more with concepts like timelessness, endlessness and infinity (All Infinite, M.E.C.C.A. Records, April 19th).

Launched during a historical blip of perfectly-intersecting phenomena (the Golden Era of music blogging, a resurgence in lyricism-based hip-hop, the lack of a duopolistic, predatory streaming landscape) that briefly made it possible to imagine that a six-person, true-school hip-hop group could be an economically viable business venture, it's a gift in itself to see that Kooley's output in recent years — sans material success — hasn't been consumed by the bitterness or resentment of missed opportunity.

But even more satisfying is the evolution in material that has taken place — a slow and steady process of maturation that, for many listeners, has mirrored our own. Twelve years later, it's possible to look back fondly at clever but boorish lyrics from Charlie Smarts like,"My dogs eat kibbles 'n bits, so why all y'all keep scribblin' shit?/ Got a bib when ya spit, but mommy wiggle ya tits/ they say 'this heat' like the scent of a bitch" ("Regular Shit," 2012), and also be struck by a distinct sense that we've moved on from that period of our lives.

On "Other Side," the third and final single before the release of All Infinite, Kooley presents the latest and most compelling evidence that they have, too.

"Regular Sh*t," circa 2012. Please watch til 2:55 mark for the dancing pickle.

Granted, even at the height of their debauchery, K-High was never just silly punchlines and crude humor — under the irreverent surface was always a searching, sensitive core. On the same album as Charlie's bars about wiggling tits and dogs in heat was the heartsick "Days Passed Me By," as well as Tab-One's dejected confrontation with the trials of the creative life on "Same Old Thing": "I'm tired of drinkin', thinkin' I'll be gettin' numb/ Tired of gettin' nothing when I should be gettin' some/ Tired of doin' shows in Carolina for some crumbs/ and I'm tired of bein' broke in Brooklyn lookin' for some funds."

Occasional moments of gravity aside, the veteran quintet has never been quite where we find them now, musing about God, mortality and eternal life ("Created in God's image, I'm off livin'/ Palms lifted, prayin' for the alms given"), over yet another Tuamie beat that manages the magic trick of feeling old and new at the same time. Bringing it home is Smarts, weaving his longtime knack for creative wordplay and delivery — often deployed in service of levity and humor — into some of Kooley's heaviest material yet: "Look to the heavens and I know something there exists, I done seen existential-type evidence/ In my head I see the dead again... Pearly Gates gotta let me in/ I did too much good, I got leverage/ when I left the 'hood, I got severance/ Move up for the betterment, my pops George Jefferson...".

All these years later, Kooley High is still finding ways to redefine their sound, and even their perspective on life itself. In more ways than one, 2012 feels lightyears away.


"Red Leather" - Future & Metro Boomin, ft. J. Cole

It could be that in the post-Dreamville fog the Super Empty new music radar isn't functioning as well as normal, or maybe anything new was washed out by "Big 3"/"Big Me" talk, but there wasn't much in the way of new NC hip-hop this week — as far as this email newsletter is aware. The one add-on to this week's SOTW column comes from J. Cole, who continued the surprises for a second Friday in a row with a contribution on Metro Boomin & Future's We Still Don't Trust You joint album (at roughly the 4:30 mark of "Red Leather"). Word to the wise: don't let the Internet chatter deceive you that the verse is in any way a further development since Cole's comments at Dreamville Fest on Sunday night — the song almost surely was not recorded and released within four days. Still, that he appears at all is another wrinkle in the unfolding drama at the top of the rap heap. Is it a further testament to Cole's place as a collaborative, grudgeless, friend to all, or a shocking betrayal befitting of WWE? You'd have to go on X (formerly Twitter) to read more... which I don't recommend.

See you next Friday,