July 30th, 2015 | Album reviews

Heads on Sticks

Even for a rapper known for using his art to bring a very unique American experience to the public eye, Heads on Sticks is extremely personal and extremely bleak, one of the grimmest and most tortured-sounding albums Michael Nhat has yet recorded. And there’s not a lot of redemption here: Michael, accompanied by synth riffs that could have been rejected from Castlevania by child psychologists for being in a key too minor for minors, segues from growing up poor and Asian in Iowa, to witnessing a rape as a teen, to blaming his mute brother for a childhood crime, to a very grim and specific account of trying to kill himself as a young person by gobbling up rat poison. Even his cover song, “To Bring You My Love,” by PJ Harvey, is accompanied by Death Grips-style beats slowed down to half tempo, like it could have been the diary entry for a ne’er-do-well such as himself during those tragic 90s days. And when he’s not talking about his own horrors, he’ll go back even further, to the primordial ooze from whence he came, his ancestors in Vietnam and Cambodia and the atrocities they received at the hands of the U.S. military during the Vietnam War, as in the radio-friendly title “Jesus Was a Gook.” It’s at this point that most rappers would contrast their hard-knock past with their glorious present, but here perhaps Michael is at his least observant, rapping about rejection from the rap establishment and even from Asian blogs, when the truth is, the rappers he (perhaps) aspires to to be like—folks like Busdriver, for example–spend far more time crunching tight packets of dense rhyming words together; Michael, however, often rhymes a word with itself or skips the rhyme altogether, the story being more important than the method of telling it. Just because you pick and choose what rules you follow doesn’t mean you’re not playing the game, son! Yet I really hope this time that Michael does find a home for his rap in the pantheon of local hip hop artists—as it is, this is a work that stands naked and defiant above most of the lyrical works around him, proving true the adage that the personal is political.

—D.M. Collins