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A Jackhammer, Better with a Gentle Touch: Blake Selby, “Ammunition”; March 22 at The Clubhouse PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Tuesday, 18 March 2014 16:24

Blake Selby understands that he’s already at a disadvantage.

“Look, there are a few facts,” he said in a phone interview this week. “Number one, I’m white and I’m in the rap game. ... I’m already fighting an uphill battle. ... The other thing is that I’m not from the streets. I never claim to be; I never pretend to be in my raps. ... This is kind of my way of fighting back.”

“This” is his first full-length album, Ammunition. The Quad Cities-based hip-hop artist (who also owns Quad Cities Fitness in Bettendorf) has a record-release show Saturday at The Clubhouse in Bettendorf, and the album and show represent his musical introduction to his new community.

As the name suggests, it’s no clammy handshake. The 16-track album is loaded with aggressive, surgical-jackhammer rapping. It features the Chicago hip-hop artist Twista and singer Sam Kay on “Never Let Go.” It brings along the Quad Cities metal outfit 3 Years Hollow on “Monsta.” And its straightforward production (by The Chemist) mainlines the hooks.

Selby said he spent $50,000 on the album and worked on it for two years, and that suggests somebody who’s ambitious and knows that success in music and hip hop isn’t going to be given to him. He grew up in northern Michigan and got serious about rap in college at Michigan State (from which he earned a kineseology degree in 2012).

He said his speedy style (which was one reason he decided to collaborate with former fastest-rapper title-holder Twista) was partly a function of cutting his teeth in Michigan. “I feel like I have to go that fast just to set me apart from what’s out there,” he said. “You throw up a dime in Michigan, you’ll probably land on a rapper.”

Released on his own label (the Michigan-based Northern Hype Entertainment), Ammunition can be directly tied to influences from Selby’s formative years. “If you could mix Linkin Park and Eminem,” he said, “I guess this is what you would come up with.”

Given that, it’s no surprise that the album is wordy, precise, raw, and rapacious. It tries to walk the difficult line between being hard and avoiding genre clichés that would be laughable for somebody of his upbringing. (Selby said his father – the owner of a chain of piano stores in Michigan – taught him about rhythm and how to play several instruments.)

“I may not be from the streets, I may not be a drug-dealer, but at the same time I have had a lot of my own struggles,” Selby said. “There’s a whole audience of people who can relate to me who maybe aren’t from the street but maybe have their own struggles.”

The occasional problem is that Selby’s chosen style, by its nature, is lashing and defiant and boastful, and the struggles – however real they are – sometimes get blown out of proportion. The title track is anchored by a strong, sinuous melody, and the rat-a-tat rapping is undeniably skillful. But there’s something false and self-pitying about the song, with the narrator’s claim of being “defiled,” his taunt of “pedophiles,” and the rapid-fire belligerence at odds with the minor complaint of being disrespected. (There’s also a strange series of lyrical references to Nirvana.)

And while Selby noted that he didn’t pose with a gun on his album cover, the record’s title (repeated in many songs) and its explicit reference (on “Never Let Go”) to a Tommy gun – followed by the vocal mimicry of it – make clear that he’s having it both ways, embracing violence metaphorically if not literally.

When he dials back the hostility and offers a lighter groove, Ammunition feels more authentic and really sings.

“Broken Keys” is no less vocally nimble than the remainder of the album, but the jazzy piano, leisurely beats, and Auto-Tuned female vocals better reflect the lyrical content of the relationship song. (And it has a neat series of rhymes with “fix her,” “elixir,” and “mixture.”)

A sound like dripping water and subdued, patient metal riffs distinguish opening track “Voice Inside,” and the vocals have a relatively hushed character that effectively softens the mood without muting Selby’s vocal dexterity.

The music on “A Million Tears” has a sunny plinking that simultaneously balances and warms the rapping – an effect that “Grain” accomplishes with droning swells.

And “Pain to Gain” finds the space for both mourning and uplift, ultimately casting its lot with the latter.

These tracks on Ammunition show that while Selby is certainly adept at a street sound, his songs feel truer, sharper, and smarter when he employs an ever-so-gentle touch with his muscular, accomplished rapping.

Blake Selby’s record-release show will be held on Saturday, March 22, at The Clubhouse (2501 53rd Avenue, Bettendorf). Doors open at 8 p.m., and tickets are $10 in advance and $15 at the door.

For more information on Blake Selby, visit Facebook.com/BlakeSelbyMusic.

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