Moor Mother's 'Black Encyclopedia of the Air' Is a Perfect Storm of Mood and Music
Published Sep 14, 2021In late 2020, Camae Ayewa (a.k.a. Moor Mother) released BRASS with the supremely underappreciated rapper Billy Woods, initiating a move from subterranean experimental and jazz-inspired spoken word into more rhythmic phrasing. On her fifth album, Black Encyclopedia of the Air, Ayewa pulls together a collection of underground hip-hop artists to help create something more digestible without sacrificing an ounce of her boundary-pushing, political, or adventurous spirit.
For example, the haunted chopped-and-screwed "Obsidian" features a genre-bending verse from Pink Siifu, tackles domestic violence with honest lyrics, and finds Ayewa channelling Caribbean dark magic in just 90 seconds. Across 13 tracks and a scant 32 minutes, Ayewa focuses purely on the most veracious mood for each number. The relatively short runtimes of most of the album's songs give otherwise laidback piano-looped numbers like "Mangrove" (featuring Antonia Gabriela and Armand Hammer's Elucid) and "Rogue Waves" a more immediate and authoritative veneer.
Mostly sticking to hip-hop beats and more traditional song structures — with the six-minute wandering spoken word of "Tarot" being the most significant exception — Ayewa decides to challenge listeners through performance and her lyrics. Tracks like "Race Function Limited" (featuring UK rapper Brother May) and "Zami" deal with prejudice and abuse, anchored by Moor Mother's powerful delivery. Written and recorded with help from Swedish musician Olof Melander, the album makes use of minimal beats culled from jazz-based performances and crackling electronics — from the muted, warped keys and washing cymbals on opener "Temporal Control of Light Echos," to the Eastern violin loops on "Shekere" (featuring Philly rapper Lojii).
Ayewa and Melander anchor many of the tracks with tempered, stretched, echoed, doubled and warped vocals and samples, increasing the claustrophobic, nervous energy across the album and giving it its distinctive sound and flow. Just as Ayewa has won over critics by shifting her sound from the avant-garde on 2016's Fetish Bones to dark goth on 2019's Analog Fluids of Sonic Black Holes, her latest transforms hip-hop into something indisputably alien.
But Ayewa keeps her flow so fascinatingly fluid here, as to give the album such a variety of ideas and sounds, whether she's employing an elastic rapping style on "Vera Hall" (featuring Compton poet Bfly) or sitting tightly on top of the beat on "Iso Fonk." With Black Encyclopedia of the Air, Moor Mother uses her genre-agnostic style to tackle to world's most popular genre and make it undoubtedly her own. (Anti)