If you want to start a small war among area hip-hop heads, suggest that the Durham quartet The Beast is more privileged than good (or the inverse). Say, for instance, that emcee Pierce Freelon is simply the son of a jazz star, or that his work with UNC's Beat Making Lab gives him a competitive edge. Say that the group's mix of serious jazz players (keyboardist Eric Hirsh has a residency at Beyù Caffè) and socially aware lyrics broaden The Beast's appeal beyond "real" hip-hop fans. Hell, just say three of the four members are white.
Some listeners have been quick to lambaste the fusion squad on those grounds, but The Beast has relied more on its adaptability—that is, their ability to move from concert halls to rock clubs, to add string ensembles or mix with salsa bands—than access to privilege. They get the gigs because they have the skills and the gumption to flex them, no matter their root and no matter if the results sometimes fall flat. That ability to readjust is a touchstone of Stories, a new four-track EP that finds The Beast welcoming Addor, NC multi-instrumentalist Drake Murphy into the fold. Working alongside the virtuosic Hirsh, he adds arrangements, production and trombone. The result? A new, enhanced focus for The Beast.
Freelon has long represented a hybridized prototype—jazz vocalist, rock star, emcee. Figuring out how those personas combined, though, can sometimes muddle Freelon's storytelling. Murphy must have helped tame the chimera, as three out of Stories' four pieces deliver specialized takes on hard subjects: modern-day slavery, racism, gun violence, infidelity. "Possess Me" spins a tale of temptation, from the initial mouse click to full-on physical affair. "One look at Medusa, he's hard as a rock," raps Freelon. On "Just Do It," The Beast offers a busy interpretation of Nike's slogan, Freelon calling attention to the woes of big bucks. In tandem, The Beast works to make its music more accessible, from Hirsh's talk-box effects on "Trouble" to the bright crescendos that rise near the end of several songs here.
Sure, the ever-restless Beast enjoys some privileges, but as this late-year surprise EP proves, they don't rest on them.Label: self-released