Where Do We Turn?: Ace Balthazar & I Came For Blood by Beans Reviewed

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Image credit: Lauren Hillary Clune

On his massive new project, comprising of the record Ace Balthazar and the book I Came For Blood, Beans continues to prove that he’s one of the most searing and vital voices in dystopian hip-hop. 

When Trump became president in 2016, underground music communities were split in two. ‘At least we’ll have better hip-hop and punk rock music now’, exclaimed some excitedly. It’s a viewpoint that was dismissed as basic and ill-delivered by the other side. Sure, those genres have generally represented the have-nots, the derided and the maltreated – kicking against the pricks, if you will. But as the New York MC Uncommon Nasa eloquently points out in this interview with Dead End Hip-Hop, the idea that music gets better in noticeably tougher times undermines all the revolutionary artists that have been highlighting the same problems for decades.

Robert Edward Stewart, II, aka Beans, fits into that latter category. As part of legendary oddball rap crew Antipop Consortium at the turn of the century, he pushed experimentalist, stream-of-consciousness buttons and married them with progressive bleepery; a cadence that has evolved with time through his subsequent solo work but has never outgrown its foundations. Whether espousing a horror-movie leaning sci-fi vision of bleakness or sucker-punch-to-the-ribs political anger – or through prose as with his debut novel, 2017’s Die Tonight – confronting people has always been at the forefront of his oeuvre.

Since 2017, Stewart,II’s music has become ever more stridently political. Records like 2017’s Haast and last year’s Someday All of This Will be Ash barely stopped short of diatribe, igniting his menacing penchant for irreverent violence to parallel the shocking rise in black deaths at the hands of police. It sounds a cliché now, but his latest full-length Ace Balthazar does somewhat pick up where those records left off. It’s demonstrably angry and increasingly offended, using Beans’ idiosyncrasies as rocket fuel for his continued dismay at America’s current situation. But it’s also wildly inaccessible at times, deliberately impenetrable in a way that transcends his previous work.

It begins with ‘Bigfoot in the City’, an eerily swooning and beautiful 6-minute breakbeat sonic wall that underpins his wise nuance as forthrightly as ever – the end of the world is nigh and the only way to stay true to himself is to head straight for the oddball jugular. ‘Birds Born in a Cage View Flying As Illness’ is easily the most accessible tune here, a confident and catchy boom-bap roller and one of the most old school tracks Beans has released for several years. But he unashamedly makes the listener work hard for worth in his rapid-fire delivery, constantly welcoming listeners into his lounge and then locking them out in sub-zero temperatures for an hour.

The dystopian clickery of ‘A Corpse Never Wanders’ is a highlight, reminiscent of early EL-P solo records and hopeless suburban coldness; ‘a corpse never wanders, the door to the store’s closed’. On the title track his braggadocia is a metaphor for the puffed-up chest and broad shoulder posturing of the vapid Trump leadership mentality; ‘I’m Ace Balthazar and I walk my path fearless’.  And on the 9-minute industrialist chug of ‘Bass Reeves’ he weaves a psychedelic tale that pits Chopin against Kool G Rap and Big Daddy Kane, a metaphor for the increasing division between left and right politics.

But threaded throughout the record is this idea that any narrative plays into something much larger and beyond the every-man in the street’s control. This is confirmed by the fact that alongside Ace Balthazar is published Beans’ second book, I Came for Blood. Published through Ryme Press, it contains a series of potted musical highlights from Beans’ discography presented in their barest, truest form – as words in black and white on the page.

Bursting from its seems also come a collection of essays and allegorical sci-fi fables, depicting in equal measure the horror at the events in Ferguson, USA in 2016, vicious reprisals against the police and 1984-esque authoritarian pressure.

Precisely because of the larger narrative, when Beans’ lyrics are presented on their own in I Came For Blood, they seem less stand-alone and more a low-bubbling, mechanical but an entirely essential cog in the whole operation. They also span the range of his vernacular as one of the most individualistic and expressive MCs in the game.

In ‘Trespass-R’ he’s a two-headed viper, as confident as he is self-loathing;

‘Hope is a poor man’s disease –

                                                          But I was vaccinated

                                                                                                     By being black in America’.  

On ‘Bring The Hurt’ he’s as braggadocious as he is characteristically irreverent; ‘My spit game is kinda everything – it’s AIDS for Christmas, a hairy predicament like a rimjob to a wookie’. The appearance of the verses of ‘Long Division’ are one of the examples of this new layout and form standing out. The blistering violence is deeply uncomfortable, but its storytelling takes on colours one would only pick up after two dozen listens to the song.

The book’s series of original essays appear under the title LULU. From its early gambit about the Ferguson verdict, (‘foolishly, we wanted to be elated that justice had prevailed’) to its vivid, cartoonish imagery, it exudes the post-Vietnam tension of something like Alan Moore’s Watchmen. The same ethereal poetic nous that runs riot in his lyrics rears its head here; ‘A race as banshee, we unravelled so you can hear us’.

Some of the more disturbing elements of Stewart, II’s writings – like the section about a member of the Gestapo-style ‘Enforcive’ watching his mother having sex with another man while his father sits in the next room – may simply seem like another example of him asking ‘how far will you come down this whirlpool with me?’. But as the narrative progresses, and especially when the Enforcive and New World Order-mirroring ‘Meridan’ present their ugly selves, the analogy swings round full circle. The final paragraph is as chillingly haunting as it is surreal; ‘Each drone is a neuromorphic housing… connected to the soldier through a false memory of a deceased loved one, usually a pet’.

Neither Ace Balthazar nor I Came for Blood offer anything in terms of hope, but their supreme artistry and combined menace stand for much more. With Beans making zero concessions about the darkest recesses of his mind, he’s presenting the most honest portrayal of himself as a storyteller and performer. This is pure character acting, but a form that befits the social environment he finds himself in.

It also works like all the greatest dystopian writing; as an allegory and sense-maker in a time where nothing seems to make sense. By sticking to his ruthless persona across platforms, he embodies one key fact – all we can continue to do is fight to make a difference, even if it seems like it’ll never amount to anything. Hip-hop music hasn’t improved under Trump, it has just become more vital.

Ace Balthazar and I Came For Blood are available to buy as a limited edition cassette and book respectively from Beans’ Bandcamp. 

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