Reverence for the golden age of hip-hop is in flux. As music creation and proliferation has become increasingly digital, save for a few brick and mortar CD and vinyl strongholds, the barrier for entry has lowered, ushering in changes to artistic inspiration within the genre. Turntabling and record sampling has moved away from the hectic and layered compositions from groups like Public Enemy and NWA, thanks in part to industry crackdown on artistic attribution and proper music licensing.
Belles in Monica throws these rules out the window on their latest release, Natsukashii – Lazarus Vol. 2. The 8-track outing (10 if you include a pair of instrumentals), which features a mixture of new cuts interspersed through some of their remastered hits, explicitly mourns the death of old-school hip-hop, highlighted by the Kanji 死 (read “shi”) on the cover and the pervasive dark imagery accompanying cuts like “Smoke Filled Rooms” and “Hell’s Gain”.
At the same time, Natsukashii (natively written 懐かしい) reminisces on the art form before its commercialization. Released on June 7, the album is the first offering from New Dawn Records in 15 years. Appropriately, the track list is an antique shop of beats and bars that both speaks to a bygone era and adds a hint of color to modern hip-hop. “These were happier times, parties out in the streets/ neighborhood buildings shook to the powerful beat,” Kruze raps on “Hip-Hop”. Though Belles in Monica are native to Glasgow, their glorification of hip-hop’s patented block parties paints a New York City backdrop some 3,000 miles away.
Respect for the craft comes at a cost. Belles veneration for hip-hop presents the album’s biggest struggle: the vocal mixing. Occasionally, Kruze’s insightful lyrics are shoved to the background. Natsukashii becomes a project that thematically could sit next to EPMD’s Unfinished Business in a record store but is at times outclassed in the realm of sonic fidelity.
At its core, Natsukashii leads hip-hop back to an infatuation with crate digging and away from a need for mass appeal. Belles in Monica continues an international push that sees artists still loading up their backpacks with paint cans and shuffling down the street with cardboard dance floors.