Chuckie Campbell - More Die of Heartbreak
Release Date: December 21, 2013
Record Label: True Blue Recordings
Full disclosure: I’ve never reviewed a hip-hop release before, at least not in the detailed, full-length vein that I generally use to dissect the releases I tackle. For a long time, I was ignorant to the emotional lyricism and musical nuance that rap music could carry. I was so focused on melody and harmony that I missed the beauty of rap’s jagged poetry, its innovative twist on older songs through samples, and its ability to convey difficult themes and subject matter in a way that not many other genres can. In the past few years, I’ve begun coming out of my shell a bit, diving first into the critically acclaimed favorites (Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Drake’s Take Care, Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid M.A.A.D. City) and then working to branch out a bit more. However, even as I’ve come to appreciate hip-hop as a genre, I haven’t written more than a few thousand words on the genre in my lifetime, most of them on the forums here or in year-end write-ups where I briefly highlighted a rap album or two that particularly resonated with me. Quite simply, while my iPod has gained a wealth of this kind of music in recent years, my wheelhouse for music criticism has remained elsewhere.
Which is why I took it as a welcome challenge when a rap promo by a relatively unknown artist named Chuckie Campbell arrived in my inbox earlier this month. Instead of my usual territory of folk or alt-country, pop or rock ‘n’ roll, here was a dark and challenging collection of independent hip-hop music. I was daunted, but as soon as I pressed play, I knew I could find something to say about these songs. In a lot of ways, Campbell bears similarities to Kendrick Lamar and Nas – though he doesn’t quite possess the indubitable flow of either. Instead, it’s his street-bound storytelling and the dark, thematic heft of his songs that make this album work.
The disc, called More Die of Heartbreak, takes its name from a 1987 novel by Saul Bellow. The reference to Bellow, a Nobel Prize-winning author, illuminates the literate nature of Campbell’s roots. In addition to being a hip-hop artist, Campbell writes short stories, composes poetry, and manages an online arts journal called “Sounds and Silencers.” This wealth of influences and artistic pursuits sticks out in Campbell’s music, which frequently straddles the meeting point between spitfire hip-hop flow, eloquent political speech, and atmospheric beatnik poetry.
Campbell is at his best when he’s playing up the latter quality in his songwriting, as on the surreal “Seasons,” where he masterfully constructs a pick-up street basketball scene only to turn it into an insignificant backdrop moments later. One of the characters drops to his knees, suddenly fighting for air, and just like that, the moment – and the lives of the boys in the story – changes. We don’t learn what happens and we don’t get the why. Instead, we fast-forward to the aftermath, glancing seconds, minutes, hours into the future. There’s no way to judge the time lapse. We just know, as if by unspoken agreement, that a boy is dead and nothing will ever be the same. “I recall dribbling, walking home with a feeling/Taking all the same streets, but somehow they felt different/Glistening, intimate, musty with lost innocence,” Campbell raps, his unhurried flow adding to the dark grimness of the moment.
Whether Campbell is speaking in slow poetic stanzas or fast, warped displays of hip-hop skill, he’s at the top of his game on this record. While “Seasons” hit me the hardest, other listeners will find nuances they prefer in other songs. For instance, the sobering “Deux Ex Machina” is clearly meant to be the album’s centerpiece, another autobiographical street narrative where Campbell gets his jaw broken and is told he’ll never rap again. It’s the twist of the tale that Campbell’s assailant was also his friend and mentor, a man who would commit suicide in 2011 when he and Campbell were still not on speaking terms. The hurling crucible of “Deus Ex Machina” shows how their friendship grew over time and then shattered in the blink of an eye, and expresses Campbell’s regret that he can’t turn back time or take back the bad feelings. On the surface, the song is reminiscent of Kanye West’s “Through the Wire” in its resilient telling of a physical obstacle that only made its narrator stronger (“Said I’d never rap again/Wires and titanium/Here I am in rap again”), but look deeper and the song is a stirring eulogy for a fallen friend.
More Die of Heartbreak is filled with such layered songwriting, both lyrically and musically. Early in the album, Campbell seems to be paying tribute to classical music, with the grandiose, string-soaked one-two punch of “Speak” and “Behind Her Eyes.” Later, he cuts loose with his flow a bit more, as on “Ancient Astronaut Theory,” which was probably recorded in the months when Kendrick Lamar’s last LP was making a real impression on the industry. Campbell’s lightning quick delivery on that track certainly takes a few cues from Kendrick. More Die of Heartbreak even gets a few Wu Tang Clan members (Cappadonna and Soloman Childs) in on the action for the rousing beats and rhythms of “Against the Grain.” Still, leaving aside the guest features and the lush musical arrangements, the lovely production (courtesy of Will Breeding) and the melodic hooks, More Die of Heartbreak is at its best when Campbell finds moments to himself in the center of the storm. And it’s those moments that make this record arguably my favorite hip-hop release of the year – even if it’s arriving too late to make my year-end list.