Icegrill - 'Blackchalk'

Independent Spotlight is a continuing series on Stewart’s blog. The series revolves around independent artists and bands sending their music to Brett to review. No band is promised a positive review, and all music is reviewed honestly in an effort to better independent music.

In this edition of the Independent Spotlight, we’re going to be delving into ‘Blackchalk’ in great depth, the new record from indie hip hop artist Icegrill.  The new album has already made the rounds on quite a few indie websites with critics citing the effort as the perfect album for fans of ‘storytelling, lyrics, punchlines, and that good old New York sound.’ The eighteen song outing also features a number of guest artists. Needless to say, it’s quite ambitious in its length, something that’ll either work in its favor or detract significantly from the experience. Let’s check the record out to find out.

Right off of the bat, something special is happening on ‘Blackchalk.’ The sharply produced introduction, ‘80 Speak,’ greets listeners with fantastical string sections and thundering beats. The first real track, aptly titled ‘Formal Introduction,’ showcases some of the strongest production I’ve heard from an indie rap artist in a long, long time. A cataclysmic brass section accents Icegrill’s suave delivery with immense tact. One thing is clear: the production of ‘Blackchalk’ is going to be exceptional. The mix is perfectly orchestrated; the album thrives off of a quality speaker setup.

‘It Ain’t The Same’ continues Icegrill’s exhibition of superb production and delivery. This is serious hip hop: this content demands your attention. You’ll quickly realize that the content isn’t just elegantly performed, but remarkably well written, too. The anthem rocker ‘Just Another Day’ catalogs Icegrill’s demon-fighting rise to power. Sometimes, indie rappers can appear ostentatious and arrogant. Icegrill’s work, however, feels genuine and meaningful.

‘Spanglish’ embraces its name true-to-form. The track does indeed toy with Spanish and English rhymes, all backed by traditional Spanish-infused orchestration. Again, Icegrill defies the norm of indie hip hop artists with this beautiful composition; the song proves that great effort and love is going into the instrumentation of these songs. These aren’t the Garageband beats you hear on every other indie hip hop release: they’re damn good and tailored to each song.

Another intriguing factor of ‘Blackchalk’ is Icegrill’s usage of backup vocals and samples. Take ‘Life On Repeat,’ for example. This poignant track has a wonderful chorus and a compelling sample of a failed delivery of a call from a prison. ‘Kites,’ the next track, has eloquent usage of those backup vocals and haunting string sections. I’m not sure who the female vocalist on ‘Kites’ is, but my goodness, she makes the track. This track is gorgeous.

‘Pay Homage’ is the absolute highlight of the middle half of the record. The production of this song is infectiously good. I love the sample on this track: it’s a speech that explains the importance of hip hop. What struck me on this track is Icegrill’s comprehension of the genre. He doesn’t ‘get upset,’ he just ‘grabs the mic.’ As an artist, he seems to grip the overarching purpose of hip hop exceedingly well. It’s a vehicle for change, stories, and expression. ‘Pay Homage’ stays true to its title: it pays brief, but powerful homage to those who came before him. Icegrill doesn’t become arrogant and assume he’s paving the path alone: he understands and appreciates those who did.

‘You Don’t Believe’ continues the usage of a brass section. There’s a huge array of composition on ‘Blackchalk,’ something that makes it an increasingly impressive effort as you move through it. I was wary of an eighteen track collection becoming redundant and unnecessary. That doesn’t happen on ‘Blackchalk.’ Ten songs in on ‘Don’t Cry,’ the soundscapes and lyrics continued to surprise me.

‘Do You Remember,’ a song featuring hip hop artist Golden, may be the most rewarding collaboration of the record. When she hits the mic, she’s a force to be reckoned with. ‘I’ve seen more than I can count all become statistics,’ she croons over a worldly soundscape of shakers and experimental percussion. ‘Pullin Strings,’ the following track, is also a fine collaboration. The Icegrill/Skyzoo song is smartly written and performed.

After about thirteen songs of a hip hop record, I’d be turning in my ticket to move onto the next ride. On ‘Blackchalk,’ however, I became reinfused with excitement on ‘3rd Perspective,’ a tune that has an orchestral introduction that’s nothing short of spectacular. Icegrill tells a powerful story of a man who finds himself a pretty terrible situation, fully equip with vocal acting and sound effects.

‘Gun Symphony’ toys with what sounds like a NRA rally of idiotic proportions in an intriguing sample. The song tackles the effects of guns in an impactful way: it’s a song that really sits with you long after you’ve moved onto the last few numbers. ‘The New Gospel’ toys with Spanish influence again to some success - the track feels a bit awkward on the latter half of a record so chock full of epic orchestration and lyrics. ‘Memories On Ice’ makes up for the stumble, though, and his tale of growing up and soul-searching is relatable and interesting.

‘Let It Go’ begins to wind up the record. The song is really just a remix/rewrite of Eels’ ‘I Need Some Sleep.’ With that said, Icegrill’s rendition takes the fantastic elements of the classic tune and appropriates them into a new style entirely. It didn’t even click with me that it was the Eels track until the chorus came around. Finally, the album closes out with ‘I Don’t Know,’ a nice ending to a powerhouse collection.

Spending nearly three hours with ‘Blackchalk’ was one of the most rewarding experiences for me in the history of the Independent Spotlight. This album is absolutely exceptional. It’s incredibly ambitious and nearly all of its risks pay off in full. In fact, it’s the first record of its length where every track feels necessary and worthwhile. ‘Blackchalk’ is an indie masterpiece. Check it out at the set below.