EP Review: Exchecker – Exchecker

Cheshire-based hip-hop collective deliver an impenetrable statement of intent on their blossoming sophomore EP.

Hip-hop has invariably been an illusive genre to conquer since the illustrious first golden age of the genre transformed music worldwide in the late 1980s. With its diversity, incalculable temperament and sweeping lyrical mindset, the brand has undergone more changes in its history than the presenters of Top Gear, yet at its core lies a primal set of foundations, a union of unwritten laws that are widely omnipresent on Cheshire-based collective Exchecker’s self-titled second EP.

Upon first listen, the Exchecker EP takes the shape of no frills, no spills, plain-and-simple hip-hop from three men who grasp the very origins of the genre. However when deconstructed, the impressive five-track collation of music is anything but clear and straightforward, making its narrator, CStraight, a fascinating prospect for the future. A full-time student performing under the multi-faceted guise of a disparate and nonchalant rapper weighed down by stigmatic insecurities and manifestations of fame and success, CStraight, alongside producers Serge Prycin and Zenith, has delivered an EP brimming with bipolarity that meanders down a winding stream of illuminating consciousness.

On the surface, there’s a portentous Californian essence permeating the trajectory of the sophomore EP. An emphatic opening, Jon Jones builds a sense of anticipation from within the first piano chords, which crescendo into hysteria as CStraight bursts out of the starting blocks and into a fully-fledged flow. Whilst its muffled chorus is ready-made to be screamed out by delirious crowds, the shifting tone to CStaight’s raps homogenises immaculately with the sun-kissed electric guitar embellishments that dance across the backdrop of the piece. Between the chorus’ opaque camaraderie and the glistening beat, Jon Jones feels like a celebration of old-school hip-hop, whilst also sampling The Beatles’ Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds. With the future of the genre under constant scrutiny, it’s oddly refreshing to hear a piece of music that resembles the golden era of the genre, one which unlocks the EP with a self-assured swagger that hinges around the casual narrations of its rapper’s day-to-day exploits.

The collective’s plans of manufacturing a soundtrack for prolonged summer evenings further come to fruition with the likes of The Rumshine and Victory Lap. Taking the boisterous nonchalance of early-1990s hip-hop, The Rumshine seems fit to soundtrack the lavishly produced 1980s stylised crime drama Miami Vice. The stark contrast between the stimulating, fluid opening verses and the schizophrenic, rapid-fire delivery that follows the first chorus is an uncanny yet inviting prospect. Whilst the track’s opening emanates a gentle stroll in the blazing heart, the subsequent bars that follow roll off CStraight’s tongue at the same blistering speed as dashing to a beach cavern and polishing off three tequila shots. Despite the liquid sunshine warmth conjuring memories of The Notorious B.I.G., the single infamously brings back recollections of the glorious British summer of 2018. If ever a track could soundtrack the World Cup and Love Island dominated period in British culture, it would be the booze-heavy, sun-kissed melodies of The Rumshine.

A self-assured announcement of intent, Victory Lap first appears as if it’s being performed by an international bona fide sensation, rather than a rap collective whose career is just starting to develop. A triumphant finale to the EP, lyrics “I’ll cheat, lie, preach, grind, kick and squeal/Till I’m a primetime headline living highlight reel” ring with a raucous bite. Whilst the EP contains its equitable share of formidable, flowing raps, perhaps the smoothest and most concise lyrical offering is saved for the EP’s curtain call finale, which is most certainly a heavyweight performance showcasing the full ability of three individuals whose potential gradually rises the more the EP unravels.

As Victory Lap brings the EP to a vehement climax, you’d be mistaken to think that Exchecker are a one-dimensional entity. Despite the bragging and bravado littered across the sophomore EP, there lies two vitally important yet hidden ripostes against modern British society. The hazy and cinematic Another Day first arises to be centred around the lazy-day meanderings of a jaded twenty-something, idly going about their day with less than a flicker of awareness for the passage of time. Whilst lyrics “I’ve got days to lose and a masochistic agenda to pursue” highlight a self-centred and narrow-minded individual, the likes of “It isn’t an addiction it’s a commitment to the sesh/And I oppress to just to prevent the depression/I won’t address it as a problem ’til my life becomes a shipwreck” act as a lambasting commentary on alcoholism in Britain. What first seems to be a melancholic tale of domesticity deciphers to be a low-key, simmering explosion against drinking culture. By illuminating the modern day passivity that has come to dominate Britain’s relationship with alcohol as well as dissecting how it lies underneath our social culture and how it permeates our collective sub-conscious, Exchecker have gained a renewed emotional maturity unseen on their previous singles. The monotonous lines of “Another day spent at work is another excuse for a beer/Occasionally I think about what that says about me” offer important pockets of self-reflection, and the single as a whole is a thought-provoking contribution whilst appearing soothingly spacious on the cover.

A sharp snapshot into an isolated mind which projects the anxieties and ego-centred dilemmas that warp the psyche of CStraight’s demeanour, Tram is a fierce diatribe tackling the consistent demons of mental health, finding happiness and romance during an archaic millennium and overcoming the barriers of the music industry. Lyrics “I’m so tired, uninspired/Spent nine years trying to be admired” spin with a cagey sense of disarray and bafflement as to how time’s unambiguous nature manages to change both reality and dreams, whilst the likes of “Four cornered room and I’m staring at the candles/Thinking ’bout how they’re probably going to blow out someday” show that even in the mind of a developing adult, death’s lingering presence has an unequivocal grip on even the most blasé of musings. Despite the twisted torment rooted in the single, CStraight’s raps retain a sense of defiance, battling through the towering obstacles that block his path. Lyrics “I’m the instigator, always the detonator” roll off the tongue with a wry smirk to the heavens whilst line “I write rhymes like I’m in a time that needs mine” is a conflictual battle between self-assurance and self-doubt. With a continuous and stirring flow to the vocal delivery, an enchanting hispanic-influenced guitar solo adds a spark of light to a track that seems so conventional upon first listen, but in reality is a smoking tirade against a generation of rising fears and problems.

A collation of personal experience and extravagant daydreaming, the Exchecker EP is a concise and defiant welcome into a new era. For those familiar with previous singles Pogo! and Screeze, you might be instantaneously surprised with the shift in maturity and production quality that filters through the collective’s second EP. Whilst it’s very easy to focus on the weight of delivery of CStraight’s raps, the catalyst that shifts the EP onto a previously unseen level is the exceptional work in the background from the two producers, who have managed to shift a strikingly British-based sound into something that transcends nations and continents. A sense of sleek, perfectly balanced production seems to have deftly fallen onto each individual single yet each track retains a certain independence that allows them to stand out in their own right. There are a few moments in which the flow of CStraight’s raps feels slightly disjointed with the beats, but they are only subtle hiccups that get corrected almost instantaneously. For a developing body of work, Exchecker’s self-titled EP is a surefire sign of serious promise. From start to finish it succeeds as a collective product whilst offering a well-managed balance of juvenile playfulness and indignant social criticism.

The Exchecker EP streams on all platforms Friday 21st June.

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