Album Review: Cities Aviv, ‘Digital Lows’
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Anyone who has spent time around a radio in 2011 is likely too familiar with Lupe Fiasco’s recent sample of Modest Mouse’s “Float On.” Over a Chipmunkized version of the original, already played-out guitar riff, Lupe lays down one of his most forgettable lyrical performances ever and chants a chorus lazily similar to the original.
Ironically (tragically?), the year’s best sample of that old Modest Mouse hit has gone largely unnoticed.
Enter the final track of newcomer Cities Aviv’s debut LP, Digital Lows. Over a narcotized Blackbird Blackbird cover of “Float On,” the 21 year-old Memphis emcee throws down a performance that sounds more like the closing of a life chapter than an album closer. After stringing together a number of memorable two-liners and asserting through distortion that he “had to hit ‘em with that modern man sound,” Cities Aviv spirals downward. One line he’s assuring his beloved that he’ll walk through fire and acid for her; a few seconds later—like some egotistical man who’s been jilted one too many times—he begs his listener to “never let this world tell you love can’t fail.” It’s quite the dichotomy, too expansive to be fully appreciated with just one listen.
This dichotomy, though, is what makes Digital Lows so artful, so interesting. The album begins with an instrumental title track comprised of things that fly: birds chirping and what sounds like a jumbo jet rumbling by overhead. Likewise, on the very next track, Cities Aviv first vocalizes—“And you can find me in the clouds.” This would be a rather standard boast without considering the track’s morbid, telling title: “Black Box.” What follows is an ambiguous narrative, an emcee who at once feels invincible and damned. At one point, he even rhymes “ 21, this is the realest shit I ever wrote / I sit enamored while the world goes up in smoke,” rosily putting his own near-prodigal abilities into a fatal perspective.
In fact, “Black Box” might best represent the entirety of the thematic content of Digital Lows: a young, gifted rapper who has no choice but to reject environmental constructs and what they entail. This, because they usually entail his death, or his being surrounded by corny rappers, or his never being recognized, or even his missing a chance with a girl six years his elder (“Meet Me on Montrose (For Ex-Lovers Only)”).
Though, with so many varied obstacles, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Cities Aviv never retains the same form for too long. A boastful, nearly breathless growl on “FuckEverybodyhere” immediately gives way to a more laid back, vulnerable flow on “Jaguar”; sharp, cynical vocals on “ Doom x Gloom” are quickly followed with a warm, enchanted performance on “Meet Me on Montrose.”
But it’s not just Cities Aviv’s voice that gets swapped up from song to song. The lyrical content is often drastically different between neighboring tracks. The instrumentals range from the Stomp-sounding “Die Young,” to “Meet Me on Montrose”—which features a sample from perhaps the least “hard” duo of all-time, the Alessi Brothers (yeah, brothers)—to “Voyeurs,” which with just a few less bpms could easily be mistaken for an Odd Future rip. Many tracks end with a short, mostly unrelated instrumental that begs to be looped out and torn. In short, Digital Lows listens like a cinematic variety show.
Indeed, it’s tough to pigeonhole Cities Aviv. On Digital Lows, true school influence meets practical artfulness, and what results is perhaps the current prototype for hip-hop. Here, there are no gimmicks, no commercial hooks or typical lyrics. There’s only an artist concerned with his craft—never mind a surrounding culture of conformity and the fact that his craft is inherently disadvantaged by its own quality. Cities Aviv is aware of that disadvantage, is perhaps even tormented by it (the “man-made forecast”). But by the end of Digital Lows, when “Float On” finally plays out, it’s easy to feel doomed and pleasantly anesthetized right alongside him. In fact, Cities Aviv might agree that’s the only way to feel.