Rap is in a transitional phase. Forty-odd years in, its founders are retired, dying or dead and the kids, with their face tattoos and neon hair, are trashing the wake. It’s a strange time to be a hip-hop fan and even stranger time to be a rapper, in the proper old school meaning of the word. Imagine then how strange it must be to be SHIRT, the New York MC almost ten years into his career and releasing his debut album, ‘Pure Beauty’, on Jack White’s Third Man Records, a label that is better known for re-pressing ancient blues records than it is for the pioneering the future of hip-hop.
SHIRT with his ungoogleable name and quiet subversion of everything to do with hip-hop has been releasing music since 2009, and somehow none of us noticed. His debut album ‘Pure Beauty’ is triumphant. Over neo-boom bap beats and immaculate samples, he spits Kanye-esque braggadocio, Nas-like street knowledge and even flirts with being Jay Z for a track (the epic ‘Palace Intrigue’). Whichever rap-hat he tries on, he rocks.
Occasionally he wears his influences a little too obviously. The production on ‘Energy’, for example, could have been lifted from the cutting room of any of Kanye’s last three albums. However, even these moments feel deliberate, like he’s picking the greatest moments from the past two decades of rap and reworking them for his own pleasure.
By the time the album gets to ‘Woman Is God’ and lead single ‘Flight Home’, the video for which features him riding atop a truck bearing both the Adidas and Nike logos side by side in a nuanced tribute-cum-fuck-you to both brand’s relationships with hip-hop, you’ve forgotten who he sounds like and are left in awe of the breadth one man can display in eleven tracks.