Review: Adé Hakim’s ‘On to Better Things’ Pushes Hip-Hop’s Sound into the Unknown

On to Better Things - Adé Hakim
An uplifting mantra taken as a whole, New York Rapper and Producer Adé Hakim Sayyed’s ‘On to Better Things’ makes good on its title’s promise. Cerebral jazz and meticulous boom bap beats provide an infectious framework for Hakim to confront his own reality. Slick, gliding instrumentals don’t last very long, and bars of wisdom fly by, warranting repeated listenings.

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There’s an underground rap scene based mainly out of New York right now—centered around the [sLUms] collective — that’s churning out beats inflected with the acid-washed soul music, slapping drums of golden-age hip hop, and nightclub jazz that have defined New York’s sonic landscape, particularly for black musicians, at various points in the past few decades. That’s selling these artists short, though—they take as many cues from Aphex Twin as they do from Big Daddy Kane, and they frequently indulge their fascinating experimental tendencies without losing any of the magic. Some of its largest names are MIKE, Standing on the Corner, and Medhane, all of whom have dropped at least one outstanding project this year. These artists and others, such as Adé Hakim Sayyed (also known as Sixpress/6press), will hopefully become better known in the near future, especially since pretty much all of them will apparently be featured on Earl Sweatshirt’s upcoming project. (Hakim co-produced the mind-bending lead single, “Nowhere2Go,” which came out last week.)

Earlier this spring I wrote that MIKE’s SOTC-produced Black Soap was one of my favorite records of the year. The next month he dropped the somehow superior Renaissance Man, a swaggering invocation of the mood of his new hometown (London), with beats so subtle and ambient that they place the city’s overcast skies right above your head. Aside from Black Soap, SOTC have not dropped a record yet this year, despite some fantastic live sets. Nonetheless, their late-2017 record Red Burns is one of the best pieces of music to come out of New York this decade. And this summer Medhane dropped off Ba Suba, Ak Jamm, an infectious and short EP that, like his standout track “Albany2Vernon,” suggests he may be one of the scene’s best young musicians.

Back in September, Hakim hit the world with On to Better Things, a 25-minute record that distills his personal struggles and urban experience into a beautiful execution of what I will regrettably call the [sLUms] sound. His first project that ditches his alias Sixpress, this record had no promotion, so it’s unsurprising if you haven’t heard of it. However, it’s an easy contender for the most remarkable release to come out of this scene in 2018, with some of the cleanest yet also messiest production imaginable, and many of Hakim’s verses, along with several of the features, are bone fide classics. A short but immersive soundscape, On to Better Things features glowing beats that stay relatively out of the way, allowing each MC to shine.

Stream: ‘On to Better Things’ – Adé Hakim

If Hakim weren’t such a skilled lyricist, it would be easier to write him off as just a great producer. Opener “link up” gives a solid indication of the record’s feel—looped horns, a soft but growling bass, tight and crisp drums. It sounds like a variety of genres all at once, a trick Hakim makes use of often. His short but dense verse uses fluid, loose flows to channel good vibes while reflecting on personal turmoil and achievements. When he raps, “Grind with an empty stomach, and it’s aching,” it’s a brag, emphasizing his work ethic, not a moment of self-pity.

On to Better Things - Adé Hakim

On to Better Things – Adé Hakim

The next track, “back in the game,” is more of a showcase for his production skills. Stylized as what would be a breezy banger with a fuzzed-out bass and choppy vocal samples, the song features no verse, but instead finds Cleo Reed spanning many octaves in an incredible, wordless vocal solo. The banger itself follows next—“to stay” features stuttering, metallic keys and a great King Carter feature. Even when songs don’t stick around for very long, they make a strong impression with their memorable instrumental riffs and odd textures—the minute-long “cold awakenings” and “world full of lies” are each particularly strong examples, and their colorfully melodic beats are the kind that stay lodged in your head long after the tracks are over.

Hakim really drives home the dynamism of his production and also his prowess as a rapper, though, on “resort,” which starts as a glitchy symphony of sorts before an airy keyboard melody and pitched-down drums ground the beat. Hakim launches into his verse with “I’ve been feelin’ on my own for the longest/ 20 years old, I could no longer wait for it/ So I’m stealing from the store when I’m hungry/ Shit, I know my karma gonna pay for it,” a stark snapshot of his life. The rest of the track explains the coexistence of struggling and thriving that reappears throughout the project. “I won’t fold when the problems come/ I won’t fold, homie,” he repeats, having worked hard to earn those words.

Perhaps the closest this record has to a single, “its so pure (feat. pink siifu)” may also be the most accomplished track, featuring one of the most memorable and delicately layered guitar samples you’ll hear this year, spun out over a dizzy drum pattern. pink, who released his own project of note this year, dazzles with his verse, though Hakim makes sure not to be upstaged by his own guest. This is also the case on album closer “signing off (feat. MIKE),” a beautiful and concise cut that echoes MIKE’s “ROCK BOTTOM/PEACE TO COME” (the final track of his 2017 opus May God Bless Your Hustle) in its slow, staggering, blissful instrumental. MIKE, needless to say, brings the heat here, cementing his loose and enigmatic scene’s emerging dominance.

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On to Better Things - Adé Hakim

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