What is a conglomerate? An entity consisting of many different and distinct parts or items that are grouped together, creating a powerful and impenetrable structure.
This is everything High Focus Records embody, a label that have had their foot in the door for the best part of 8 years and are now kicking it open with relentless releases, tours and collaborations. Boasting a catalogue deep enough to rival any independent label with credible longevity, it never ceases to amaze me how they consistently churn out quality projects without contributing to the over-saturation present in hip-hop today. From Ocean Wisdom’s aggressive braggadocio, to the vivid and psychedelic imagery from Jam Baxter: High Focus possess enough diversity in their arsenal to be consistently innovative, perfectly pairing lyrics and production that seamlessly create what I consider to be a quintessential High Focus sound.
6th October 2017 marked the date of the most recent release to come out of the camp: Verb-T’s “Good Evening”, with production courtesy of Pitch 92. Perhaps one of the more understated members of the label, Verb-T has always expressed a very respectable level of humility in his lyrics. Verb-T’s ability to analyse his own vulnerabilities with humorous self-deprecation (hear “Where You Find Me” of 2012 release “The Morning Process”) has made him one of the more relatable rappers working currently. T’s discography offers topical diversity matched with beats that feel like they were lifted off a drum machine in a Brooklyn basement, while still possessing an aura of authenticity.
This only continues “Good Evening”; right out of the gate, the track “I Arrived Late” starts with a warm crackle that induces nostalgia for the Vinyl era I wasn’t alive for. The beat drops and it already feels as though Pitch 92 has something to prove, with beautifully layered production and subtle horn samples complementing the already rich texture. Verb swoops in delivering reflective bars that intertwine with interesting rhyme schemes and flows, as expected. He has never been an artist I’ve listened to for cocky bravado, punchlines or mind-boggling double time flows. What I admire about Verb is his ability to piece together ideas and thoughts in a way that creates a sort of musical canvas, a provision of food for thought if you will.
Without a doubt, a stand out song on the album for me is ‘Mechanical’, the fourth single from the album. The hook always resonates with me; ‘It’s understandable living so mechanical, built by a company, then they branded you. Now you do what you’re programmed to do, then we gain control, but we don’t have a clue’. Verb-T is once again exercising his dexterity with metaphors whilst providing satirical criticism on the nature of major music- industry labels. All this is weaved into a masterfully crafted instrumental: laced with lush guitar chords, occasional reverberating piano and plucked guitar riffs that culminate in sonic bliss.
My favourite track (and undeniably my most eagerly anticipated, after catching a glimpse of the album’s guest verses) sees T trade bars with one of High Focus’ youngest and most lethal weapons, Ocean Wisdom. ‘Lie Low’ boasts what may be the best hip-hop instrumental I’ve heard this year, and after hearing it on a live sound system at his recent show in Bristol my appreciation for it grew exponentially; something about feeling a kick drum virtually burst your eardrums is oddly satisfying. The feature is incredible, Wizzy hitting the ground sprinting with a signature relentless double-time flow that he manages to sustain for the best part of 16 bars. Perhaps it’s not the most lyrically substantial verse of the album, but it is indisputably the densest and most syllable-crunching, re-asserting that the 24-year old is a force to be reckoned with.
On what I would generally consider to be a very cohesive album, there are a few moments where Pitch 92 pushes the boat out production-wise, specifically on the song ‘Sugar’. This was the third single for the album, and probably stands as the most pop-infused I’ve heard from Verb or any of his label-mates for that matter. Nevertheless it’s executed perfectly with a catchy but equally thoughtful hook, alluding to people’s innate desire for whatever looks good, or that which is ‘sugar-coated’.
‘Everything That You Love’ sees a mature ode to the notion of appreciating what you love whilst you’re lucky enough to still have it, not the newest song concept but still executed in a heartfelt and sincere way. Verb muses ‘what good is an empire with nobody to share it with’, with the sampling of a speech about love, timely placed over a jazzy backdrop that asserts an enchanting swing.
The track ‘Good Evening’ pulls in verses from South London native “Confucius MC” and UK veteran Jehst who blesses the track with beautiful introspection ‘while I’m wrestling with my inner-most questions, crying out for answers, looking for direction’. It seems the relatability of lyrical themes on the album don’t confine themselves to a certain demographic; their openness to individual interpretation gives a tailored listening experience. Pitch uses a familiar sample here, which I seem to recall from “The Locker Room”, a track from producer extraordinaire Statik Selektah’s most recent compilation album, “Lucky 7”. Sometimes, familiarity in an instrumental can distract from the quality of a song, but once again the ingenious work of Pitch 92 manages to create a completely new soundscape.
The album closes out perfectly, with a healthy dose of righteous motivation on “Break Limits”, with some smooth Rhodes keys and guitar played intermittently over a head-knocking drum break. ‘So we change lanes, take aim and hope, put my thoughts to work trying to maintain and grow’ seems an appropriate lyric to close an album that has an overall sense of self-fulfilment and reflection, one which makes you feel Verb is encouraging rather than challenging or demanding the listener to think a certain way. It’s always an endearing trait in an artist if they manage to convey emotions and ideals without coming off as overly preachy or condescending.
‘Good Evening’ is proof that patience really is a virtue, with Verb’s topical maturity being apparent; approaching age 40, one would think it’s difficult to continually offer new sounds as a musician, but sonically this feels like a step up from all his previous projects. From start to finish the production is stellar, the lyrics are insightful and even funny at times. The features pay credit to the abundance of young talent present in the UK. They also pay tribute to Verb’s constant efforts to link up with younger artists and shed light where people wouldn’t typically look. It feels there is an ever growing disconnect between the younger and older generations in music, especially within hip hop (https://www.hotnewhiphop.com/pete-rock-shades-lil-yachty-and-calls-out-mumble-rappers-yachty-responds-news.23946.html), so seeing artists like Rye Shabby, Black Josh and Ocean Wisdom securing spots on the album is refreshing and re-assuring that there’s plenty of hope left for inter-generational collaboration.
‘We don’t wanna be laying with the enemy, we take control and create independently’ is the most all-encompassing lyric of the album; a mantra which seems intrinsic to Verb and High Focus’ success. As a label that has been grinding away organically for so long, it’s impossible not to have the utmost respect for their journey and their ability to produce some of the most impressive hip-hop music in the UK right now. This independence is such a brilliant attribute, providing a platform upon which other artists can connect with them. Further, this platform reaches beyond music to other arts like photography, album artwork etc.
A vast majority of labels can produce good music but only few move as a unit, especially one that equally values the contribution of every member; it’s this quality which makes High Focus such an irreplaceable presence in the UK hip-hop scene.