Clairmont The Second Redesigns the Shape of Hip-Hop | 'It's Not How It Sounds'
Evan Dale // July 16, 2020
To the tune of an old school arcade bleed the simplistic, introductory chords of Clairmont The Second’s newest project. Minimal keystrokes, a light-hearted synth progression, and bouncy videogame samples. But, It’s Not How It Sounds. The experimental Toronto trailblazer defies everything about any sort of preconceived hip-hop norm, including his own. So, by the time the instrumental opener comes to a close, It’s Not How It Sounds couldn’t live up to a more fitting titular directive. Bending into its secondary offering, the project instantly removes itself from the minimal, light-hearted, and happily bouncing in favor of the maximalist, violent and bass-heavy braggadocious. And yet, even in its darkest moments – its hardest-hitting slaps – It’s Not How It Sounds is never truly removed from its foundational arcade warmth. Innocence is lost, but that doesn’t mean Clairmont The Second doesn’t still derive his music from roots that blessed him with an unparalleled knack for creating sonic worlds unlike any ever dared to be explored before him. It’s that understanding of sound and its entire journey as it pertains to his creative spectrum that shifts his canon into a certain gear that no one else in rap – in music at large – is able to summon.
The moment hinging the project’s opener, Power / Theme, to its follow-up inclusion, Bent, puts into focus the genuine genius of Clairmont The Second’s compositional ear. He’s not trying to keep his musical ideals a secret. If anything, aside from the shock value of brash juxtaposition and a moment of calming brevity leading into the violence of the forthcoming storm, Power / Theme sets a tone that gives a glimpse to anyone listening exactly from where the project has been conceived. And from that place – that all but forgotten, enchanting essence of low-tech arcading – Clairmont The Second ties in diary entries pulled from a still young lifetime of intensive experiential growth, and an inconceivably prolific portfolio of hyper creative experimentalism reaching from production to raps and vocals. It’s at the intersection of all three that It’s Not How It Sounds subsists; at the hinge point between tracks one and two where that intersection is broken down into its microscopic components before being fused and fluidly transformed for another 20-odd minutes.
Through that time frame, some things are new – even for Clairmont The Second who had seemingly done it all prior to the project’s release. There’s always been an unavoidable edge of confidence sharpening his music to the degree he sees fit, by the standard he expects of himself. When we interviewed him in the wake of 2019 album, Do You Drive?, he spoke on the ideal that ‘in [his] opinion, every album [he’s] made has been ahead of its time.’ With It’s Not How It Sounds, the testaments to his confidence and his groundbreaking musicality ring true. After all, as the arcade chimes of its opener evolve into matured production and the boss-level waves of bass on Bent and beyond, Clairmont The Second – with a signature aesthetic – spits the project’s first line ‘Not about a trick.’ And speaking from the lesser of the line’s two angles, everything about Clairmont The Second works without light and mirrors, instead shrouded by the transparency of the dark edges is music’s most experimental realms, though from a straightforward direction.
Some things are expected. The entirety of It’s Not How It Sounds is undoubtedly a natural progression of Clairmont’s unparalleled tear through music for at this point more than a half-decade, but especially since 2017 when he released Quest For Milk & Honey alongside Lil’ Mont From the Ave. With the addition of Do You Drive? and now It’s Not How It Sounds, no artist in hip-hop has simultaneously grown so much while staying founded in their roots as a one-of-a-kind authority on independent, entirely unique musicianship. And that’s only because nobody else’s roots range so widely in all directions. Clairmont has always had bars, but many of his coldest come to fruition during the most volatile tears of It’s Not How It Sounds. He’s always been a groundbreaking producer, but this project confirms that he’s not only the strongest all-in-one rapper-producer in hip-hop today, but that he’s one of the best rappers and producers, period.
All things are experimental. Like he said last year, ‘[he’s] not just doing regular things, and if [he is, he’s] still doing them differently.’ That quote is not only targeted at the rest of hip-hop music where, to be frank, few if any seem to be capable of doing what he’s doing at the pace he so seamlessly does. That quote is also aimed at his own head. It’s Not How It Sounds – akin to each and every project he’s ever released – though undoubtedly a natural next move for the Toronto artist, is still a stark change of pace from his others. That’s because Clairmont The Second is an experimentalist, a transcendentalist, a scientist pushing for the boundaries he knows don’t exist. And in permanently striving for something new and attainable, he attains it with It’s Not How It Sounds.
Leading singles aside (Dun & Gun Finger), Flip-A-Bird & Mad Selfish are two of the hardest hitting hip-hop anthems of 2020. And they accomplish the feat by inadhering to what anyone in hip-hop is doing with their beats and instead looking towards the impossibly broad swath of electronica. From there – from electronic trap and bass music especially – Clairmont The Second builds foundations that could highlight festivals and warehouse party labyrinths alike. Given his talent with a pen, and his continual growth with his delivery, he dices every beat that comes his way with ease.
And yet, even in consideration of praise for the bangers, there exists in Dream something – somethings – that leave it earmarked as the standout taken from It’s Not How It Sounds. It’s different – even when weighed against the unparalleled difference in permanence with which Clairmont The Second lives his artistic life. For a rapper and producer known to make the ground shake and keep hypnotic hooks dancing in trance through our minds for weeks after we hear them, the idea of a soulful vocal ballad is a heavy risk. But the strength of Clairmont’s artistry carries it with ease. It’s a risk well taken that opens up yet another lane for an artist who seemed to already be doing it all.
And that’s kind of the key takeaway here.
Clairmont The Second has, for years, walked an uncurated, unpredictable path through the grey areas of hip-hop experimentalism. With each subsequent release, he explores a new wave not only for himself, but a wave yet to be ridden by anyone at any point in music’s history. Inventing wildly, stirring unapologetically, Clairmont The Second has only become more dialed and refined in every arena in which he dabbles – rapping, producing, now singing. But as he continues to grow and shine a light on the darkest corners of unexplored, unconceived hip-hop and beyond, it’s key to remember that his keystone and thus the area of his artistry in which he has grown the most, is experimenting with the possibilities of music itself. To that tune, It’s Not How It Sounds is his most – is hip-hop’s most – experimentally successful invention, and to deny it is to misunderstand the greater workings of a musical spectrum that shines brightest even where that light is not the most seen.