McKinley Dixon Delivers Impressive Hip-Hop Storytelling on 'For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her'
Published May 03, 2021Death hangs heavy in the mind of rising Virginia rapper McKinley Dixon. In 2018, his best friend was killed, which Dixon describes as feeling like "brass knuckles with shards of broken home to the dome," on "make a poet Black," the lead single from For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her.
The weight of this death can be felt from the first moments of opening track "Chain Sooo Heavy." Dixon is a wordsmith in full command of both narrative and atmosphere, and while this free-jazz track threatens to be disorderly with drums shuffling in every which way and loose-cannon saxophone startling at every corner, Dixon checks the unkempt compositions with measured and precise raps about the commodification of Black trauma.
Dixon bites back, clenching each beat with frothing teeth as he speaks to himself from the past, encouraging a young Dixon to "Orchestrate the way we live / maneuver through the pain that they give." But the track soon becomes lethargic and drab. The briskly spoken Dixon hits a wall, and his metaphorical chain begins to weigh him into an abyss with sluggish backing vocals materializing this descent into reality: "Holding me down, down, down, holding me down." It leads listeners into the dark realm of the record, unbound by time and overcome with fear, mental illness and intergenerational trauma.
Dixon delivers bars with the utmost confidence, but his bravado, deceptively ballooned by spirited jazz arrangements, is constantly under siege by festering anxiety and doubt. "Bless the Child," for example, moves from pastoral and dreamy to anxious and urgent when the pressures of "making it" overwhelm the rapper's mind. As a choir swarms in the background, mimicking the sound of ancestors singing from above, "We're counting on you," the stresses of overcoming generational curses are too overbearing to ignore, pushing Dixon into a headspace of profound uncertainty: "Praying somehow this shit is going to work."
The disquieting fear swirling inside Dixon's imagination seeps into "Make a poet Black," a cryptic cut where Dixon switches between two different personas as if he's fighting off inner demons. With descending strings, slow marching drum shuffles, darting piano keys and Dixon's cartoonish voice, "Make a poet Black" is not only one of the more sonically unique tracks on the album, but it's also the most lyrically tense and dense. Dixon displays his deepest insecurities, like the validity of his success as an artist as it coincided with the passing of his friend. Dixon knows the face of his people's perpetrator: "My n**** ain't inherently evil / Frame the church / Then hang the preacher / Don't blame the hood / Really n****, just save its people." Still, Dixon burdens himself with saving them himself. This piles on the pressure and self-doubt ten-fold, thus beckoning the familiar tap of death's finger upon Dixon's shoulder.
Even on "protective styles," a comparatively light and airy song dressed up by dreamy choral vocals and delicate slacker rock guitars, doubt and frankness leak from its shimmering protective layer. The track's underlying message is inherently encouraging as he urges the necessity of therapy in Black communities, as Dixon delivers brutally honest bars about how, even when there's sunshine, the night will come. Dixon's verses throughout this record depict a weathered poet made weary by righteous gnawing and clawing for answers. But as is the case when fighting for justice, there must be room made for self-care.
The frustration and exhaustion expressed across For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her eventually reaches a tipping point — not of anger, but of pure tenderness. Eventually, Dixon arrives at a moment of genuine reprieve and unfettered reflection upon the day his best friend died. On the harpsichord-bolstered "Mama's Home," Dixon rests. He turns to his mother, asking her to keep the demons at bay as he is "trying to process this the best he can… but can I break down for a second?"
Dixon's storytelling shines throughout this whole album. He not only has a compellingly verbose and, at times, boastful rapping style, but he also wields an impressive level of lyrical complexity. The emcee operates with a film director's eye, one that places himself in the actor's shoes, often offering multi-pronged characters that aim to make sense of himself and those who look like him. (Spacebomb Records)