Shannon Swords isn't a cuddly dude. He's no Teletubbie, by any stretch of the imagination. If you've seen him playing around town, this 20-something Urbana resident towers over the stage, seeming much taller than his six-footish frame. It surprised me when I interviewed him that he and I were roughly the same height. Maybe he chooses especially short people to be in his band, or maybe it's his gruff rapping style and the way he presents himself (I think he was aviator shades—at night—for the show I caught him in), maybe it's the age-old rapper's preoccupation with appearing tough, or maybe he's just a tall dude. But there's something about him that's just intimidating.
Swords' latest release, Depth, released last week on Heirship Records, does nothing to dilute the intimidation factor. Depth is Swords' first full-length of new material since 2007's Jameson Dreams, and it's a noticeable change in sound from that record. For Depth, Swords created all his beats using live instruments: all of the music you hear on the record is either him or one of his friends or musicians from around town playing, with samples being few and far between. The result: a buzzy, fuzzy, dark album that plays to Swords' skills as a rapper.
Swords' menacing edge actually works in his favor. A lot of the "white boy hip-hop" acts, especially when they opt for live instruments and a full band to make their beats instead of DJs, tend towards a kind of lazy drawling groove that makes you think of weed haze and Jack Daniels and the south. What distinguishes Swords' rapping is his intensity: on Depth he takes this ball of anger that seems to be glowing in his chest, born of frustrations and heartache, and blasts it out with laserlike focus, adroitly spitting rhymes with a skillful flow shooting you from point A to point B in his psyche, barely allowing you time to breathe.
Depth's biggest strength by far is Swords' rapping. He's nimble and creative with his rhymes, and he's equally at home rapping about party themes like beer and girls, or going deeper and rapping about politics and Eastern philosophy. He at times demonstrates a level of self-awareness that raises his rapping into meta-realms: the first lines he raps on the record are "I'll start this off by saying that this record's probably never dropping;" elsewhere he raps about the guitar he's playing.
The song that best showcases Swords' rapping abilities is "This Machine Kills Fascists," a song stripped of music that sounds like a freestyle and ping-pongs between a chest-thumping up-by-the-bootstraps hip-hop boast and a political manifesto, walking the knife-edge between incomprehensibility and evocative poetry that only good rappers can keep from falling off. Lots of internal rhymes and end rhymes and verbal trickery here, a perfect primer for Swords' skills.
The instrumentals on Depth are solid, simple, and adequate as a nice backdrop for Swords' rapping. On his website, Swords likes to talk a lot about how his latest record is a hybrid of indie rock and rap, which I think does his skills as an emcee a disservice. The music is classic four-piece rock band crunch, and when it's at its best, like on "That Kinda Week," "Hell and High Water," and "Evil Empire" (which actually has a for-real guitar solo), the distorted, almost Western-movie-soundtrack guitars create an atmosphere of menace and dark groove that goes nicely with Swords' rapping. In the other tracks in Depth the instrumentation is unobtrusive, providing good beats for Swords' to rap to and for us to groove to. There's nothing really bad or off about the music, it's just not groundbreaking, which is fine.
The caliber of Swords' rapping is so impressive that Depth falters when the spotlight is off of him. A few of the tracks feature guest vocalists, and these are my least-favorite tracks on the album. It's a good thing to have guest singers on your songs, especially when as an emcee you're not doing any singing yourself, but the few tracks which feature guest vocalists take the focus away from Swords' strength: his snarling delivery and the minimalist crunch of the music. Pulled away from this center the songs wobble; the guest singers' vocals are buried in the mix, and seem to be trying to give a jazzier vibe to the songs, which isn't in keeping with the rest of Depth's bluster and bravado.
According to Swords, Depth came from a dark period of his life, and the album's resultant vibe is an echo of the sounds in that dark place. On Depth, Shannon Swords shows us that instead of curling up in a ball and taking it, there's another way to deal with those times when life seems to be doing nothing but crapping on you. And that way is defiance, standing up and looking the darkness in the eye, lashing out at whatever shit life puts in your way. This seems like a pretty good strategy to me, and it results in some damn fine music.