Review: The Rap Guide to Wilderness

Baba Brinkman’s new eco-conscious hip-hop album is a wild experiment.

In its genesis, hip-hop was a griot’s tale of urban life for black and latino youth in America. Whether it's the snap-hop from Atlanta of the early 2000s, or the rising nerdcore hip-hop of today, it’s safe to say that rap has penetrated nearly every crevice of human existence. So it was only a matter of time until hip-hop and science collided, too. There was a glimpse of this hybrid in 2013, when Wu-Tang Clan member GZA judged a science-focused rap battle for students in New York City. But now, Canadian rapper Baba Brinkman has taken it full throttle with a seven-track EP that’s all about ecology.

Brinkman got his start in hip-hop as a grad student at the University of Victoria; for his thesis he aligned the art of freestyle rapping with 14th-century literature. The unlikely blend set the course for Brinkman’s career. In 2004, he performed a rap-infused version of The Canterbury Tales at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The project’s success led to a show called “The Rap Guide to Evolution” in 2009; it was wildly successful and even landed an off-Broadway run.

In December 2014, Brinkman released a nature-inspired album, The Rap Guide to Wilderness. Brinkman is no rookie when it comes to the topic of conservation; his father founded the Brinkman Group, which has planted more than one billion trees since 1970. For this album, Brinkman also collaborated with the Wild Foundation, a non-profit conservation organization “aimed at reaching out to a totally new demographic of people outside of our wilderness community.”

I’m one of those people, who, incidentally, knows a thing or two about hip-hop, but isn’t too in tune with the trees. While trying this whole “music as a bridge” thing, I wasn’t sure if I was invested in swapping out my black man’s plight for songs about biodiversity. But I was willing to give it a chance. Could this album make a believer out of me?

First, let’s talk about the music itself. Although hip-hop is rooted in the lyrics, production is just as important, and good production is hard to come by. Hard-hitting base and snare, commonly known as the “boom-bap,” is what gives hip-hop its punch; the melodies built around that rhythm is what ushers in the emotions. Most of the tracks on Wilderness were produced by Soulful Spider, a London-based producer best known for remixes of Top 40 singles. The intro track, “Go Wild,” has a reggae-inflected beat, mixed with enthused lyrics and samples of animal sounds. It could have turned out cheesy and predictable, but luckily, the squawking is interspersed so that it perfectly collides with the back beat. Another production gem is “Party of Life,” a song that opens with Cuban drum patterns and lands in the middle of a Sunday church service, thanks to the well-balanced organ. The guest features on the choruses are great, too. Canadian jazz singer Tia Brazda lends her vocals to the hook and makes you feel like you’re in a giant Mardi Gras celebration. “Bottleneck,” meanwhile, plays out like a nature geek’s version of Magna Carta Holy Grail. Singer Sean Ross is the Justin Timberlake to Baba Brinkman’s Jay Z.

Wilderness taut production also sets off how unfocused Brinkman can be lyrically. Similies and punchlines are what make hip-hop a true art form. But some of Brinkman’s songs, like “Never Cry Wolf” and “Bottleneck,” make it sound like he’s reading a PhD dissertation over a CASIO drum track. In 1914, the last passenger pigeon died/in 1865 they still blackened the evening skies/No one thought it would happen to such an abundant species/a broken branch can’t evolve again after it’s deceased,” is one of the unpolished bits in “Bottleneck.” But when Brinkman is on, he’s really on. “Walden Pond,” the strongest track on the album, has a bass-heavy beat that carries the same sort of strut you might find on an Azealia Banks mixtape. Brinkman mixes different flows and cadences, and then introduces a staccatoa double-time style of rapping that has been popular for the last few yearson the second verse. “Walden Pond” brings the concrete jungle to the actual jungle fairly seamlessly. It can even pass as a contemporary radio trackI’ve randomly found myself humming it over the last few weeks.

People are drawn to hip-hop because it narrates their own personal experiences. Will this album induct more people into the nature squad? I doubt it, but I do think it’s a track to conservation education for future generations. Like the chorus of “Seed Pod” says, “We can’t go back to the wild/let’s give it a chance to rebel/Put a seed in the hands of a child/and see what branches out.”

Final thoughts: The Rap Guide to the Wilderness is way more interesting (and intellectual) than anything I’ve ever heard from Macklemore. Thrift shops are cool and all, but Brinkman has me dreaming of lazy Saturdays in the Amazon, where the air smells a lot fresher.