Blockhead’s influence on the scene over the last two decades has been quietly incredible. Working at first with Aesop Rock – producing the unforgettable ‘Daylight’ (Labor Days, 2001) – Blockhead has since crafted soundscapes for Murs, Cage, Illogic, Homeboy Sandman and fellow backwoodz studioz buddy, billy woods, among others. Whether it’s the odd track or an entire LP, there’s real chemistry when Blockhead and these guys team up. Free Sweatpants is the first real coming together of his solo and collaborative work. According to the man himself, something like that has been in his thoughts since 2002.
Before delving in we should reflect on his solo projects. Beginning with Music by Cavelight (2004) Blockhead has released an instrumental studio album every two or three years taking us up to Funeral Balloons (2017). We could – and probably will – write more about the golden fruits of his labour, ripe for the picking across his catalogue. The patience with which Blockhead builds his samples separates him from other rap producers. Whether ocean-like and serene – tracks like ‘The Prettiest Sea Slug’ come to mind – or stormy and stirring, you know a Blockhead sound when you hear it.
This is how Free Sweatpants begins. The opener, ‘Dream On’, is a perfect exhibition of Blockhead’s craft, never bettered by the other five instrumentals on the record. The sample from ‘Dream’ (1969) by American rock group Love has been distorted to fit the tone perfectly. When the first change-up comes at exactly half-way in you get a sense of Blockhead’s narrative skills. The next change comes in almost a minute later: the beat is stripped back and the scene shifts, darkens, like a sudden jump in a… dream (sorry, I had to).
But this is a compilation album and we find these same qualities – to varying degrees – on the eight tracks boasting guest appearances. The first, ‘Slippery Slope’, features billy woods, Open Mike Eagle, and Breezly Brewin: an impressive line-up: billy’s delivery is flawless, funny, setting the tone with the opening salvo: “I watch the cats watch the mice!” His memory – “When whites used to come to the hood / Ask random black strangers for drugs / Shrug! Wistful look in the eye, blinkin’ hard / Like ‘those was the days, blood’” – sets up OME’s quip about his son growing up “free to be as weird as a white guy”. The sample at the end escapes me, but it encapsulates Blockhead’s gift for mixing soul samples with deft timing.
A Blockhead compilation would be incomplete without Aesop Rock. The long-term collaborators serve up a nice dish in the form of ‘Kiss the Cook’. The lyrics – “I puke a worm in your mouth, I punch a hole in the screen/ I hold my nuts when I rap, I throw my phone in the sea” – are vibrant as Aes bounces over a fun-loving beat with all the joy of a side-scrolling video game. The imagery (and even a token “nyuck nyuck”) offers an expansion on the recent masterwork that is Malibu Ken.
‘Rock’em Sock’em Hop’ and, later, ‘Weeping Willow’ are nice enough Blockhead solo joints but don’t quite stack up to the other instrumentals on offer, though the sample – “Cry, Cry, Cry Cry…” on the latter packs a punch.
Better than both in terms of atmosphere is ‘Frank’ featuring Tree. A harrowing narrative with a flawless beat to match, this seedy story is a standout in an album studded with quality. As Blockhead explained in a recent interview, Tree’s contribution added real depth to the album. Given that they didn’t know one another personally, this track seems to have been as much of a surprise to Blockhead as it was to us.
In ‘Deeperstill’, Homeboy Sandman adds his unique off-kilter talents to a punchy layered beat with some nice Eastern vocals mixed in. The build is calm, classy, and Sand’s lyrics – “My favourite part of my anatomy’s my upper hand” – are as witty as ever. The next track, ‘By Myself Meeting’ has several of Blockhead’s signature scribbles, though it becomes a thin slice squashed between ‘Deeperstill’ and ‘Be Safe’, featuring backwoodz duo Armand Hammer.
‘Favourite Chair’ featuring Vic Spencer is a decent short track, almost an interlude in length. ‘Tinder in the Time of Cholera’ is arguably the second best instrumental on offer. Finding his element and giving us a downbeat sound-story, Blockhead shifts samples effortlessly and peppers the track with mournful and obscure vocals.
The final three tracks bring the album to a close by tying up some themes. ‘Let Them Eat Hate’ features Marq Spekt and there’s a reason this track sounds so damn nice. Having collaborated together on Justplaywitit (2014) and Keep Playin’ (2016) the pair seem to know one another’s moves – and it might just be that this track is on a par with ‘Kiss the Cook’ for its balancing of rapper and producer.
Hemlock Ernst (Sam Herring from Future Islands) takes on the issue of police brutality in ‘Blue Veil’. And while he comes off as confessional: “Black mothers grieving/ While White America is sleeping”, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, nor does the synth-pop frontman seem out of place here.
‘Make America Gape Again’ is a successful finale. The tone begins alarmingly, with indistinct vocals played out over an unnerving beat. The track then finds itself, builds in confidence, and becomes vengeful through a looping sample: “Give it to me, I’ma do it to you…” This track without doubt speaks to the album cover: a discarded body (dead or alive? either way, nice Nikes) wrapped in an American flag.
For all this golden material, the album ends up sounding like a very good work in progress. This is, after all, the first of Blockhead’s projects to sail two ships at once. Despite the imbalance and occasional drifts, Free Sweatpants is a very rewarding listen.
Album Rating: Favourable
Poor: 0-2 Stars / Favourable: 2-4 Stars / Highly Recommended: 4-5 Stars