Recent Minneapolis transplant El Guante (Spanish for “the glove”), whose album El Guante’s Haunted Studio Apartment was just released on Speakeasy Records (part of TrúRúts) conveys a mixture of hope, despair, pessimism, laughter, anger, and all the other things that make us human as we move through life. Guante, a Wisconsin native, moves fluidly between rap and spoken word with the rhetorical and lyrical density of an El-P or an Aesop Rock, with the politics of Dead Prez and The Coup, and with a voice that at times sounds reminiscent of Common.
Haunted Studio is divided into three parts. “Session One: Ghosts” is the album proper, the spectral remains of the recording process. “Session Two: I Fight With Weapons” are three “B-sides” detailing his own lyrical battles with the world as well as finely-honed critiques of so-called “conscious” or “underground” rappers. (These are actually three of the strongest tracks on the record.) Finally, “Session Three: Death Poetry Jam” is a collection of live spoken word poems, as well as “Kodama,” a track named after the folkloric Japanese tree-dwelling spirit, which can also mean an echo.
It is on “Kodama” that Guante deftly summarizes an overarching theme of Haunted Studio: “A song is a lot like life/it’s easy to listen to and harder to write.” The relationship between art and life is touched upon throughout the record, and “Kodama” comes full circle from the album’s opener “Unmastered,” which features Minneapolis hip-hop legend and label-mate TruthMaze’s beatboxing.
All three parts of Haunted Studio are laced with vivid, imagistic mixtures of the commonplace and the extraordinary, from the “shards of sunlight” on “The Fourth Wall” to angels being taken out with surface-to-air missiles on “Bring Out Your Dead,” “wounded bird’s eye views” on “Home Sick Home,” and “singing hand grenades” in the spoken word piece “Love in the Time of Zombies.”
Thematically, however, the album divides between love songs and oppositional political songs, torch songs and songs for carrying torches. While there are many great images and stories told on songs like “Esta Tarde,” “The Illusion of Movement” (which is the first rap song I know to take Zeno’s paradox as its starting point), and “Flicker,” with its slightly disjointed piano and its warm yet worn-out-sounding saxophone, what will probably get Guante noticed are his politics. While Haunted Studio might piss off the Kerstens and Bachmans and Colemans of the world, there’s a good shot that it will also piss off Guante’s fellow rappers who consider themselves “conscious” or “underground.” While criticizing other rappers in hip-hop is nothing new, El Guante’s critiques are not for biting rhymes or being soft, but for not organizing in their communities for social change beyond making simplistic calls for “revolution.”
The bleakest song in this vein is “Orwell Oh Well,” although musically it’s the most upbeat. With its stabs of Love Boat strings atop the “rhythms of extinction” from Madison’s DJ Pain 1, Guante skewers both mainstream and conscious rap as well as the wider musical world influencing and influenced by hip-hop. Elsewhere is his hilarious “A Paid Advertisement,” a spoken word piece detailing a 17-point book that satirically details how to be an “underground” and “conscious MC,” Third Eye Optometry: Freeing the Urban Artist Within. Amidst all this skepticism and pessimism, though, remains a sense of hope, as expressed most succinctly on “This Road”: “As ugly as this life is, I’ve seen enough beauty to keep fightin’.’”
El Guante’s lyrical skills should make him a force to be reckoned with in Minnesota, and his introspective style of rapping will appeal to many of the Rhymesayers-loving fans here. There’s a good chance that his openly oppositional politics might attract listeners far beyond your usual hip-hop crowd.
Equal parts insightful and inciteful, Haunted Apartment is an inspiring declaration for those who love hip-hop’s potential for social change but hate how little that potential’s realized.
Justin Schell (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer and a grad student at the University of Minnesota’s Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society program. He’s working on a dissertation on Twin Cities immigrant and diasporic hip-hop and plays the washboard tie with The Gated Community.