Unapologetic's Stuntarious IV: The Cutting Edge Of Memphis Hip Hop 

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With MonoNeon and A Weirdo From Memphis (AWFM) having planned to make an ultra-rare live appearance (now cancelled), it's worth reviewing their last recorded instance of collaboration, not to mention the many other tracks from the Stuntarious IV compilation (Unapologetic). We already named it one of 2019's best, but this album deserves a deeper dive.

The collective known as Unapologetic can be so prolific that it's easy to miss these annual gems known as the Stuntarious series. But the whole of each EP in the series can be greater than the sum of its parts. As Unapologetic producer IMAKEMADBEATS told Choose 901, "Every year, the Stuntarious EPs are about us connecting with other artists. We can drop our own projects any time, but Stuntarious IV is all about the features, about showing collaboration."

In practice, that approach makes the Stuntarious series explode with sonic and verbal ideas, and Stuntarious IV is no exception. This time around, the album has a cinematic feel. Right from the beginning, a conspiratorial voice, straight out of the Marvel universe, delivers a dystopian monologue that sets up our Unapologetic heroes as "enemies of the province", on the run from the thought police.

The set up is a red herring, of course, but sonically it sets the stage for the wide-ranging palette of sound design elements that percolate throughout the tracks that follow. Track two, "Remote," where the groove finally gets going, contrasts (seemingly) sampled bell-like jazz chords with synths, beats and distressed layers of other samples, courtesy producer C Major. Rapper PreauXX delivers lines like "I'm on your ass like a dog bite" with an air of amusement that keeps the fun front and center. "Set You Free," another C Major production, blends in the more singable R&B elements, which can crop up unexpectedly in Unapologetic tracks. 

One track that could or should go viral in the 901 is "MEMPHIS," where AWFM appears alongside HANNYA CHAO$ and PreauXX to conjure up the local vibe. But, though the track begins with some appropriately dark cinematic tones, with Kid Maestro's production reminiscent of Three 6 Mafia's innovations, it soon puts a lighter spin on that well-trod territory.
A Weirdo From Memphis - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • A Weirdo From Memphis
"You catch that fire walking through my city," they rap, after spelling out M-E-M-P-H-I-S. Just in case you missed who exactly caught that fire, they point out explicitly, "Atlanta stole the sauce but won't acknowledge it, though."

There's a hometown pride here, tempered with some bumps in the road that are all too true to life. "Rollin' over potholes, problems, sure I got those..." they rap, adding, in the end, "We not burning nothing down it's just the Devil's playing ground."

A similar local uplift shapes the kidding-but-serious "MANE Street," which riffs on IMAKEMADBEATS' tongue-in-cheek (?) call to arms last year, to rename Main Street in accordance with the song title, in honor of the Memphis dialect. The petition had legs, and, with this anthem of sorts, it sprouts wings as well. As an extra bonus, it gets started with some long samples of old school soul funk that evoke a city with a past.

Despite the epic, cinematic sweep portended by the opening track, many of these songs have a more personal focus, concerning entanglements of love and lust, in all their forms. "Waffle House," for instance, weighs the respective appeal of various sexual acts against a desire for waffles (and who hasn't been there?), with AWFM and Boss Ladi Angel pouring on the sass like maple syrup. "Move" treads more in the zone of mutual attraction, while the sonic surprises of IMAKEMADBEATS and Cameron Bethany on "I Hope She Understands" suggest a more nuanced take on relationships, albeit indirectly, through instrumental passages and Bethany's vocalizations. 
MonoNeon - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • MonoNeon
And that brings us to "STOP," featuring AWFM, Kid Maestro and MonoNeon. That latter name is familiar to both hip hop and jazz/funk aficionados, being the nom de groove of one of Memphis' finest bassists. This track also delves into that relationship funk, as in, "Stop playing with me, girl!" And, while not as dense a weave as some of the more sample-heavy tracks, this offers plenty of musical complexity. A smattering of bell-like chords drop like leaden raindrops, one per beat; as the layers complexify, intricate nasal synth tones provide a choppier rhythm, until at last MonoNeon enters with some popping bass runs that put the synth to shame. Another Kid Maestro production, the beats stop and start like a ride that needs a tuneup, until the big breakdown arrives to showcase MonoNeon's finest work.  "You make a n*gga smile like a fuckin' newborn," AWFM spits out, "So when I do all the awkward-ass things that I do, you should know that I don't mean any harm."

It's that embrace of the awkward, that celebration of the strange, those musings of "a weirdo," that help define Unapologetic's aesthetic, and here, combined with longtime collaborator MonoNeon, that aesthetic has truly come into its own.

With that, we'll wrap up with moments from last year's Stuntarious IV release party, knowing that the upcoming shows will only be more surprising.

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