At this point, the line of distinction between the already-subjective determinations of “alternative” and “hip-hop” is so thin that it might as well not even be traced.
Earlier this year, Tame Impala’s “Currents” utilized plenty of hip-hop influences, and How To Dress Well poured copious amounts of hip-hop leanings into last year’s “What Is This Heart?”
So the collaboration between forward-thinking former OutKast co-frontman Big Boi and catchy, if conventional, alternative pop duo Phantogram makes perfect sense. The trio named themselves Big Grams and released their debut self-titled album in mid-September.
The result is a seven-track crossover between Atlanta-tinged funk, modern pop sensibilities and choruses, as well as 2015’s finest hip-hop production.
In other words, the sound is fairly commonplace in today’s musical landscape.
But what does this specific iteration of genre-neutral hip-hop sound like?
For starters, it’s really bright.
Yellow — though the sun, and lights, and the gold-flecked lyricism — is the prevailing color on Big Grams, emphasized by the gold-plated statuettes on the cover of the album. It’s a flashy record; Big Boi and the Grams aren’t here to give anything less than a home run on each of the seven tracks, and for the most part, they deliver.
The excellent lead single, “Fell In The Sun,” features a skittering backing beat and a maximalist synthesizer blast reminiscent of a handful of synth-pop records from the last few years. Sarah Barthel, the female half of Phantogram, layers airy lyrics about falling into the sun over the synths and horns, doing her best Yukimi Nagano impersonation when she adds a soulful “lord” to accentuate the chorus.
Meanwhile, Big Boi weaves plenty of Atlanta references and throwbacks, like “Call me Chief Noc-A-Homa,” a reference to the Braves’ original mascot, and talks about him arriving in a yellow Cadillac.
Later, Big Boi and Barthel rap and sing about being a “Goldmine Junkie.” Soon after, they team up with fellow Atlanta friends Run The Jewels on “Born to Shine.” If Kanye and Jay-Z plastered the “Watch the Throne” cover with gold patterns, Big Grams are here to go over it with another layer.
The lyrics are bright, but the album’s instrumentals and production — including some help from 9th Wonder — are its true “shining star.”
9th Wonder brings his very best on the warm, welcoming “Put It On Her,” the fourth track on the album. For a song centered around comically cringe-worthy sexual come-ons, the chipmunk soul sample and slick, repetitive guitar licks make it an eminently listenable track. Short, sharp horn stabs give the song a distinct funkiness, and the whole track feels wrapped in a thin late-90s wrapper. A guest verse from Josh Carter, Phantogram’s male half, is better than it has any right to be, making this possibly the best track on the short album.
Record closer “Drum Machine,” featuring a confusing collaboration with Skrillex, is more of a throw-away track, especially following an excellent appearance by rappers-of-the-moment Run The Jewels on “Born To Shine.”
The Skrillex feature doesn’t lend much to the Big Grams sound, instead crowding the track with unnecessary big-bass hits and plenty of vocoder effects. The previous six songs established a comfortable, almost decadent mid-tempo bounce, and “Drum Machine” disrupts the flow of the record entirely.
Other than that one misstep, however, the album is solid as a whole, with most songs working in sequence and playing off each other in succession.
The album’s sound and concept itself isn’t anything transformative, or even anything all that new. Big Boi and Phantogram had worked together on his second solo album, and plenty of alternative bands have done crossover records with excellent rappers — hello, Numb/Encore.
But that doesn’t mean Big Grams can’t be excellent, and the first seven songs from a project that both sides have said they expect to continue are, at the very least, an excellent sign. The middle of the record shines as bright as the golden lyrics and glimmering synthesizers, and the duller moments aren’t strikeouts.
Of course, when you put Big Boi in a room with most anybody, something good is bound to come of the recording sessions. Luckily for us, Phantogram were able to keep up.