Tanya Morgan. Their. How could Tanya Morgan be a them? Who gave this kid a laptop and an English degree and set him free on the internet?
No, this isn’t an unfortunate case of subject-pronoun disagreement–Tanya Morgan is a them. More specifically, Tanya Morgan is two rappers, Donwill from Cincinnati, Ohio and Von Pea from Brooklyn, New York.
It begins like this–one day, a man disenchanted with hip-hop’s vulgarity walks into a record shop (yes, a record shop, with actual records) and likes what he hears on the speakers. As soon as he realizes he’s listening to a rap song, he demands that the music be turned down and asks the clerk for something with cleaner lyrics. Of course, the clerk thinks the man’s just a hater. But he hands him something by “Tanya Morgan” anyway.
It’s a group called Tanya Morgan, the clerk says.
Tanya Morgan…is it good?
It’s hot…solo, she’s a solo artist.
Even the clerk isn’t sure who or what Tanya Morgan is. Or he’s not listening–it’s an inside joke, one that has beguiled many, but it carries unlikely significance. Tanya Morgan is an anomaly, a duo that challenges singular nouns, two rappers that seek mainstream recognition but lack mainstream egos. Donwill and Von Pea have always managed to portray hip-hop’s grind and underground challenges with a sense of humor–Rubber Souls is no different, an impressive and endearing record which straddles hip-hop’s “golden years” and its puzzling modernity.
Tanya Morgan’s last LP, Brooklynatti, was released in 2009. Four years isn’t historically a long hiatus, but Rubber Souls feels very much like a comeback. Since Brooklynatti, rapper Ilyas left the group, Von Pea and Donwill focused on their solo projects and the recognition that accompanied their 2006 debut, Moonlighting, had faded. Tanya Morgan was at a crossroads, unsure of their creative direction as they lurched towards the completion of their third full-length album. Rubber Souls has finally arrived, though, featuring production by New York transplant 6th Sense, and it may have arrived at just the right time.
Donwill and Von Pea are emcee’s emcees–Rubber Souls is helped by their focus on clarity and message. They won’t overwhelm you with metaphor and sophisticated language, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t excellent lyricists. The album intends to elucidate Tanya Morgan’s “statement of purpose”: an exploration of the duo’s importance (or lack thereof) in today’s climate of hip-hop. Thus, it benefits Don and Von to make their methods as accessible as possible, and they do that through a combination of straight-forward, lucid meditations, beguiling humor and unusual humility. One of the album’s more humorous moments transpires at the beginning of “More”, when Von Pea suggests that we “Teach [our] kids an instrument…for the twentieth anniversary of this album…we usin’ young bands so we can look hip and sh**…Von Isley”. It’s an outlandish proclamation and Von Pea knows it, so it comes across as light-hearted and endearing rather than precocious.
Tanya Morgan’s effort to reach out to 6th Sense (production credits include B.O.B., Outasight and Kid Daytona) may well prove to be the group’s best creative decision yet. 6th Sense is a whip-smart student of hip-hop’s canon, a producer capable of traversing eras and genres within songs. On songs like “For Real”, “The Day I” and even the obligatory girl song “All Em (Girls)”, he is willing to indulge his musical whims. This sensibility comes across as intelligent and subtle rather than heavy-handed; just when “The Day I” seems to have reached a natural end, 6th Sense reaches for a surprising classical blend of warm, cascading strings, orchestral percussion and bombastic, radiant horns after laying a smooth track with understated, harmonic jazz guitar. “Pick It Up” is similarly impressive, a blast of hectic electro-funk in the traditions of Karriem Riggins and Four Tet. “For Real”, the opener, pays respect to Slum Village’s Fantastic, Vol. 1. He creates an appropriate landscape for Tanya Morgan, a creative space for Donwill and Von Pea that presages and enables their discussions of legacy and position. If 6th Sense’s production isn’t completely ground-shattering, it’s at least highly evocative.
Hip-hop’s discussion floor is wide open to traditionalists and eclectic genre-benders alike, and Rubber Souls is a solid statement of Tanya Morgan’s purpose. The album is rife with existential questions–can Tanya Morgan’s soulful, smart brand of hip-hop make a substantial impact on today’s industry? Sometimes they’re not completely sure if they have what it takes. Von Pea opens his statement of purpose by wondering aloud if he’s unfit for hip-hop’s modernity: “They say I rock like it’s ’94/But I don’t know if that’s some kind of flaw”. But comic relief is almost as equally abundant. All of this is why Tanya Morgan is important–Rubber Souls prompts us to seriously consider our understanding of hip-hop, and gradually we will return to the music and enjoy ourselves.