Throwaway Style: AJ Suede Embraces the Dark Side on Darth Sueder (KEXP Premiere)

Throwaway Style, Local Music, KEXP Premiere, Album Reviews
Martin Douglas
Photo by Damascus Purnell

Throwaway Style is a weekly column dedicated to examining all aspects of the Northwest music scene. Whether it’s a new artist making waves, headlines affecting local talent, or reflecting on some of the music that’s been a foundation in our region; this space celebrates everything happening in the Northwest region, every Thursday on the KEXP Blog.

AJ Suede is no stranger to immersing himself to foreign environments; it’s safe to say like many artists across music, literature, any creative field you can think of, the idea of being somewhere new emboldens him. Nine months ago, it was written in this very column about Suede’s quest from the East Coast (splitting time between Harlem, NY and Stroudsburg, PA) to the folklore-inspiring five-month stay on Wolftone’s couch. In the time he graduated from guest to resident, he emboldened his craft in a big way.

Darth Sueder serves as an ode of sorts to Suede’s years of dwelling in Eastern Standard Time. Littered throughout his notebooks are traces of the Lox, Mobb Deep, Max B, and Cannibal Ox’s monolith The Cold Vein. The three tracks produced by Khrist Koopa – the glittering, hollowed out, and dreamlike “Depression Nap,” the spacey and psychedelic “Microdose,” and the late-night blaxploitation soul of “Cannibal (Can I Ball?)” – sound like they could have been handpicked for the supreme poetics of Brooklyn’s Ka; subtle, headnod-worthy, and caked in dust even with the most thorough Windex bath.

The tracks produced by Suede here are a world away from the thumping, synth-heavy beats he has designed in the past (particularly 2015’s Lefthanded Virgo), instead leaning into record crates and looping shuffling world-pop (“Clear the Air”), island soul (“Come Around”), and pensive, widescreen scoring (“Play the Planets”), and emotional lounge piano (“Make No Sense,” co-produced with Wolftone). Most of Suede’s production here is esoteric and unreliant on the hip-hop standard of heavy drum programming, an underground rap practice popularized in the recent past.

A misconception runs through much of the thoughtful discourse regarding sample-driven hip-hop beats, that in order for a track to be “good,” the producer must perform some sort of Madlib or Dilla-esque fillet on a sample or deliver classically trained musicianship. In hip-hop, the beat exists in service of the song, so a simple, straight loop can oftentimes enhance a song depending on its content. Over the course of hip-hop history, metric tons of vinyl have been wasted on busy beats sold or given to bad rappers. Suede keeps it simple yet has enough ingenuity to drive off the beaten path in his sample selection. And the songs on Darth Sueder keep an inspired energy because of this process.

In its ad hoc homage to the East Coast he left for retail marijuana and thick cumulus clouds, the beats on Darth Sueder carry the same feel as the current New York hardcore rap pantheon; esoteric and imaginative, not in the standard field of hip-hop sampling fodder but still easily integrated within the genre nonetheless. Musically, it’s deeply reminiscent of underground legend Roc Marciano’s recent opus Rosebudd’s Revenge 2, where the Long Island MC masterfully unspools his word-drunk verses replete with intricate internal rhyme schemes over reggae riddims, shattered industrial music, and drumless soul soliloquies.

Although Suede is at his best when he’s offering his perspective and personality to the world – frankly, this is where the best art comes from in general – a telltale way of linking Suede to East Coast rap is his dexterity with language without context, rattling off verses in a fugue state. The style lends itself to rolling imagery and references: Parks and Recreation, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, The Hunt for Red October, the bellicose and frightening vigilante known as Quailman, Perfect Dark, Snow on tha Bluff (basically the Blair Witch Project of hood movies), 50 Cent’s middling 2007 single “Ayo Technology,” The Hurt Locker. His space is littered with White Castle wrappers, discarded Dutch Master tobacco, and tattoo needles. He’s got clever double-entendres for both reefer (“Tryna buy some rocket power like I’m Conrad Bluff”) and money (“Not an Arctic Monkey but my band is going Spinal Tap”), he posits himself as the aesthetic midpoint between the scarred torso of Iggy Pop and the smooth-talking splendor of Max Julien’s character in The Mack. “Even in my hood, I’m dressed like a rocker,” he quips on “Play the Planets.”

Much of Suede’s music is guided by a pitch-black hand, which could contribute to the reason he constantly rebuffs his dedication to occult religious icons. He disavows worshipping Baphomet on Gotham Fortress and Satan here, but slyly deflects that perception to some degree: “I cannot confirm or deny I am a Mason.” On opener “Play the Planets,” he aspires to cast darkness on the world so deep it eclipses the sun, “drive a hearse through the pouring rain,” and exchanging your life for a Bitcoin (“Sell you to whoever can afford you”). A “Depression Nap” puts him down until he wakes up to a black sky and street lights. On “Microdose,” he rejects being a shoulder for someone to lean and cry on, because he admits to needing one himself.

The thoughtful nature of “Make No Sense” is heightened by DoNormaal, whose deep cuts are often hookier than many artists’ greatest hits, sings on the chorus, “My system got a system that don’t make no sense/My wisdom isn’t wisdom anyone knows.” Suede finds himself at his most contemplative, mulling over mortality, keeping a critical eye on his own work, counting down the Doomsday Clock, and the general feeling of isolation when all those feelings converge on each other. He acknowledges his misery is so contagious, he smiles through his pain as a failsafe measure for everyone around him.

Creature comforts like tattoos and plane tickets aren’t enough to outweigh the heavy things on Suede’s mind. Even the sugar rush of meeting women serves as a temporary salve for Suede, eventually hitting the point of isolation between himself and the rest of the world: “And I want a square bitch so we can have a date/’Til I start talking crazy and you can’t relate.”

Interactions with art teachers, “hippie chicks” rolling spliffs to the sounds of Sublime, snow bunny strippers, and women sneaking pics of him on public transit are momentary distractions, extinguished as soon as they’re introduced like joints at the top of every hour. Before launching into “Clear the Air,” the closest Darth Sueder comes to anything even vaguely resembling romance, Suede casually hopes for a rainy summer.

“Ink it Up,” with its heavily processed 80s pop music drums and the thick fog settling between those drums and its corresponding melody, serves as a placeholder reminder of Suede’s plans to cover his body in tattoos until his proclivity to read between the lines of racial microaggressions seeps in: “People judge my skin without the ink.” Suede is an avid observer of the line that separates him from others, whether the line is racial, social, or just personality-wise. “I be looking sketchy when I’m in the safe spaces,” he laments on “Gluten Rich,” the commentary just a breath away from his criticism of the “gentrification” of hip-hop music, lightly glossing the difference between homage and appropriation.

Suede possesses an intimate understanding of blackness as a radical act, rallying against erasure and stereotypes, even the very coexistence with fascist and racist forces. He paints himself as a vocal scourge of the alt-right, primarily because simply being black stands in opposition of everything their principles are founded on, and secondarily because pretending to tolerate such a hateful existence is not in his nature.

Being able to take art and make it distinctly yours regardless of the style is way easier said than done, but AJ Suede has mastered taking a wide array of disparate rap styles and filtering them through his vision. He has built a world inside his music; a twilit, always overcast expanse full of judgemental eyes, billowing smoke, self-medication, the peace that comes with solitude, and the tumult that comes with being a molecule in the dust cloud of society. Darth Sueder serves as a bridge between Suede’s childhood home and his recently adopted one, extending 2850 miles over the vast expanse of almost a dozen states. It is Harlem, it is Seattle, and it is the miles and miles of sky in between, falling into crepuscule.

Stream an advance premiere of the album below.


New and News

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