A few years back, I was of the opinion that Akira The Don was probably the most exciting artist emerging from the UK rap scene. But now I’m not so sure. And this is nothing to do with any kind of backwards step or skill regression, it’s basically because here on his second album proper, The Life Equation, he has transcended that belief. This is not just another rap album — in fact, I’m not even sure it is a rap album. Rather, The Life Equation is a record that touches so much, incorporates so many ideas, and delivers all behind unforgettable sounds and sonics. It’s personal, political, and at times even quite lovely — a struggle through ups and downs where even after being kicked around by corporate bullies, unwilling governments, and media brain-washers, life will provide a reason to keep holding on.
It seems like this album has been talked about forever with its release being delayed to what feels like Chinese Democracy levels of anticipation (it’s actually been about 5 years). But it’s not like Akira The Don has been sitting on his arse awaiting this moment. He is constantly creating, whether it be mixtapes, collaborations, producing or drawing comic books — the man lives for his art. Of course, there is always the danger that when you are waiting so long for something, it might not live up to expectations but The Life Equation is more than worth the delay. After getting fucked about by Interscope, Akira The Don has forged a very independent approach to getting his music out. It all fits with his ‘I Love Living In The Future’ ethos where social media, fan interaction, and an understanding of the Internet’s power to get music into people’s ears is fully embraced. The Life Equation probably deserves to be forced down our throats by some clueless record execs as it’s an infectious musical riot but maybe the way it’s being done here helps retain even more soul to these unique sounds.
Production help on the album comes from Stephen Hague who has been behind the decks of a varied group of artists in the past including New Order, Blur, Robbie Williams, and The Pet Shop Boys. With the multitude of sounds on offer from Akira The Don, Hague’s versatility and understanding of several genres certainly comes in handy but it’s clear that the man whose name graces the album cover is the star of the show. But there are a couple of great collaborations here as well including two appearances from Super Furry Animals’ Gruff Rhys and one from up-and-coming Brit rapper Envy.
Putting your finger on exactly where the main influences come from is not easy. Here is an artist as much in love with Nirvana as he is Wu-Tang Clan but he is clever enough to channel these inspirations into something very modern and relevant. Opener ‘Video Highway’ is a foot-stomping anthem with punk/metal guitars very prominent but, essentially, it’s a modern day pop song where rap and rock live comfortably next to each other without becoming a parody. On the verses of ‘All The Right Things’, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was the second coming of funky white-boy Odelay!-era Beck before the superb chanting chorus “Man sitting at the bus stop/Looking at his wrist watch/Waiting for the bomb drop, tick tock” sweeps through. It’s a monument to modern-day terrorism hysteria (“I think I’ve had it up to here with all these ‘suspicious packages’”) and easily one of the finest tunes on the record.
The most conventional rap song on The Life Equation comes on ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’, a song of a failed relationship where guest Envy spits out her rhymes with a similar animation and bile as shown by Nicki Minaj on Kanye’s ‘Monster’. The pair play off each other with a great chemistry that they also demonstrated on a remix of Marina And The Diamonds ‘I Am Not A Robot’ earlier this year. Gruff Rhys offers his vocals on ‘We Wont’ Be Broke Forever Baby’ and ‘I Am Not Dead (Yeah!)’ but doesn’t divert too much attention to himself (in a very good way). ‘We Won’t Be Broke Forever Baby’ is a triumphant tune about dreaming of escape from a life of dead-end jobs or the dole queue while ‘I Am Not Dead (Yeah!)’ is an indictment of the privileged mopers (“Blessed in the West you’re on top of the heap/You get to mess about like half of the week/So how you empathise with a song like ‘Creep’, huh?”) that burden our being.
There’s more of a hint of The Supremes’ ‘Where Did Our Love Go’ on the rather gorgeous ‘Baby Doll’. A beautifully playful ode to his girl, it’s a big cheery bundle of love. And then there’s the all-encompassing ‘We Are Not Alone’ that raises the epic levels to a new height. In a world run by all that is fair, this would be playing on a radio station near you in fair rotation because there is no doubt it’s as catchy and clever as anything around at the moment.
So all that pretty leaves us to talk about is the title track ‘The Life Equation’ — though “track” is hardly the right word to describe the near 14-minute symphony. But what else would we expect from the prodigious mixtape-maker? Part 1 – ‘In The Morning’ has a chorus that 1997′s Liam Gallagher would be gasping to get his voice around while, in other parts, there are some cleverly used samples of Squeeze’s ‘Cool For Cats’ and 90s rockers Therapy?’s ‘Going Nowhere’. The highlight has to be ‘Anti Life’ (of which you can find an extended version featuring Martin Carr on Akira’s The Omega Sanction), its dark and brooding segment full of angst and apocalyptic thought. But the final uplifting reprise of ‘The Morning’ is not exactly full of hope, closer to acceptance of life’s balance. Here, Akira tells us: “My mother wrote me said she loves her first son/I got a letter from my dad he says he loves my new song/My girl rings – she wants me meet/I grab my coat and step out/I look up, the clouds part and the sun comes out.” While you get pissed off and bitter to all the lies and corruption seemingly all around us, at the core are the things that are important — family, love and personal purpose.
The Life Equation is a journey and a fine achievement. The sound of life today? Why yes. It’s direct when it needs to be and fleeting and charming when necessary. One of the greatest achievements here is that there is no front. There is no ego, pretense, or scene to hide behind. But this is no left-field statement of individuality at all. It’s more about finding your place in a world that might make you feel uncomfortably safe in the knowledge that there are people out there that feel the same way you do. Through all the fear-mongering and bullshit headed our way from governments and media for the last 10 years, most of us have got on with life. If you are waiting for the bomb drop, you might as well be dead now. That’s no way to live.
The Life Equation doesn’t want you to ignore your responsibilities to ask questions but it does remind us that when there are no real answers, there are things in life that no war, economic downturn, or poor leadership can take away from us and these things should be treasured. As should this record — surely one of the finest you’ll hear this year.