Silver Lake, Los Angeles. A small house sits on a hill nestled between the 101 freeway and a street you’d think twice about parking your car on. It’s a section of the world where kids grow up quickly and relationships are subject to change, often cut short by the elements. That’s how it used to be at least. These streets hold within them the remnants of a subculture that once flourished as certainly as it now dwindles. At large, guns have been replaced by iPhones, drugs by tweets and selfies, and some people consider it an improvement. Still, driving through this storied neighborhood where candles on street corners signify death and walls displaying barely legible 13’s signify danger, you can’t help but feel vulnerable, exposed, like you’ve stumbled into another realm, the hardened inhabitants of which don’t give the slightest fuck about your safety, let alone your comfort. This city strips you of your costume, the one you’ve been permitted to wear in more sterile parts of society. It doesn’t cater to your delusions but instead forces you to confront yourself, your actual self. It’s uncomfortable in this city. Unmasked. I like it here.
My first experience at Exsr’s house wasn’t unlike Jake’s on the night he and Alonzo visited Smiley. Making vague comparisons to Training Day is how I evaluate most of my life experiences, usually while they’re playing out. Whether I conduct myself like Denzel or Ethan Hawk following my evaluation really depends on the crowd, even more so on which drugs I have in my system when joining it. The night was dark and ominous, narrated by the conflicting voices in my head shouting over the muffled funk music that poured out into the street, more like a thick fog than water. Growing louder with every step – both the music and the voices – it all served as a north star of sorts pointing me in the direction of the party, the party I was attending alone and unsure of who I’d know there. A single street light flickered dimly above a metal gate which stood at the base of a hill. Around it, nothing – only sidewalk. That’s it, that’s the place… of course that’s the place. Making my way up the dark path beyond the gate, climbing the concrete steps while trying to avoid their many cracks because I still do that, I found myself between two small houses, neither of which were Exsr’s, both of which were obviously abandoned and, most likely, haunted as fuck. The windows were shattered and the doors had been barricaded with other doors. Doors on doors, one nailed across the other to form a kind of makeshift door plus sign, or perhaps a cross with which to fend off the vampires. On the porch of one house sat a porcelain toilet. That’s all, just a toilet. A simple, lonely toilet. It had seen better days, at least by toilet standards. I am but a simple toilet. Shit in my mouth so that I may know purpose. Show me I am loved… needed… that I am yours.
The music was no longer muffled and the strong smell of weed in the air told me I was close. At this point I was half expecting all fellow party-goers to be either monsters or gang members. I spent a fair amount of time around gang members as a teenager so I’m no more uncomfortable at gangster parties than I am at parties in general, but there is the added element of danger at gangster parties, the need to choose your words wisely and mind who you make eye contact with, which at least justifies how anxious I appear, how anxious I would be anyway. This is what I prepared for as I neared the corner. Corner turned; no gangsters, just rappers. A lot of rappers. Male rappers, female rappers, rappers I knew and rappers I didn’t know but do know enough about rappers to know that they were rappers. Rappers with long, verifiable careers and rappers with nothing but a dream and a Soundcloud. The few who weren’t rappers were obviously rap-types. Everyone drank and smoked and mingled on the mostly-dirt-lawn, a kind of tiered courtyard between Exsr’s home and the homes owned by none. In the corner of the yard stood a tent where a DJ spun. Some people danced in the open while others cyphered around the fire, its flames painting the night an almost ghostly shade of orange and casting shadows on the walls of the abandoned houses that shielded us from the rest of the world. In short, it was some of the most LA Hip Hop ass shit I’d ever been a part of, but it was just another weeknight for Exsr – for most in attendance, actually. As I stood there by the fire, drinking my beer and not really talking to anyone because that’s how I party, I found myself wondering what sort of music might come out of this. This lifestyle, this environment. What kind of album does one manage to make in the downtime between pseudo-celebs doing drugs in your kitchen and midgets dumping too much lighter fluid on the already roaring fire in your front yard?
Of the 10 tracks Noise offers, the first and last most accurately illustrate Exsr, at least as far as I’ve come to know him. He’s as much heart as he is mouth and shows as much confidence as he does emotion. On the song Figure – Noise’s first track – the listener is gradually pulled in by an eerie, exactly-long-enough intro, with instrumentation that builds steadily over the sounds of a presumably young girl either singing or screaming, or both. It’s the type of intro that should either be consumed only while high or never while high. Personally, I toss my vote into the “only while high” box. Too high, alone in the dark, listening through decent headphones – that’s grounds for a good ol’ fashioned freak out, and the mental images received probably wouldn’t be too far off the mark. Were music to be played continuously throughout the path leading up to Exsr’s small house on the hill, like the line for a ride at some creepy amusement park, this is the song that would be playing. When the beat drops, he wastes not a moment filling the listener in on exactly what time it is: “Get your shoeshine box and bow down.” You might not have known about Exsr before now, but be assured that he’s earned that statement.
Where Noise starts off with a contemptuous hostility we’ve all come to love in rap music, it ends with a tone that is quite the opposite, as most of my favorite albums do. Most would agree that an album is ultimately defined by the song an artist selects as its starting point, but I personally feel there’s just as much if not more to be said for how they choose to end it. If I’m Gone is a masterpiece. It subtly draws parallels between childhood and adulthood and makes vague predictions about the future by revealing aspects of the past, all in a way that sounds strangely optimistic considering it’s essentially a song about death. It’s emo as fuck but not at all in a shitty way. “Momma loves when y’all come up showing love and taking flicks, she don’t know the work I’m sure she knows I mean it though.” That line alone speaks to the hearts of artists the world over. It’s what we’re all after, although few of us realize it and even less achieve it. The chorus is both lyrically and technically superb. The way the rhyme pattern from the first part repeats itself in the second but with different words to convey similar but distinct thoughts, the voice inflections and subtle nuances that say this is the hook, the echoes and the overdubs and all the minor details that only song-writing nerds give a shit about enough to actually explain. You can often tell when lyrics were written to a beat other than the one they’ve been recorded over. Most rappers have legions of rhymes that weren’t written to a specific beat and usually end up pairing them with the first instrumental that comes close enough to being a fit. This isn’t the case with If I’m Gone. I wasn’t there when it was written, but I can tell it was a perfect marriage between rapper and producer, with the thoughts and emotions of one being brought out by that of the other. If I’m wrong about this, I’d rather not know.
The fact that this album’s strongest points are in its bookends isn’t to suggest that everything in between doesn’t hold up. Looney Tunes maintains the somewhat menacing vibe that Figure leaves us with while bringing a more comedic element to the party. It pays much deserved respect to everything from drugs to cougars with big asses, and is refreshingly blatant in doing so. “I’m high as fuck, chicken on my mind” should be tattooed on someone’s something-or-other, or at very least printed on a t-shirt. Adderall dropped into soda is one of life’s lesser known wonders and the cruel reality that 32’s of Miller High Life are now exclusively sold in plastic bottles is an outrage shared by all. You can keep your watered down revolution rhymes and your cliche ass political-agenda-rap… this is Hip Hop for the people.
Noise‘s remaining songs are best described as a roller coaster ride of both nostalgia and experimentation, some of which assure the listener that Exsr does in fact have his finger on the pulse of the industry, and others that reach back to his ATLAST roots, the latter being songs that, with seemingly little effort, serve as a reminder to old fans and a disclaimer to new fans. It says: Don’t let the updated flow fool you, emcees can still get this work. The Prez Sinatra-produced Sprite is a classic for-the-ladies track with lyrics that read more like a perverted smut piece than they do a rap song, while the Ninedy2-produced MVP is a somewhat ambiguous sort-of-kind-of-a-diss-track, with potential shots fired at one or more persons I don’t dare attempt to identify since it’s really not my place to do so, and because staying neutral is fucking great for business. On The Woods, which has a Muds-One directed video on YouTube, Exsr recruits his OAHN comrades Self Provoked and Tha Ynoe to virtually decimate Prez Sinatra’s beat. Each rapper is the kind who refuses to be bodied on any song, and especially a song by a fellow crew member. That level of ego, when combined with the skill to back it up and the grit to see it through, is the recipe for greatness. You can love them or you can hate them, fuck with them or not fuck with them, but what you can’t do is deny them. There’s a reason On A High Note just might be the scene’s most notorious rap crew.
Exsr is something of an anomaly, which becomes more and more apparent the further I get to know him. As a person, he has a warm, genuine nature about him, the kind of guy to offer you something to drink as soon as you step foot in his house. He makes it a point to say please and thank you to everyone, but might very well be the first in a crowd to put a gun in your face if you’ve earned such treatment. He knows what’s important to him, and that quality translates to his art. No detail is overlooked. As in life, his priorities are either completely fucked or perfectly on point depending on who you ask. He’s from a city where noise is both king and court jester, the chaotic theme music to which we all must dance, lest it drives us to insanity. Exsr dances to his own noise – the noise in his head. Day in and day out, he lives alone in his little house on the hill overlooking the abandoned homes and lawless streets that make up his unruly kingdom. Like some crazed wizard mixing potions in his bastion or a mad scientist tinkering away in his laboratory, preparing to let loose his creations on the surrounding world. How the world receives him is as unpredictable as it is inconsequential. He was here before you knew about him and he’ll be here long after you’ve forgotten him. The noise is all he knows.
Purchase Exsr’s “Noise” on Amazon.com