Mellowhype’s Unhyped Evolution

Photo courtesy of Fat Possum Records.

If you logged onto the internet at any point this year, odds are you witnessed some digital ink spilled about the Los Angeles collective Odd Future. Frankly, I feel a little stupid even explaining who they are and what they do at this point (just mix up the words “skateboard” “Tumblr” and “satan” and go from there). And yet, the rapper/producer duo of Hodgy Beats and Left Brain, collectively known as Mellowhype, often felt like a footnote in that conversation. First released last October as one of OF’s internet freebees, their Blackendwhite now sees reissue from indie label Fat Possum. Press on the project has been a whisper compared to the critical chaos that surrounded Odd Future founder Tyler the Creator‘s recent Goblin. In part, this is because it’s a reissue and we’ve already had most of the material for months now, but it’s also indicative of the internet buzz cycle’s diminishing returns. But while many critics were developing calluses from wringing their hands over the deviant morals of Odd Future, the crew’s true talents went close to unnoticed. That would be their ability to produce good rap music but specifically, their rapid evolution in doing so. It’s fascinating to be able to watch young people learn to create in real time while (presumably) left to their own devices.

Hodgy might be the poster boy for this growth performance, with his constantly evolving styles and aptly cracking voice. The distance between Mellowhype’s debut Yellowhite, released long ago during Odd Future’s formative era of early 2010, and Blackendwhite is gigantic and unprecedented. On the former, Hodgy was a serviceable underground rapper, mostly delivering braggadocio rhymes in a laid back, neatly conversational flow. Here his flows are more heavily stylized and energetic, and he bends them into seething diatribes about gun shots and cops and gun shots inflicted upon cops. It makes a strong case for Hodgy as the crew’s most innovative rapper on a purely technical level. (For all his talents, Tyler remained pretty closely beholden to Eminem‘s cadences on Goblin.) Left Brain, too, remains hugely underrated, and his production covers a lot of ground here — from smoothed out traditionalist sample-driven East Coast rap (“Right Here”) and blippy post-snap (“Primo”) to a sort of spastic, thinned-out, earbud-ready take on Lex Luger trunk rattlers. In fact, about half of Blackendwhite offers a charmingly immature, bedroom take on the Waka sound and ideology. Hodgy draws the parallel specifically on the newly added and very Flockish bonus track “Igotagun”: “Left Brain is my Lex Luger, bitch I’m Waka Flocka.” Yet it’s “64,” the other new addition, that speaks to their growth. There Hodgy’s crack has moved into a growl of intricately penned lyrical showboating, while Left Brain brings a full-bodied horror-score theremin menace. It might be the first fully mature Mellowhype song, so refined that putting it squarely in the middle of this record is almost a disservice to the other tracks. They’re dwarfed by its depth.

This is why Blackendwhite is such a confusing choice for the second proper, physical Odd Future release. Retreading does no justice to Mellowhype’s evolution. Last year OF released eight albums/mixtapes for free by way of their Tumblr, and part of the fun of them was being able to jump into this gigantic world where hours and hours of music was happening quickly, finding new releases to anticipate on a near monthly basis. So far this year we’ve only heard two full lengths — Tyler’s Goblin and Frank Ocean‘s R&B freebee masterpiece Nostalgia, Ultra (also seeing a proper release at the end of the month). This is a necessary sacrifice as the group moves from a LimeLinx pace to a model that requires actual distribution and pressing plants and release schedules, but it’s nonetheless frustrating. For diehards, the reissue serves as little more than a teaser for Mellowhype’s proper follow-up Numbers or Hodgy’s planned solo album Damian. But if you weren’t already paying attention to Mellowhype, now might be a good time to start. Just know that they’ll probably sound completely different the next time you hear from them.

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