Akira the Don’s relationship to mixtape culture is as extensive as it is instrumental to his success, but perhaps the sight of ATD29 (that’s ATD Mixtape Number 29) up there is going to turn people off, maybe it’s intimidating. Twenty-Nine Mixtapes?! they’ll exclaim, shuddering at the prospect of chugging through 29 mostly album-length releases by a man somehow not 80 years old (and not Lil B of 800+ Myspace tracks). Maybe they’ll assume the mixtapes are disposable retreads on beats, or a ruse (Skrillex) to distract us from Akira’s fear of full-length releases. Akira’s as much a friend of the show here as anyone, and I’ll be quick to disclose that he’s an ally of Transylvanilla, I’m an old fan of his, and yes, 29 Mixtapes is a towering queue of releases. What’s astounding is they aren’t throwaways: Akira’s latest series (especially 25 and 26) have been on steady rotation for ages here at The Nest, and my archives show this isn’t my first encounter with his material. That said, written and recorded over 29 hours(!!) apparently on my birthday, ATD29 marks Akira’s first ‘proper’ mixtape in quite a while: other peoples’ beats, his own mixing and production, guest verses, an original production or two, an autotuned jam with his human son Hercules friggin Narkiewicz. It’s a Mixtape Mixtape, not an album in disguise (Manga Music being especially arguable). And that’s great! The stakes are low, Akira’s having fun, Big Narstie shows up to yell about #Pain. It’s enjoyable. It’s a return to form for Akira, whose discography stacks on his website like a teetering pile of zines, and deigns to drop a studio album only whenever the content suits his greater narrative arc. So kick back, and let’s dig in for around the 29th time.
Smokin’ Joe kicks off the album the same way he did ATD25, though ‘intro’ is something of a misnomer; it’s also a screaming oldschool funk beat courtesy of DJ Mink. Akira’s all over the place: he’s energized, he’s awarding himself Nobel prizes, he’s shouting out to his kid and everyone else. The beat’s manic and so’s the MC, briefing and hyping the crowd, and slicing directly into the molasses-heavy “Hash In The Post” – based on a true story. ‘Hash hovers under a beat by Mike Will Made It and Akira’s back to his old tricks with the voice modulator. The beat’s lumbering, and Akira floats under the mix, bubbling up to echo his chorus. That vocal processing is his best friend these days for good reason: it lets him keep the tone low-key and gurgle out the verses – even if he weren’t rapping about coming up as an aspiring rapper, or flying a based spaceship to a planet unsullied by police or a lack of weed, the effect locks ‘Hash into place. In fact, Akira keeps it fairly heavy for the first several tracks, tearing into an anti-racist polemic on Chief-Keef-nod “Hate SOSA”. And again with the vocal processing: this time it’s an autotune flutter, yanking the track from Keef’s bark and into outer space. Processing song after song, and keeping the beats weighty, gives ATD29‘s opening few tracks a neat sort of consistency. Sure they aren’t long, but they’re fun – MC and audience alike can float on through (with their Hash), cracking hazy smiles at the jokes. …Until Akira breaks set over Action Bronson’s “Pouches of Tuna“. I’ll fanboy for a second and say that hearing Akira rock nasty raps over that beat, nodding to sexual misdemeanours in Bronson’s style, is a treat. This is what mixtape culture is for: taking a dope beat, even miming another artist’s style, and putting your own vocal tics and production smirks into it. It’s all in good fun, it gives him the opportunity to throw a flanger on “Tuna” and rap nasty Bronson-isms like “abstain from fuckery/a Miss Kentucky Derby depravity/a little fucky-sucky in the lavatory” – and it comes off like wordplay homage. Nice. Because it’s Akira messing around in the studio we do get awkward rhymes about his dragon-spirit-animal-thing from his childhood, but there’s a looseness and casualness that licenses it all to fit. Even when it seems to lack polish, that’s sort of what ATD29 is for.
Following “Tuna” we hit an Akira original: “End of the Road” featuring Big Narstie and Footsie, that really wouldn’t feel out of place in Narstie’s catalogue. The two-step isn’t out of place here either, slotting into 29‘s darker first half. Narstie and Footsie are in top form, locking in as the background horns pop, and Akira’s back on his political rap scene, and tearing into UK banks in a style that would sit comfortably on one of his bigger releases. With “End of the Road” closing out the grimy half of the tape – because Akira The Don is partially a pop musician – It’s Dance Time. I’ll be the first to admit that these tracks took time to grow on me: I’ve come around on them to an extent, but there’s no mistaking the 8-minute dance party lurking in the middle of ATD29. To its credit, “When Life Gives You Lemons PUNCH LIFE IN THE FUCKING FACE” does feature a fear bit of autobiographical rap (which is great) and the chorus is a fun bit of gratuity filtered through robot-chop processing, but it does drag on a bit. This will certainly quench the thirst of anyone that needed more ATD to toss in their hardstyle mix, so perhaps I’m getting this one in the wrong context. East-Van-Cafe not so much, but in club? A blast, likely, and true of so much dance music. Which is the same deal for the next track’s re-remix of vintage ATD track “OMG (This Is So My Jam)”. Again this isn’t necessarily my, uh, jam, but couldn’t it be if I were partying? And so this is sometimes how we must approach music journalism: I’ll begrudgingly admit that ATD29‘s dance-wasteland might be quite fun! Real loud. Drunk with friends. As it is, it sits as an unexpected intermission, chopping the tape in two. It does, though, bring us to “Django”.
Go buy “Django”, seriously. Don’t mess around: here’s Don and Narstie rapping over an Akira-produced remix of that friggin’ sweet Brown/Tupac mashup from Django Unchained. I can’t stress enough: this production kicks ass. Hands down, it’s one of the finest beats Akira’s ever whipped up, and because ATD29 is a largely outsourced production, “Django” centrepieces it perfectly: this is the proper follow-up to favourites “Lord I Miss (Red Dead Redemption)” and “Big Iron” that we waited years to get. Like those tracks, it’s also a bit silly! That said, I can’t remember hearing this much obvious fun bang out of a production studio in a long time. Everyone’s having a blast, listener included, when those horns drop. To be played loud, inebriated, preferably while astride a horse.
ATD29 really has no choice but to cool down after “Django”. It drifts into space-rap about burning spliffs and Thundercats, “Burnt Teeth” that rips another Bronson beat (and slows “Buddy Guy” to its original speed), Don’s political and Satoshi-Kon-dedicated “Daylight” take, and a pair of tracks for his young son, before quietly coming to a stop. One of these odes to Hercules is the roaring, triumphant “Theme From Hercules”, the other’s simply an autotuned Akira singing his son “Moon River”. Both are touching and strange in their own odd, unexpected ways. How cool is that? I love mixtape culture. And really that’s what ATD29 is: Akira’s return to making mixtapes in the classic mode; I can’t not engage with it personally. And while it sometimes plays fast and loose, this thing was slammed together in 29 hours as an intermission between bigger releases. Great swaths of ATD29 are a blast to listen to, and while the pacing gets a bit bizarre (brief tracks, the dance tracks, the sentimental, strange ending) it’s difficult to fault a man that made this in hardly 2 days while celebrating the existence of his brand new human son. Oh right, and he’s uploaded it here if you’d like to listen, too. Real cool, Akira.
A difficult project to score, I think. But here’s a number.
Full Disclosure: As a longtime friend of Transylvanilla, Akira mailed me this release out of the blue, stating I could review it, enjoy it, whatever. And so, much later, I did. Much respect to Akira The Don and his family unit!
Full Disclosure 2.0: I missed you guys, too. Thanks for reading.
Reviewed right here, October 20, 2013.