It’s not necessary to listen to all of Jam Baxter’s catalogue of releases, a remarkably consistent ten in ten years, to understand that the North London rapper is a master of his craft. The meticulous craftsmanship of his lyrical wordplay often appears at odds with the debauched, gruesome content – but the marriage of the two is what makes his artistry truly unique. On his tenth studio album ‘Touching Scenes’ Baxter refines the lewd depravity of Mansion 38, his previous project, moulding it into a more coherent reflection upon life in the urban underbelly.
The album feels like a protracted struggle between lucidity and cloudy intoxication, with Baxter’s characteristic drawl sometimes punching through the stupor with visceral urgency. As ever there is a heavy dose of drugs and alcohol with every serving, from bleak reflections on his own struggles with substance abuse, to coarse gritty portraits of the lives of other urban stragglers. The tone throughout is sorrowful and reflective, but with a bitter sense of inevitability; on the opening track ‘Guillotine’ he raps ‘my drinking problem got abandonment issues/ I pass it an absinthe and a handful of tissues’. Both the content and the sound are the antithesis of American hip-hop, a self-deprecating diatribe during which Jam Baxter sounds frequently disgusted with himself, all over a selection harsh, discordant beats.
That abrasive sound is the perfect setting for the scenes into which Baxter draws us. Long-time collaborator Chemo is assisted by producers GhostTown, Last Japan, Sumgii and Sam Zircon and they create a controlled chaos that seems to be a sonic representation of the rappers mental state. Refusing to be constrained by style or genre, the MC embroils us in a maelstrom of wordplay, seamlessly slipping similes into his complex word-pictures over both the grimey, the trappy and everything in-between. On the Chemo produced ‘S.S.A’ for example, Baxter clearly cuts through the haunting beat, formed by a melange of chimey synths, cymbals, eerie vocals and drumkit. The lyrical content references the related chaos of the rapper’s daily life – Strong Swimmers Anonymous (S.S.A) metaphorically refers to Baxter and his friends trying to stay afloat in ‘the Pacific’: ‘If it wasn’t for the pints of salt water and the killer whale contingent/ I’d be adamant that all was all idyllic’.
The lyrical gamesmanship is equally sharp throughout, though Baxter does not always rely on metaphor to tackle his or society’s problems. On ‘Guilty’ he rhymes “He sidled up to me at some disgusting diner/ slipped a baggie in my pocket, counted every crusty fiver/ the acid in his voice is what was pecking at my soul/ man I guess you could dissolve a dead body in this cunt’s saliva” – just one component of the gloomy pastiche that the High Focus rapper builds with his bars. Storytelling is often where Jam Baxter seems to be most at home, particularly on this album, creating rich tapestries of detail with his lyrics and often incorporating his own wonderfully British brand of grim humour. The closing track ‘Husk II’ tells the story of a man leaving a brothel and a parasitic growth that grows on Baxter’s finger, weaving the two scenes together with the last couple of lines. It’s a riveting near five minute journey told with the skill of a novelist and the panache of a playwright; the line “he used to marinade in bliss, now he marinates in piss/ with a urethra full of ether like a sack of flailing fish” might never appear in a Murakami novel, but it paints a picture so vivid you can almost smell the piss-soaked city alleys.
This seems to be the intent of the album, an effort to chronicle the kind of life that is overlooked by mainstream media; the lows of depression, alcoholism and addiction that are the reality for so many in our ever more unequal cities. The title, Touching Scenes, is heavy with irony – the eponymous skit in the middle of the album describing such ‘touching scenes’ as “coughing up your lungs and spleen”. It’s not pretty or pleasant but Jam Baxter shows us through his visceral description that it’s undeniably real – and he makes it a pleasure, albeit an uncomfortable pleasure, to listen to.
Rating – 3.5/5
Standout tracks: Guillotine, S.S.A, Mask