There’s a phrase that’s been bandied around for a while that rappers are the new rockstars, and looking at the current state of both scenes in question, it’s difficult to really refute such claims. Compared to the safe, whitebread hole that mainstream rock has dug itself into for way too long, there’s hip-hop to be found that’s heavier, more visceral and has more to say even on the fringes of commerciality. Just look at Ho99o9, the New Jersey duo fusing dark, heavy noise-rap with fragments of hardcore and punk, seeing them earn plenty of buzz thanks to numerous well-received singles and mixtapes, and being branded with some not-entirely-objectionable Death Grips comparisons.
But looking at this debut full-length United States Of Horror, it feels as though a lot of the cannibalistic, unfettered nihilism of their previous material has been ironed out in favour of something a lot more stark and fully-formed, the sort of thing that was expected from a full project from the duo, but the last thing that long-term Ho99o9 fans would have wanted. That’s not to say that this is a bad album though; far from it, as it’s easily the most fleshed-out and uniquely identifiable that Ho99o9 have ever been. And that’s all while keeping things to a level of almost uncomfortable rawness, too. Just look at first track proper War Is Hell, with its thick, oppressive buzzes of synths, a guitar line that’s so distorted it’s almost unrecognisable and theOGM and Yeti Bones’ breathless semi-raps. Elsewhere there’s the squealing synths over Splash‘s heavy trap beat, the warping, atonal bass notes of Moneymachine and the genuinely skin-crawling interlude When Death Calls that prove that, while Ho99o9 may have streamlined the most reckless elements of their sound for something that’s a bit more fitting for a full-length album, the sense of dread that they create is still very much there.
If there’s a real problem to be found here, it’d probably be the album’s consistency. Ho99o9 have never been very good at fusing the punk and hip-hop elements of their sound, preferring to keep each in isolation, and while this could be easier to overlook on their mixtapes which were slapdash and fragmented by design, in the context of a full project, it doesn’t work nearly as well. As such, tracks like Sub-Zer0 and City Rejects which stay on their punk side feel basic and kind of run-of-the-mill in comparison with their hip-hop material, and though New Jersey Devil‘s heavier, almost metallic instrumentation packs a far greater wallop, there’s nothing else about that track that’s even close to being as memorable. Stepping back and looking at United States Of Horror, it really is all over the place, feeling less like a full, cohesive album and more a collection of songs that are perilously close to falling apart under their own dissonance. And with various interludes that only drive them apart further – the haunting banshee wails of When Death Calls; the soul-rap of Feels Like… that isn’t too far removed from J. Cole; the nightmarish ASMR tapping of Blaqq Hole – this album can frequently be daunting to take in, particularly on a first try.
Really, where the pair manage to coalesce their ideas is in the album’s lyrical content, the area where longtime Ho99o9 fans were the most worried, given the heavier focus on social commentary over pure, unprovoked destruction. However, the direction that they go in can be easily compared to what Body Count did on Bloodlust earlier this year, highlighting the struggles that African-Americans face by subverting the expectations of those who they’re standing against and accentuating their worst impulses. Hydrolics sticks almost unwaveringly to the exorbitant, braggadocious trap template that’s fairly commonplace nowadays, only to have that front shattered with the oncoming police sirens and gunshots, while Street Power and Face Tatt temper the violence of their lyrics with spoken samples concerning humanity and hip-hop escapism and hedonism, the usual scapegoat for the unwarranted stereotypes surrounding violence in the black community. It all comes together in the title track, smoothing out the edges even further for a rumbling beat, and resting on the sentiment “if you want peace, be ready for war”. It’s the song that first spurred on the initial worry about where Ho99o9 would go on this album considering how different it was to anything they’d previously done, but in its wider context, it makes a lot more sense. It sees Ho99o9 abiding by their very own message, making a sacrifice in order to achieve something greater, and something that will serve them better in the long term.
With regards to this album, that can easily sum it up neatly. United States Of Horror is the product of an act who are well aware of the direction they need to go in to reach that next step, and have done so without compromising too much of what made them such a formidable prospect in the first place. It’s still an unholy mess from top to bottom, but there’s finesse to how it’s done. This is easily Ho99o9’s most fully-formed, fully-functioning project to date, the sort of crossover album that’ll never break through from the underground, but shows a hip-hop / rock mashup that actually feels exhilarating and dangerous, just as it did in its early days. If nothing else, United States Of Horror is more in touch with the times than any album you’re likely to hear this year.
For fans of: clipping., Show Me The Body, XXXTENTACION
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘United States Of Horror’ by Horror is released on 5th May on Toys Have Powers.