A work of art worth celebrating for its freedom of expression and its acknowledgment that genius resides in humanity.
The faded, phantasmic energy of ZekeUltra’s (The Power Of) The Will of Man) may initially remind you of Earl Sweatshirt or MIKE, but it’s actually indicative of something much larger than recognizable names. Instead, emerging from the soil like some uncatalogued species of glowing vine, ZekeUltra’s sound represents a glimpse into the spirit of the black creative underground, where there’s a deep interest in engaging with music and reality as intertwined threads of cosmic history.
The Delaware MC, now located in Philadelphia, digitally put out (The Power Of) The Will of Man) last year, but it now sees a vinyl release by West Yorkshire-based label Home Assembly Music. The small-scale pressing represents a whole step (yeah, another one) forward for both ZekeUltra and those artist communities, local and global, that have embraced him.
The balance of grand and miniscule is crucial to the project’s aesthetic, which unwinds as if the people’s chronicles of soul and jazz were compressed to the size of a marble and transferred to decaying tape, where they play on loop for eternity. Each song features a mesmerizing sample, none stronger than the guttural, piano-driven statement of pain on “Hurts,” whose ultra-low notes are pure disruption, impossible to silence. Same goes for the brassy fissures that drive the congested, singsong utterances of “Copenhagen.” “Don’t go away,” its opening sample pleads as it worms its way through tape-fuzz crackle. Idahoan producer Yonqi, responsible for the instrumentals on seven of 10 tracks (as well as mixing and mastering for the album as a whole), is the main person to credit for this sound that constantly and absorbingly repositions itself within an archive of refractive melodies and moody inspirations.
One of the LP’s haziest pleasures involves hearing Zeke’s flow, purposely unpolished yet sharp as a shark tooth, unfurl over these uncontainable beats. “Nevermind tips, my gifts came straight from the source/ Ketamine trip times six when I laid in it raw,” goes a particularly virtuosic line on “Hurts,” while other moments find him hypnotically reciting incantations like, “I can’t blame her for that/ I can’t blame her for him.” There’s also a bit of insouciant wordplay, like when “I put my ego down just to get some bread” mutates, in mumble form, to “I had to eagle down just to get some bread” or when “Ain’t no sun in the air” becomes “Ain’t no sign in the air,” a line that doubles down on feeling a lack of goodness or inspiration.
The distorted combination of ZekeUltra’s rhymes with snatches of other voices, origin unknown, creates a disorienting effect. Buried in these sonics is the entrance to an ancient future world where total spiritual health is the unquestioned norm, but a corpse pile of cruelty and addiction obscure its location. This coexistence of optimism and terror is clearest on “Thru Her,” a tribute to his not-yet-existing offspring. “I pray I have a daughter/ I’m just trying to right all my wrongs through her,” he intones, but earlier lines gesture towards extensive suffering: “I ain’t ask for this tightrope on my path to peace/ This pint glass in my grasp gonna keep me in my past ways/ To my last days.” The pain isn’t merely individual, either. He states, “I know slavery’s been rebranded into prisons” on closing (bonus) track “3-0,” a song that also draws attention to the ubiquity of random police searches targeting black people. The goal is honest representation of injustice and consciousness, and Zeke sets aside any qualms about appearances to immerse us in his thoughts and realizations, no matter how ugly.
But don’t let that ugliness fool you: (The Power Of) The Will of Man is a work of art worth celebrating for its freedom of expression and its acknowledgment that genius resides in humanity, not in a select few individuals or in capital gains. The focus on the people, both contemporaries and predecessors, reminds us that the movement in hip-hop to which ZekeUltra belongs is distinctly archaeological. We might call this genre “artifact rap,” as it is the product of heartfelt excavation—on personal, collective and historical levels—and equally invested in art and facts. It demands we listen to it in the same way we would grip a shovel: tight-knuckled and determined, with muscles alive in awakening fullness, even if the result is “hands plaited with cuts.” The truth is buried in the dirt whence we came, and Zeke and his colleagues are letting listeners know that the dig is well underway.