For Memphis rapper/producer Cities Aviv (born Gavin Mays), the internet–its busyness, its endless possibility, its boundless power to reproduce and imitate–is a metaphor for music. Just like the internet, Cities Aviv’s music performs Umberto Eco’s postmodern condition, reflecting Eco’s supposition that new creations are merely amalgamations of old things. Aviv, as a producer and a rapper, borrows from both hip-hop traditions and post-punk sensibilities.
This spirit of cross-pollination is most evident in Aviv’s third release, Come To Life. It’s adventurous, unapologetic, abrasive, distorted and boisterous. It resists easy classification, so why try to name it? It doesn’t belong in the messy, reductive subgroups of “hipster rap” or “backpack rap”, or even “internet rap”. It’thinks back and it looks forward. It’s not immediately listenable–if you’re looking for another boom-bap revivalist, you might as well stop reading.
Come To Life celebrates spontaneity, dissonance and uncertainty. But Aviv doesn’t see himself as a visionary or an iconoclast. “I’m just a dude making music”, he said in conversation with Interview Magazine’s Dan Buyanovsky. “Artist, composer, whatever. I’d like to end up wherever I’m supposed to end up, I guess”. Once upon a time, Cities Aviv made hip-hop that followed more traditional hip-hop formulas: down-on-one, straight boom-bap with jazz and soul samples and a more laconic, mellow approach to rapping. His music has progressively become noisier, embracing his hardcore roots. Before he made his name as a hip-hop innovator, he was frontman for Memphis hardcore band Copwatch.
The sheer abundance of noise in Aviv’s production and vocals certainly points to hardcore influences. Sure, his instrumentals (and those produced by RPLD GHSTS and other of the brilliant minds he has recruited) have a certain hard-to-imitate coordinated busyness and enthusiastic fusion. There are few rappers and producers in hip-hop that poach genres so easily. But it’s his vocal projections–more aggressive, rhyming shouts than “rapping”–that most clearly derive from his hardcore days. He seems more interested, then, in the sound his voice makes when combined with his loud, electronic production. The timbre of his voice alone creates a post-punk ethos, even though the specific words sometimes get lost in echoes, Tekken sounds, “Blue Monday”-esque synth bass and 80s bounce. This will, of course, draw comparisons to MC Ride from Death Grips, though these comparisons are reductive and unfair.
With all respect to Death Grips’s immense talent, Cities Aviv is an artist on his own terms, and while Ride and Aviv sound similar, the lyrics of Come To Life seem thematically opposite to the MC Ride’s unabashed anger, and Aviv’s own vocal projections for that matter. Take, for example, “URL IRL“, the album’s first single. “Do you realize, recognize?/Come to life my n***a, do you know what’s good?/You should!” it begins, setting out an album full of manifestos. “URL IRL” loudly demands that we recognize our own ability to “come to life”, that we embrace the limitless simulation and connectivity of the internet and that we participate in Aviv’s bizarre, ordained musical universe. “PERPETUATE THE REAL” seems almost fit for “cloud rap”, but Aviv’s bellowing voice again dominates the track., further empowered by the syncopation of his rhymes. It makes a strong case for the internet-as-reality philosophy the album espouses. The final track, “DON’T EVER LOOK BACK”, begins as something of a meditation but dissolves into the same cringing, obscure distortion that began the album.
Come To Life‘s greatest strength might also be its most serious weakness: it prefers a muddled, noisy aesthetic. This contributes positively to the album’s unified ethos, but Cities Aviv never once allows the lyrics to claim any sort of precedence over the production. Such is the condition of the internet, though, a deafeningly loud space, never lacking in volume or content. Aviv may eschew the assignation of “internet rapper”, but if “internet rap” is to be construed as rap that channels, emulates and considers the internet, he might be the best and most provocative internet rapper out there. You just have to know what’s good.
(Watch the provocative video for “Don’t Ever Look Back” below)