Shell-B is Cooler Than Your Granddad
Originally posted on 3rd October 2016
Shell-B is not just another bling wearing hedonistic hash smoker. His gaze is an observant and scathing critique of moral fabrics.
Currently, in many ways, modern rap verses have accommodated the poetics of living without sacrificing the genre’s overarching upbeat mood, and Shell-B’s sound is a typical specimen of rap that is ruthless in relaying the seriousness of its message, yet still retains a certain recreational vibe. Shell professes a kind of style that reminds you of your childhood Sunday sermons, but it’s not your granddads kind of preaching, its more hip, more impervious to interpretation, its dark and witty. For the first time, I may just have seen someone who could become to rap, what Baldwin was to literature. They share a sympathetic eye, a raw intelligence, a scholarly prescience: Shell-B and Baldwin, the preachers. His tracks — mostly reproduced covers — hover just above the threshold of surrealism and tangibility, always out of reach, but slim in its audience-artiste proximity. To understand Shell, you must share a common understanding of the world, one that is emphatic towards racial divides, enraged at fawning pretence, indifferent towards friendships. “Holy water” — ostensibly, his first original track — is typical of the energies that inhabit fiery sermons, but at the fore of a track propelled by a funereal sense of wisdom, is a type of originality that reminds me of Mos Def, or rather, more commercially, Kendrick.
The opening of “Holy Water” begins with the thick thrum of a grand piano, borrowed from African American church structures and rigorously popularised by black gospel singers like Fred Hammond and R.Kelly. This hook sets a pace for things to come, but also softly eschews the specifics of the track’s concerns. Shell is a creative lyricist, he’s sharp, and hasty, and presents a wealth of deliberate references in his rap. Consider the track’ eponymous title from the following lines: These demons they thirst/I got holy water for they souls. This gentle allusion to Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 is a skewed parody of religious affirmation, and also a brash stab at faith, and because he disseminates his ideas with the scepticism of an open minded agnostic, his verses appear more layered, more nuanced than expected. Shell is not just another bling wearing hedonistic hash smoker. His gaze is an observant and scathing critique of moral fabric. What ties his lyrics to his musical structure is an intense attention to genre, a fresh sound, that fits into the borders of Avant Garde rap.
As the dolorous presence of the opening melodies taper off into a steady hook, the song appears to be framed by a grainy assurance of background detritus, varied by the occasional pulse of lively synths. What makes this track so aesthetically pleasing is Shell’s relaxed attitude and his playful sense of wonder, as if oblivious to his scornful tone. Injecting social satire in rap remains a dicey trick to pull off, many rappers botch it. But surprisingly Shell-B does not botch it, his manner remains honest, unaffected and carries none of the histrionic tendencies of his Avant Garde counterparts.
In what comes as a muffled stint of jumbled verse, Shell belts off perhaps the most iconic lines in the track: I’ve learnt a lot of lessons/People only care about scores not the practice. It’s a climax, but the tonal build doesn’t end there, the beats continue their climb, morphing into a series of cordially arranged hollowed taps, competently spaced out, and eventually surrendering, buckling under the scatter of drums. The delay intensifies as the track progresses, specifically as the track concludes. In the end, the hook appears to skid precariously off the bar line, but the beat remains tightly regulated, fastened together by a string of half-hearted melodies. This technique in a way summarises the intent of the entire song, and accentuates Shell-B’s ability to always be building up to something, a larger argument, a heartfelt punch line. He seems to delight in concealing his point of emphasis, allowing it to stretch and marinate.
Yesterday, Shell, performed at a social event organised at his school. With his cool gait, and dark costume, he appeared like one of the demons he sang about. He had none of the hysteric stage presence we had seen from him in the past, it had been replaced by a subdued and passionate demeanour. Last week, when I asked him about where he was trying to get with his music, he replied with the same solemn intelligence that I had noticed in his rap. While he slaved over a game on his iPhone he explained that he was simply trying to expand his body of work. “It’s like a ladder I’m climbing, and I’m not quite there yet” he said.
While he performed, the print emblazoned on his shirt cut through the dark hall. ZERO NEGATIVITY it read, a motto and brand that he has made popular amongst the students at his school. The middle verse of “Holy Water” reads: Tryna do better when people say impress us/That’s why I’ve been zero negativity impressing. This is a curt sharp jab at us — we demons — long since erecting social constructs, celebrating conspiracies, and tirelessly defining yards for acceptance.