As the first rapper signed to Jack White’s label, Third Man Records, New York native SHIRT generates more than enough interest to more than overwhelm the remote anonymity he carries himself with. A rapper from Queens, studying a Masters in Fine Art in Europe, with a strong conceptual dedication threatening to cherry pick from the great and good of rap history is exactly the sort of thing you might be tempted to throw your Seven Nation Army dollars at. It’s a strong proposition.
‘Pure Beauty’ gets off to an unconvincing start, ‘Snow Beach’ introducing a solid flow to a languid jazzy backing and not doing all that much else. The glitchy steel drums of ‘Climate Change’ vie with the delivery while ‘Energy’ offers 90 seconds of distorted violin noise and recorded speech before breaking out into potentially the best track on offer. There’s a distinct effort to be intriguing and mysterious, like SHIRT is taking each track as a singular exhibit in the gallery of ‘Pure Beauty’. His willingness to collage these element is always encouraging, even if the result doesn’t quite live up to the billing. Rap’s oddball extreme is experiencing one of the greatest golden eras in recent music history, with the likes of Tyler, The Creator, Vince Staples and Danny Brown constantly rewriting the rules on just how far you can take it. Even in 2018 Earl Sweartshirt’s own brand of impeccable misery looms large as a potentially incredible album. As a new player in the game, SHIRT faces a daunting challenge from the off. Each track rolls on by as the sketch of something intriguing but sometimes without the development to take it beyond another pad destined for the back of a drawer. There aren’t quite enough hooks to unite some of the more exciting experimentalism, but when SHIRT does throw them it’s not certain that they land. ‘Woman is God’ veers unnervingly close to how Kanye audibly dissects the word ‘God’ in ‘I am a God’, as SHIRT assures us “I make a lot of harsh references to fucking bitches, but that shit never comes from disrespect”. It’s just one emblem of the fairly consistent theme that SHIRT can’t decide whether the wants to be an introspective bedroom artist or a hook-laden sweaty basement one. Even lead single ‘Flight Home’ boats an awkward comparison of performers abroad and refugees, coming off as 1-part Ye’s ‘New Slaves’ and 9-parts plain tap water over beats borrowing heavily on a Clams Casino-produced, early A$AP Rocky vibe. Even the most abstract pieces of art, from Joseph Beuys to Gerhard Richter hang off a central value, something only seconds from resonating. A perspective worth finding, a moment worth capturing. SHIRT seemingly promises this, at points even nudges towards it, but thirteen tracks in the only real question is ‘Pure Beauty’ something we were ever truly meant to find? Big things haven’t been delivered yet, but that doesn’t mean to say big things can’t be.