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The East Coast trio of Alexander Mendoza, Aziz Francois and Mik Beats started their musical journey known as The Dean’s List when they dropped their first mixtape, The Drive In, in February 2011. They quickly gained popularity and attention, especially in the college scene, and dropped a follow up album, Generation X, in April 2012.
Then in a move seemingly baffling for a group attempting to establish a name and fan base, they completely altered their identity, changing their name to The Kings Dead for the September release of their newest project, Jerusalem. Not only is the name different, but so is the entire dynamic of the group, moving far away from their college rap beginnings and towards a much more experimental and genre-defying area.
The production is a far cry away from typical rap beats, providing a more soundscape feel to the music and incorporating influences and samples from numerous genres. Electronic influences are especially noticeable, contrasting with backgrounds from choirs which provide a religious presence hinted at by the title. The instrumentals often change or switch mid-song, and on some tracks the lyrics are lowered in the mix or absent for long stretches to showcase the production as its own artistic entity and not a merely a looped beat.
Much like the production, the lyrics of Aziz, the group’s rapper, shift away from the mainstream of rap. Many of the lyrics read more like free form poetry, and forgo punch lines and complete sentences for more cryptic and hazed verses. Aziz also bucks many of the conventions of songwriting format, with verses and choruses of largely varying lengths, and many songs which blur the lines between what is a verse, a chorus, or a bridge.
Ultimately, however, this style leads to some songs being cryptic to the point of being undecipherable. As Aziz admits on “Spacely Man,” “Man, I swear sometimes I feel like I’m just crazy rapping, foolish talking nonsense up my a**,” and some people will be inclined to agree with him.
Jerusalem finds its highlights when it is able to toe the line between a newer freeform style and grounded lyrics and topics. No song does this better than “Hennessy at Cookouts,” which gives us the most concrete look into the lifestyle and mentality of the group over a epic choir-fueled beat.
Other standouts on the project include “Ruby Red,” and perhaps the song most similar to the group’s earlier work as The Deans List, “Mighty California,” which explores the lifestyle and changes that come with success.
The name and style changes that accompany Jerusalem raise a lot of questions, not all of which are easily answered. No explicitly voiced reason for the name change is to be found, and the message behind the often present religious themes and references is confusing. Inevitably, some fans of the group’s earlier work will be put off by the group’s paradigm shift, and wish for the previously more recognizable and easily understood music. However, with a music scene over saturated with countless artists who sound the same, the unique sound brought by The Kings Dead is a welcome presence. As Aziz says on “Jerusalem,” “Babies say I’m pop music, that should be a top music, Watch you n****s crazy, I’m allowed to make my music.”
While the group is still discovering its new identity, and not every risk they take is a success, The Kings Dead have moved from being strictly a rap group, to making art, and Jerusalem is an exciting project well worth a listen.
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