So-called “conscious” hip-hop has fallen off in recent years, and that’s because it rapidly becomes a cliche. It’s basically the slam poetry of rap music – and that sort of relentless #staywoke reflection is easy to lampoon. This makes it difficult for new lyrical thinkers to break through, but on his new tape “How Gardens Grow,” Kentucky rapper Allen Poe proves that some are worth reading beyond the cover.
Poe’s introspective style and soulful voice smack of early Lupe Fiasco or Common (who he samples on “Sundazed”), and by hearkening back to the days before both those rappers sucked, Poe gives himself an instantly relatable foundation to work off of. This is his second free mixtape of 2014 – following January’s “A Pocket Full of Ohms” – and the Basement Up affiliate shows serious progression. As much is evident on “Want You Sometimes,” in which Poe plays storyteller, narrating a cohesive, fluid story of love and reluctance.
The production on the album (which comes courtesy of 13 different minds) isn’t overly ambitious, and it fits the album well, allowing Poe plenty of presence. Steady snares and riffing guitars supplement the tracks without ever subverting the flow at work. An uneasy trend in modern rap is that producers will prop up weak songs on outstanding production, and the reverse is far too common in the underground, but “How Gardens Grow” confidently walks the line between them. It’s symbiosis, and it serves Poe well.
Not all of Poe’s words are heavy. He allows himself to have fun without exploiting the typical rap memes, getting jazzy on “Lookin’ for Sumthin.” So, it’s nice to see a clear-headed rapper not taking himself too seriously. Levity is always welcomed in the hip-hop genre, but that doesn’t mean all substance needs to be abandoned – something that Poe seems to intuitively understand.
“I ain’t make a fly record that could cross over,” he raps on “Places,” “I made my perspective into what I felt sober.” Now, that might read like a backpacker-ism, but look beyond the stereotypes, because here is a rapper worth going deep for.