Sole & DJ Pain 1 are back with No God Nor Country, their first collaboration since 2016’s Nihilismo. Hip-hop heads familiar with their work will already know that the duo established themselves as a force to be reckoned with on Death Drive and Pattern of Life (2014). If you dug those releases, then No God Nor Country will not disappoint. Thirteen tracks, the album clocks in at 51 minutes. On first listen it’s apparent that Sole wasn’t kidding when he revealed on social media that he and Pain 1 selected only the best cuts from a trove of material. There are no dead spots on this record. Importantly, No God Nor Country demonstrates — yet again — why DJ Pain 1 is one of hip-hop’s premier producers. His beats, many of which are aurally haunting and border on the sublime, underpin salvo after salvo of Sole’s trenchant raps. Want to avoid a boring review? Then stop here: DJ Pain 1’s production is tight and Sole’s rhyming might be some of his best to date. No God Nor Country is worth your money and limited listening bandwidth. In lieu of a track-by-track breakdown, here are some highlights.
Riffing on N.W.A’s “Fuck tha Police” (as they did on “Fire the Police”), Sole offers up a scathing critique on Amerikkka, past and present. Short for “Fuck the Law” and referencing crucifixes, slave ships, genocide, broken treaties “with so-called Indians,” and world war in the opening verse alone, he succinctly shows how the legal is not necessarily the moral. With so many truth-bombs in such a short span of time, it’s hard to believe the track is just three minutes and nineteen seconds long. Best line: “Rich man in jail, that’s a white whale/Life under a dollar, that’s some blackmail.”
Sole flips the epithet by exposing the conditions of the status quo so many of us live under. As with “F.T.L.,” it is astonishing, and a testament to his skillz, how many themes Sole manages to pack into one song. Need an example? Consider the line “I’d rather hug a tree than a motherfucking cop/Place my faith in a seed than a motherfucking bank.” In just 19 words Sole manages to fuse his anarcho-green politics, his disdain for the fascist police state, his love of gardening, his well-catalogued ire for capitalism, and the precarity of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway (the so-called “Doomsday Vault”) currently under threat from climate changed induced permafrost melt. Seriously, how many MCs pack that much punch into so few words?
Perhaps more than any other track, “Outsiders” shows how Sole manages to find some semblance of hope for overcoming political failure and social decline. Given the disillusionment in post-Obama America amid the smoldering embers of the neofascist Trump administration, that’s no small feat. Offering up a litany of ills, lines like “Standing my ground while the earth caves in” reiterate the importance of not surrendering. The song is a testament to Sole’s longstanding commitment to organizing and the activist-outsiders he’s met on the front lines. If you’ve been in the trenches, this song will land. There’s plenty of self-reflection on this track, evident in lines like “Teach my demons to dance on command, who want to battle?” and “On the shoulders of buried giants we stroll lightly.” I’ll be bumping “Outsiders” while cooking up some sustainable, locally-sourced grub.
“Wrong Side Of The Law”
The rhymes here function like confessionals from two artists who have aligned themselves with contrarian movements committed to countering the moral/political failures of our time. The looped piano riff DJ Pain 1 builds the beat around sonically figures the balancing act required to speak out against the American empire. It’s all here: acknowledgment of the surveillance state, admonishment of the convenience of the Amazon consumer economy, wasted hours immersed in diversions like video games, and references to Emerson, Thoreau, and Hegel as well as the “do’s and don’ts” and the “cans and can’ts.” Sole ties together philosophizers, naysayers, and, most importantly, average people who do the thankless work to bring about change in their communities. While an endless stream of rappers and producers, indie and mainstream alike, celebrate overconsumption, sex, and the fantasies and trappings of power, Sole and Pain 1 fill the void. You may find yourself on the wrong side of the law, but who wants to be right when there’s nothing left?
“Enough w/ Decomposure”
Canadian electronic artist Decomposure (Caleb Mueller) has lent his talents to Sole’s work in the past (see “Capitalism Is Tearing Us Apart”), and his singing on “Enough” ballasts the distorted guitar lines, piano, and sonorous strings Pain 1 layers into the beat. The recurring “never enough” ironically underpins Sole’s rhymes in the second verse to invert the title. There is lots to chew on here, especially in Decomposure’s sung parts in the last half of the song. Singing “burning dreams to keep warm we fight the cold,” Decomposure sets “Enough” alight.
An abbreviation for Death to America, Sole flips the concept, which has obvious political utility to the elected and unelected officials prosecuting America’s illegal War of Terror — in short, they’re the ones undermining the country. Given how some might interpret the song as nihilistically anti-American, the looped line “Welcome to America, we’ll make it out alive” is surprisingly optimistic. It cuts against canonized rock icons who claimed the opposite. (I’m looking at you, Jim Morrison.) Sole suggests we can get out if we want to, but asks listeners to contemplate if they are willing to do the work to make that happen.
“Godless w/ Decomposure”
It’s important to remember the album’s title. The irony in “Godless” is the way Sole couches political engagement in the language of catechism, evident in lines like “The side of me you see is a fighter, a writer, I came here to exile preachers and join the choir.” Is there a more apt way to talk back to the institutions of power that offer salvation but deliver the opposite? Decomposure’s recurring hook “Fuck the good old days/Keep on changing” is not only an example of the album’s positive outlook, but an apt way to counter the empty MAGA rhetoric that enabled Trump’s rise much like the blithe promises of hope and change catapulted Obama to the Oval Office. The anti-icon targets “Godless” posits include politicians and other faux-saviors people too often look to when leaders are the problem.
DJ Pain 1’s strength as a producer shines here. The orchestration is tenuous, and I don’t mean that as a diss. Based around a disarmingly simple loop, he subtly changes up the sonic palette just enough to keep this listener riveted. The handling of the beat is deft, masterful, and mesmerizing, especially the slight effect on Sole’s voice on the last iteration of “Black flags waving” which, as the phrase suggests, alludes to flags ruffling in the wind. In that sense, the title doesn’t refer to clocking in to serve some empty suit at the top of an anonymous corporation, but to the folx on the ground one takes up company with in the project of forging an alternative politics. That’s some time worth clocking.
“Born In The Storm”
Arguably the bleakest track on the record, the frigid piano riff Pain 1 weaves in the mix runs a chill down the song’s spine. The recurring line “born in the storm/I know nothing else so I’ve learned to love it” demonstrates the importance of acceptance to find the type of reconciliation necessary to move forward. With shout-outs to the “northeast and the Rocky Mountain Republic” as well as “the borderlands and the abolishment of it,” Sole calls across the Empire to anyone who feels alienated in the Alien Nation.
That’s it. If you dig on-point political raps that comment on the death spiral of the U.S. corporate caliphate, No God Nor Country is your bag. That said, the record is not a total downer. The undeniable lift in DJ Pain 1’s production style counters the dire subjects Sole raps about. Likewise, Sole (mostly) avoids getting mired in malaise, apathy, and misanthropy. Translation: there’s hope in these tracks, which reflect the fact that Sole has twice become a father since 2014’s Death Drive. Parenthood undoubtedly changes one’s outlook, and I get the impression he’s rapping with his kids’ and our futures in mind. No God Nor Country drops November 18. Support these artists. They deserve it, and you do too.