The final weeks of 2016 saw a spate of high-profile hip-hop releases drop from the likes of Run the Jewels, J. Cole, Little Simz and Roy Woods, but also the latest full-length from under-the-radar MC DillanPonders. The Toronto rapper has been putting out music for the past five years, but recently spent a year re-calibrating in the wake of personal hardships and a period of homelessness.
At a time when many Toronto artists are cribbing moody melodic cues from Drake and The Weeknd, Ponders stands out for his raspy freneticism, disdainful attitude toward commercial fame and psychedelic aesthetic that is more classically Kensington Market than Codeine Crazy in condoland. (“Moved past spending every night at Cold Tea,” he raps on stand-out song Hercules.)
That’s not to say the 12-track Acid Reign – his sharpest and most reflective effort to date – is completely disconnected from current musical trends. Its sonic palette is dark and austere, emphasizing eerie atmospherics through heavy bass, sputtering drum rolls and melancholy riffs and melodies, while lyrics grapple with themes of alienation, trust, friendship, family and self-actualization.
Gosling uses references to Canadian actors to frame Ponders’s own come-up struggle; Mandem and Waste Mon pore over the best and worst types of friendships; and Back Street Boy takes on status. Acid Reign falls flat when Ponders is either too on the nose about his woes (“Why is my generation so blind?” he asks on Crying Robots) or fluffy (the sluggish banger Go Daddy Go).
Although the picture you get is of an artist soul-searching in that grey zone between youth and adulthood, Ponders’s ferocity and cleverness overcomes the album’s more generic production moments and keeps him at a safe distance from self-indulgent sad boy territory. He comes at verses with an aggressive, punk energy that is undercut with precise bursts of staccato and double-time flows, pointed punchlines and tight concepts.
Top track: Hercules