In 2015, my friend Haydn and I travelled to Florianópolis, a small Brazilian island just off the mainland, to study as part of an exchange with our university. In reality, we didn’t do any studying at all while we were out there. Our days consisted of waking up early, heading down to the beach and surfing all morning, and spending the rest of the day drinking and exploring the island. In the evenings, we’d head to a bar called Container not far from the house in which we were living and meet up with the other students for caipirinhas and shots of cachaça. The bar was a huge metal crate—hence the name—and was disgustingly cheap when one took the exchange rate into account. (This was in the grand old pre-Brexit days, before sterling was down there by your feet somewhere.) Most of the other exchange students were Americans, the vast majority of them from Pennsylvania, and Haydn and I became close with all of them immediately. Americans, or at least the group we met, seem to possess an innate friendliness, an openness which makes them extremely easy to get along with.
The house in which we lived, owned by a kind old Chilean called Luis, was in one of the more middle-class districts of Brazil, but the two of us were nonetheless cautious when walking around late at night. His English was bad and our Portuguese non-existent, so communication was difficult, but he was a friendly figure who told us not to walk around too late at night and watch out for the stray dogs, of which there were a plethora. We were sharing with a beautiful American girl called Hannah, someone with whom we still keep in contact today, albeit poorly. She seemed to be a cultural relic of the late seventies—she dressed as though she were preparing for Woodstock and her favourite album was The Dark Side of the Moon. One day towards the end of the trip she bought it on vinyl from a market stall and it was all she talked about until we finally went our separate ways in the last days of July.
When I returned home from Brazil, I wrote a short (4,000-word) literary non-fiction piece about our experiences in Brazil: the good times we had, the people we met, and the difficulty in leaving such an incredible place. My piece was very kindly published by The Merrimack Review and can be found here, beginning on page 43. (It is also reproduced on this website here.) What I didn’t mention in the piece was how important a part music played in our experiences, especially when the three of us (Haydn, Hannah and I) were relaxing back at the house, chatting, arguing, drinking, eating and waiting for the ensuing day ahead. By far the most played album in Brazil was Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Piñata.
I’d heard Piñata only in pieces before I went to Brazil. My hip hop connoisseur friend Richard had played me both ‘Deeper’ and ‘Thuggin’’ prior to my departure, but I hadn’t properly listened to those tracks. While I wrote on my laptop and Haydn and I shared a litre bottle of Captain Morgan’s on the ten-hour flight to Rio (spiced, obviously; I fondly remember stealing cans of Coke from the food cart which had been left unattended just up the aisle so we weren’t forced to drink it neat. We were both quite pissed by the time we entered Brazilian airspace), I listened to the whole record. My writing was soon abandoned as I was sucked into the album. I’d never really heard production which sounded like this before; it was so fresh, and yet so nostalgic. The only other time I had seriously listened to Madlib was in his brilliant collaboration with MF Doom under the Madvillain pseudonym (one of my favourite hip hop albums—watch this space), but even that didn’t compare sonically.
What really struck me, though, was how Gibbs’ bars seemed to be perfectly on beat, in a way I’d never heard before. Once, many years ago, I watched a Metallica documentary, in which it was revealed that James Hetfield worked out the syllables for the vocals after the band had created the structure of a song and then wrote the words to them. Gibbs’ bars felt like that at the time—as though he had worked out the syllables for each line perfectly and written his bars to them, and still managed to make them thoughtful, intelligent and memorable. Take ‘Broken’, perhaps my favourite song on the album. (I can never pick between it and ‘Deeper’.) Each line seems to be perfectly moulded to the beat; the bars become relentless, giving the song an achingly smooth rhythm. Unfortunately, Scarface comes in for the last verse and totally ruins the pensive, nostalgic bars which have come before. (‘I’m trying to stack my money to the ceiling/No new friends don’t wanna talk about old business/Sex on the beach sipping Guinness/With a bitch so thick that she can’t take no dick’. Come on, mate. What’s that?)
While we were at home (for it became our home very quickly, and when we had to move out, it felt very strange) I’d play the album on repeat, which in hindsight must have become very annoying, especially seeing as Hannah would have rather heard Stevie Ray Vaughan than West Coast gangster rap. By the end, though, I knew all the words to both ‘Broken’ and ‘Deeper’ and could have a pretty good stab at ‘Shitsville’ and ‘Thuggin’’. On one of the trips on which the exchange university forced us to go—I think this one was to a glass factory which made little models of animals (?)—I sat next to one of the girls with whom I was to have a romantic liaison, Sonia, and we listened to the album together through my headphones on the coach journey back. She was a lover of hip hop too, although she liked Drake and Lil Wayne more than J Dilla and The Fugees. We spoke about the album for a while and I think I may have (embarrassingly) tried to recite all of ‘Broken’ to her. Whatever, it worked, and after a week or two we ended up in bed together. (Nothing pulls like Freddie Gibbs talking about slinging crack.)
Madlib’s production on this album can only be adequately described as smooth as fuck. Take ‘Robes’, which features Earl Sweatshirt. (Sweatshirt is a rapper with whom I have a love-hate relationship. I went to see him once at Bristol after I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside: An Album by Earl Sweatshirt was released. We waited around through two and a half hours of mediocre warm up acts for him to come on stage and barely perform forty minutes of his new album, only to disappear without so much as a half-hearted encore. On the other hand, his first album, especially the song ‘Kill’, is mercilessly excellent.) Those soft keys, accompanied only by some slick guitar riffs and a barely-audible rimshot somewhere in the background, feel like they should be playing in a lift somewhere, in a good way. Or twenty seconds into ‘Lakers’, when that rising horn sample finally comes in, counterbalanced by Gibbs’ violent interjection of ‘N——, fuck it’. Again, unfortunately the bars from Ab-Soul are pretty poor compared to Gibbs’. Or even the nicely juxtaposed ‘Knicks’, with its numerous East Coast references, and that beat which never quite begins. Piñata just sounds great—slick and immensely satisfying to listen to.
While often the featured artists just don’t seem to be able to keep up with Gibbs’ lyrical ability, there are a few exceptions. Earl is one, and another is Meechy Darko on the title track, not least because of his paranoid, crazed delivery, but also because his bars, while brutal, are impressively intelligent. The best feature on this album, though, is BJ the Chicago Kid. His vocals on the hook of ‘Shame’ are a small snippet of, as Michael J. Warren said in his review of In My Mind, his immense talent as a soul singer. This is evidenced purely by the volume of artists with whom he has worked, a list which includes Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper and Schoolboy Q.
We left Brazil with heavy hearts and a few tears. It felt as though we belonged there; it felt as though we’d been there forever. It became our home, even though we were only there for five weeks. The fact that the university funded what was basically a month-long holiday of surfing, drinking and having sex we found to be bemusing, and when we were told on our return that we were expected to act as ambassadors for the university scheme, we refused, because we had very little to say about the courses themselves. Most of the time, we hadn’t attended classes, and the only piece of work I remember completing was a comedy sketch in Portuguese we penned over bottles of Heineken, in which our two (female, straight, attractive) Portuguese teachers fell in love. (We achieved a surprisingly good grade for the short play, as offensive as it ultimately was.) All the Portuguese I learned has now been forgotten, though for weeks afterwards we promised ourselves that we would keep it up, and any revelatory insights into South American economic systems which were revealed during our Economic History lectures have since been dispelled from my intellectual memory. Regardless, whenever I listen to Piñata, and hear those totally unrelated bars about L.A. living, and listen to beats which do not reflect the sunny, beach-oriented lifestyle of Brazil, it reminds me of that cherished month spent meeting new people and lazing with one of my best friends on a little island just off the mainland of Brazil—a time during which I was the happiest I can ever remember myself being.
I made a film about my time in Brazil with help from my good friend Chris Norman. You can watch it here.