ven if University of Georgia promotional material continues to namecheck R.E.M. and the B-52's in 2056, Athens will likely still be considered the archetypal college music town (that’s town, Austin. Not “state capital”). There's a built-in limitation, however: college towns breed college music. Meaning that artists existing on either the jam-band/southern rock or warm/fuzzy axes will continue to flourish as long as their music goes down smooth with piss-warm beer and pastel polos. Hip-hop? Not so much. Overshadowed by nearby Atlanta and lacking any real rap-friendly venues, Athens finds aspiring MC's lucky to get an opening gig for Appetite For Destruction, Who's Bad, Badfish or any number of successful cover bands.
So it seems strange that Jamie Radford would name his debut after the city he recorded it in, since not only does it bear almost no relation to Georgia rap produced post-ATLiens, but also because it feels positively placeless. A well-balanced sampler of excellent Album Leaf-esque instrumentals, eerie synth 'n' sample rap, and down-tempo chanteuse pop, it’s actually more similar to free-for-alls like UNKLE’s Psyence Fiction or Prefuse 73’s Surrounded By Silence.
"King of the Classroom" is a risky starting point; though genuine and genuinely funny, it's goofiness belies the depth that follows. The "hustler gone tutor" tale takes on a greater gravity as the album unfolds with "Dumb Steps." Kanye West’s flippant attitude towards higher education easily resonated with thousands upon thousands of twenty-somethings cowering under mountains of student loans, so overqualified for their jobs that college actually did seem useless. But Kanye came from a distinctly middle-class viewpoint in a city that brims with possibility. “Dumb Steps” serves as something of a counter to the argument: Radford relates a lower Alabama upbringing, realizing that in the case of so many other places removed from real metropolises, college and crystal meth are the only escapes from menial jobs and the least glamorous drug dealing possible.
Existing in the rare space between bitch-slap revenge and emo breast-beating, “This Is a Breakup Song” is an obvious standout. It combines an icy mbira and the loneliest guitar pattern possible into a cavernous, windswept atmosphere that owes as much to Martin Hannett as it does Juicy J. This is even more true of the closer, “I Had to Let It Go,” which screws an Interpol bass strum with icy string flourishes and a disembodied hook.
As an MC, Radford combines Bubba Sparxxx’s twang with Blueprint’s matter-of-fact storytelling, a distinct voice that leads us through busted flirtation, shitty weed smoke, and mind-numbing office politics. The strands get tied together in the album’s true centerpiece, the back-to-back duo of “Never Give Up” and “Give Up.” "Never Give Up" is a typically skewed take on the "I do it for the love" song. Optimistic without being mawkish, Radford confronts the hopelessness that so often accompanies listening to the radio and finds comfort in the creative process, suggesting others do the same no matter how few people hear it.
One of the key lines is "I won't pretend it's going to be easy just to make it / It's near impossible, I tell you different I'd be fakin' it," transitioning to "Give Up." For decades, rappers bandied about the word "sellout" as if the only thing that separated you from yacht ownership was the willingness to rock a shiny suit. If only it were that easy. “Give Up” is the cold reminder that every day, transactions for one’s soul take place for a far lesser price. (“I used to say that you couldn’t make me / Stay away from creating these beats if you paid me / But then somebody paid me.”) It doesn’t come off as self-pity so much as a chance to think of all the great art that could've been lost to the demands of bills, societal guilt, and dinner dates. He asks “how can an artist survive unless he’s blessed like an heir?” which only increases in poignancy as Fat Joe and Jadakiss spit sixteens for Paris Hilton.
As is the case with so many other self-released and self-produced discs, there are parts of Athens that can be cleaned up; “Mean Rap 11” wears its Kool Keith influence too heavily and an overall lack of bass ensures the album sounds better on headphones than a car stereo (which, admittedly, is kind of the point of someone who claims his album is “headphones rap for the masses”). And some may scoff and automatically label it emo-rap, but nine times out of ten, that’s a defense mechanism against lyrics that can be related to rather than shamefully glorified for their “otherness.”
With that in mind, like Blueprint's 1988, affability is an enormous strength of Athens. There's not much in common between "Henri Rousseau," a superb, glitchy collaboration with math-rockers We Versus The Shark, and "Dumb Steps" other than the fact that Radford's enthusiasm makes him easy to root for. He can take it anywhere from here, hopefully someday he’ll get a mere fraction of the budget it took to stuff something like Blood Money or The Big Bang down our disinterested earholes.
Stream songs from Athens here.