Album review by Mabel Kwong
EXIT | Luka Lesson
Rap and poetry is a rare combination. Rap is words spoken fast to a beat, coming across as brusque to some. Poetry is words leisurely weaved together that rhyme, regarded by many as steeped in the esteemed echelons of high art. These delivery forms come across as chalk and cheese but the fusion of the two is what Luka Lesson does so seamlessly in his latest album, EXIT.
EXIT uniquely features poetic lyrics rapped to hip-hop beats. On the heels of Lesson’s first album Please Resist Me, the inspirational 12-track offering explores the themes of running, journey and discovery. A self-described spoken word and rap artist of Greek heritage from Australia, Lesson has internationally toured countless writers festivals and performed alongside numerous hip-hop acts.
The concept of staying courageous manifests prominently within EXIT. The opening track ‘Babylon’ touches upon recognising the possible existence of an unethical status quo around us. Against a sitar-driven hook, Lesson muses whether those holding political power exercise their authoratitive privileges responsibly, and if the everyday person’s voice is relevant in shaping structures of governance. Rapping, “I’d risk it all, to kiss the abyss”, he suggests there are chances favourable outcomes arise out of taking risks and standing up against resistance and for our rights.
The notion of persevering in the face of challenges also comes across strongly throughout the album. In the haunting ‘Labyrinth’, Lesson admits we all make mistakes but reckons learning from them makes us stronger: “like a setting sun, my demise is my rise”. ‘Celebrate the Storm’ is dedicated to creative artists, migrants and pilgrims, namely those who are “finding diamonds in the dark” and searching for a sustainable livelihood. With such poetic lyrics rapped, Lesson’s flair for the spoken word clearly stands out.
“We are all displaced in some way. Or feel out of place [in] certain situations. But the album does lean towards the migrant experience: what it means to leave.”
Lesson confidently iterates these themes throughout EXIT. His self-belief in his art – blending poetry, rap and hip-hop – shines through too. This is no surprise. Traveling to Beijing to produce and mix most of the album with American, Jordan Thomas Mitchell, Lesson first-hand experienced the unfamiliar. As Lesson says, this journey turned out to be a physical and emotional one of overcoming insecurities:
“Beijing is a city of 25 million people and in some weird way that really relaxed me into not caring about mistakes or imperfections because my life is really so insignificant in that context. It freed me up a lot to make the album ‘the poet’ wanted to make, I put myself to the side and just trusted whatever was coming out.”
EXIT relates to the migrant life. The typical migrant tends to move cities, uprooting from one place and settling in another, sadly waving goodbye to old faces and apprehensively saying hello to new ones – the challenges of moving. Both sets of Lesson’s grandparents and his mother are Greek migrants to Australia. The multi-talented poet and rapper is no where near shy about his Greek heritage, proudly rapping in Greek on various tracks including lead single 5th Season. He muses a lot of us, even those who are not migrants, should be able to gravitate towards EXIT:
“I think everyone can relate to it in many ways. We are all displaced in some way. Or feel out of place [in] certain situations. But the album does lean towards the migrant experience: what it means to leave.”
The release of this album comes at a time when there is concern about racism infiltrating the Australian hip-hop scene and an increasing celebration of “white Aussie pride” in this industry. Local hip-hop artists frequently adopting broad Aussie accents in their songs and exuding fondness for getting intoxicated and wearing board shorts has attracted a “bogan” audience while alienating those who do not fit this Aussie stereotype or are not white.
EXIT upholds the very opposite of this bogan sentiment and arguably it is the optimism embedded within its tracks that sets it apart from mainstream hip-hop. Aside from reminding us of a silver lining behind every cloud, Lesson openly speaks about faith. On facing challenging times, he raps, “I pray to the grace of God to lay the path” and “read God’s fingerprints like dust on her ceiling” in ‘Labyrinth’ and closing track EXIT respectively.
This is indeed refreshing as faith and religion are literally taboo conservative topics within the hip-hop genre of music. Getting drunk in clubs, being flash with cash and shaking one’s booty are themes cropping up ever so often in lyrics by popular hip-hop artists such as Flo Rida and Lil’ Wayne. In addition, it is uncommon to hear a rapper of Greek descent candidly touch upon faith within his art. Lesson is certainly not a stereotypical shy Australian of ethnic background.
It is worth noting this album may not appeal to a broad section of Australians. As mentioned, the local hip-hop scene is attracting and garnering a specific fanbase. However, there is every possibility the familiar fast-spoken element of rap, relatable message of taking leaps of faith and Lesson’s raw honesty of believing in his art could inevitably draw an audience to it. Moreover, the poet-rapper has a dedicated 200-plus street team all around the world from New York to Hong Kong spreading the word of his music. It is hard to see how EXIT will not go places. On the unconventional approach to the album, he explains:
“I intentionally went into this album as a poet not a rapper. So it doesn’t have the tell-tale signs of the usual hip-hop punch lines and party tunes but it still is obviously a ‘rap’ album in many ways…In the end I’m just being true to my art and what my creativity is telling me to do. I’m not a cookie cutter artist, if I did anything for the sales I’d lose the drive to do it in the first place. And then it would be all over anyway: I’d quit.”
Overall, EXIT is a bold and creative hip-hop album that adds variety to Australia’s hip-hop music scene. The marriage of poetry and rap against the backings of hip-hop rhythms is something out of the ordinary, transcending traditional genres of music. Infused with subtle messages to find the courage to journey into the unknown and acknowledge our roots, the album is definitely one of a kind in a predominantly tired, stereotypical local music scene. Undoubtedly, EXIT is truly a step forwards for Australian hip-hop.