Magical realism and Atlanta soul.
It’s not often that magical realism seeps into hip-hop music, but one trip to Mirrorland plays out like a fairy-tale on acid. The imagery is vivid with musical influences unconventional enough to cast immersive spells. Having compared the inception of their Dreamville debut to Frank L. Baun’s The Wizard Of Oz, it’s no wonder that EarthGang’s long-anticipated album is alive with synesthetic bursts of technicolor. At the center stands West Atlanta, the Kansas to Wowgr8 and Olu’s Dorothy, providing Mirrorland with a reflection on which its world’s rules can be built. Nothing is too far from reality, and yet, we’re still comfortably entrenched in Salvador Dali territory.
Luckily, our visit is anchored by two magnificent tour guides. Both Olu and Gr8 possess encyclopedic knowledge of the titular realm, down to its sights, smells, and denizens. This album has not been thrown together in a matter of haphazard months. Instead, the course has been plotted in a meticulous fashion befitting of true visionaries; though rappers are oft judged on criteria like lyricism and flow, patience should not go uncelebrated. It’s been a long time coming since the EarthGang pals were laying vocals in the Spillage Village headquarters, hitting every stage that would have them. Now, with J. Cole standing firmly in their corner, the golden gates of Mirrorland have been opened to the masses.
Album opener “LaLa Challenge” sets the stage with a strange instrumental, inviting with the slightest hint of unpredictability. Simulated accordions and bubbling bass make for a lush combination, lackadaisically bopping beneath Olu’s ringmaster swagger. As his verse progresses, the depths of his vocal prowess are glimpsed; he appears to alter his cadence with little effort as if turning a soul-dial. It’s unfair yet somewhat appropriate to call Wowgr8 the straight-man to Olu’s eccentric dandy, though he’s far from a square. He slides through with a slick flow, cognisant of his personal history and the perils of his environment: “Came from the slaves and the sharecroppers, sang with bravado,” he raps. “Hang with some thugs that be changin' some diapers, still don't take shit, take aim at your collar.”
The madcap sermon continues with “Up,” a frantic encounter that finds both parties going off in their own unique fashion. It’s interesting to examine EarthGang as lyricists. They’re never quite heavy on the “BARS,” though their words remain impactful through strong imagery and emotional directness. Never is there room for bullshit. Both men have been through the trenches, have felt love and loss; songs like “Swivel” highlight the latter, the serene and meditative “This Side” the former. Context is an integral piece of the puzzle. A message may have held a different meaning altogether if positioned earlier in the tracklist. As our trusted guides, EarthGang are content to provide freedom to roam within their playground, complete with peaks and valleys, ripe with scenic photo-ops. Loathe though an OutKast comparison may be to the wholly original duo, there are shades of ATLiens to be found on Mirrorland. Not only in their particular brand of abstract poetry, but in their approach to pacing and album structure. It’s most evident in the final quarter, in which things slow down considerably. Never quite to a crawl, but rather an ethereal float.
That’s not to say our journey ever stagnates. The men alternatively known as Dot and Venus see to that, making sure to leave a trail of surprise breadcrumbs at every turn. As emcees and vocalists, both bring much to the table, remaining evenly matched with equal screentime throughout. As narrators: they build trust early on, leaving us content to be guided wherever they so choose. Rest assured, the versatility astounds. The hard-hitting “Bank” feels unique in such an unfamiliar setting, though close kin to Atlanta’s signature sound. The grandiose, swirling “Tequila” pairs a sample from The Budos Band's "Nature's Wrath” with a wholly relatable Wowgr8 chorus; throw in a closing verse from the stalwart Teddy Pendergrass for good measure, this one is incredible. All the while Olu’s musical fingerprints, with fibers of jazz and soul entrenched within his DNA, render this one white beneath a blacklight. A truly impressive talent, he holds it down with production on four tracks while no shortage of live musicians contribute additional flavor, laying down everything from guitar to brass.
Simply put, no other act could have delivered something like this. A seamless marriage between the practical and the imagined. These are no flights of fancy, but stories to be unpacked and analyzed through a variety of lenses. The strange thing is, it's almost certain that one will only evolve with time. Rating albums as nuanced as Mirrorland feels like a futile endeavor, as it feels designed for repeat visits. It's entirely possible that a fifth listen will leave a different impression altogether.