In Digital Wildlife, the finely crafted fourth album by The Physics, the Seattle group explores the relationship between digital and analog by mixing synths with analog production elements and rapping about how, as the group explains it in the “Am I Crazy” single’s liner notes, “our lives take place so much within the digital domain, but our humanness rears itself throughout.” But what actually stands out more about Digital Wildlife than the digital-and-analog concept is the two-movement structure of most of the album tracks.
Cuts like “Am I Crazy,” “Play It Off” and “No Tellin” appear to conclude about halfway through the track’s running time, but then they segue into a completely different beat or as Physics frontman Thig Nat prefers to call it, an interlude. This structure of two or more movements in a single track isn’t really new to hip-hop. The likes of The Roots, Lauryn Hill, Kendrick Lamar and even The Physics themselves (as far back as 2007’s “Ready for We”) have attached interludes to the ends of tracks before, whether they’re instrumental interludes, mini-radio plays (I hate calling them skits because a lot of them are either far from comedic or just plain terrible at attempting to be comedic) or completely new songs.
But the way Thig and in-house producer Justo (sans the usual presence of third Physics member Monk Wordsmith, Thig’s sibling) deploy that structure to explore themes of love and sex in the age of social media and MMORPGs is pretty clever. That cleverness is one of many reasons why Seattle, the same city that gave us beatmaking geniuses like Jake One, who produced a couple of Digital Wildlife tracks, continues to be a great hip-hop city (and those of us outside Seattle knew dope sounds were coming out of the Northwest ever since either Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Posse on Broadway” or in my case, that time Mix-a-Lot rapped about a hooptie that makes Jack Benny’s sputtering ride look like a Benzo).
The most effective example of the two-movement structure is “No Tellin.” The first half of “No Tellin” looks at the challenges of a relationship that’s constantly interrupted by work (“Where my head is at/I don’t really know/I’ve been cooped up in the damn studio”) and is maintained through late night phone calls and texts. The second half, an update of Zapp & Roger’s “Computer Love” for this current era of selfies and avatars, is about how Instagram and other social media allow a man who’s younger than Thig (and is portrayed by a sped-up Thig) to lie about himself and the whip he drives while taking out for the first time a female Facebook friend (“What happened to your Benz?,” says the girl to her deceptive date). It isn’t clear during the first few listens why these two relationships are juxtaposed together in “No Tellin,” but upon later listens, you realize they’re placed together because they’re examples of the album’s theme of “our lives take place so much within the digital domain, but our humanness rears itself throughout.” Digital advances may be improving aspects of our lives, but as “No Tellin” implies, those advances haven’t yet been able to delete eternal human problems like loneliness, the difficulty of finding more time to spend with your significant other and keeping lies from being discovered.
The “No Tellin” interlude, which is actually entitled “Update My Status,” is easily the best of the interludes during Digital Wildlife, followed by the “Red J’s” interlude that concludes “Am I Crazy.” Sung by Physics harmonizers Malice and Mario Sweet (a husband-and-wife duo with R&B albums of their own), “Red J’s” is such an awesomely composed bit of retro soul I wish it were its own full song.
Digital Wildlife is a mostly contemplative and mellow album (the atmospheric sounds of Toronto producers like Noah “40” Shebib, Drake’s in-house beatmaker, seem to have influenced Swish, Justo and Mario Sweet when they respectively came up with moody soundscapes for “Am I Crazy” and “Play It Off,” which, by the way, is a terrific opening track that’s nearly ruined by a shout-out to American Apparel; I wish the girl Thig sings about in “Play It Off” didn’t wear a brand that’s run by the cringeworthy perv that is Dov Charney). But not all the tracks on Digital Wildlife are about the complications of love in a digital world. The Jake One-produced “On My Mind,” which features another Seattle crew, the Sta-Hi Brothers (a.k.a. Vitamin D and Maine), continues in the digital vein but concludes the album on a lighthearted and upbeat note with a bunch of flirtatious bars directed at gamer girls (“Like Tetris, I wanna play with your shape”). It’s filled with references to almost every game you can think of, from Contra, my all-time favorite NES game (that’s mostly because of a certain cheat code that gave players 30 lives), to MMORPGs like Phantasy Star. (Jake One’s other contribution to Digital Wildlife is “Northern Lights,” and if it sounds very familiar, it’s because he recycles the exact same beat he used for the Chance the Rapper track “Acid Rain.”)
That eclecticism that’s on display throughout Digital Wildlife and Thig and Justo’s delight in experimenting with their sound (for instance, Justo experimented with producing a track without any drums on their 2011 album Love Is a Business, and on one Digital Wildlife track, Thig doesn’t rap at all and only sings) are a couple of reasons why The Physics are big in Seattle. To borrow some social media lingo, here’s hoping that the solid Digital Wildlife gets more heads outside the 206, aside from the likes of Phonte (who did a guest feature on Love Is a Business), to click “Follow” on the work of The Physics.
Stream or download Digital Wildlife by The Physics below.