Rooted in both the sprawling, densely packed metropolis of New York City and the limitless virtual terrain of the internet is the fervently DIY and non-conforming Hip-Hop collective sLUms. Formed back in 2015 by a group of ‘kids who are lost and became lost together’, as they put it in their 12-minute online documentary, sLUms is quickly emerging as one of the most intriguing and enigmatic forces in contemporary Hip-Hop. Viewing their music as a profound form of self-transcendence with few other life opportunities available to them, the group’s mysterious lo-fi and ethereal sound often reaches a level of emotional intimacy unparalleled in much of modern rap. It is out of this creative milieu that comes Michael Jordan Bonema or MIKE and his newly released album Weight of the World.
MIKE is at the forefront of the sLUms project; and other than perhaps their main musical inspiration and mentor, Earl Sweatshirt, leads the way in New York’s experimental, stream-of-consciousness rap scene. Starting his career in earnest when he was seventeen, Bonema shares many attributes with his mentor and has developed a similarly prolific, teen prodigy status. Both artists are complex characters and thrive in reflective, shadowy introspection which can be heard echoing through their considered flows and coded word-plays. Weight of the World very much follows in this vein over a mesmerisingly atmospheric self-production built around hazy jazz and soul excerpts, MIKE meditates openly on his personal and at times political struggles.
With a dead-pan tone reminiscent of Madvillainy-era MF DOOM, the album starts with an acknowledgment of the former’s influence : “can never trust the mask/the villainy in us is massive”. On ‘Alert*’, the sobre admission that it’s “doom that I need to work through” coupled with a broody and effectually minimalist lo-fi production built around a few keys on the piano introduces the listener to MIKE’s authentic, down to earth charm. Whilst there isn’t any shortage of lyrical density or complexity, atmosphere and vibe are clearly crucial to MIKE’s autobiographical story-telling. Over the airy jazz piano of ‘222’ and the celestial soul samples on ‘More Gifts’, we get more insights into what Weight of the World is getting at: principally coming to terms cathartically with the death of his mother.
Despite the darkness of MIKE’s experiences – “Thinkin’ got me hurt, got me emptyin’ the bourbon…walked her out the Earth, just me, a couple nurses” – there remains a glimmering positivity to his music in that by rapping about trauma he’s finding his way out of it. The therapeutic power of his work is something he alluded to in an interview with Bandcamp in 2017 and feels most pronounced in perhaps the best produced track of the album, ‘No, No’, a rousing masterclass in soul inflected hip hop.
Alongside the marked vulnerability to Weight of the World is an admirable hostility to superficiality and affectation which, combined with MIKE’s left field and experimental production, feels like an essential component of his creative project. On ‘Coat of Many Colours’, “ain’t no moral in the hype/this is a different vision” and “try to leave me poor/I do it ‘cause it’s right” drums home his gospel of authenticity. For MIKE there’s a bigger, more crucial picture at play concerned with “emancipation/catchin’ revelations” as well as all the evils to confront in contemporary society: “try to tell you that we safe/but we keep dyin”.
Image: Lauren Davies