Look at the cover of Mike Ladd’s Welcome to the Afterfuture. It’s an awful electrical mess, superimposed onto old building walls. Ladd’s music reflects the artwork with chunky, pharmaceutical beats that sneak past dim strings. It’s nasty New Orleans bounce with lyrics about listening to bootlegs of the Fall. And even though it looks kinda like a Marlboro ad, it’s still a dope cover.
The record starts with “5000 Miles West of the Future,” violently switching up from an analog keyboard assault to a sweeping ambient flow and back again, all while jazzy horn progressions seep through the background and make like Sun Ra handwriting. Ladd’s rhymes onAfterfuture are at their most conversational, especially in breaks where he casually explains, “I’m gonna steal from the foreign merchant…/ For the cinnamon peeler’s wife…/ Like I was bedding down with Isis.”
As the buzzing keyboard stabs fade out, “Airwave Hysteria” begins, and the rest is swapped for rising strings and faux-Hindu chants, drifting yet again into some funky, bugged-out Casio shit over which Ladd first hits his lyrical stride, MCing with self-assured flow and coming with dense rhyme content to match (“Breakbeats from Thailand down over by the Ku Klux Klan chapter in Croatia/ We’ve come a long way from migrating crustaceans/ Generations of relations, history of violence/ I talked along in Babylon, next time I’ll try silence”). Unlike many poet-turned-MCs, Ladd manages to go off like a motherfucker, and it all ends with a classic scratch breakdown, cut open with more of those damned trilling strings of his.
“Planet 10” breaks from these jams to bust on the simple beauty of a simple song, an intricate nautilus of synth tones and deep-space vocals stretching over junkyard ambience to some kind of nappy-haired slow-grind trajectory. Fuck neo-soul, this is post-soul, only somehow better than something called that should ever be.
Nothing else here really touches these first three tracks, but the rest comes close– the lilting rush of the mostly instrumental “Takes More than 41,” and the slow-to-start “To the Moon’s Contractor,” a song more summery than its interstellar title might lead you to believe. “I Feel Like $100” sounds like Warp Records unfavorites Red Snapper with actual forward drive and rhythmic interest, even with its dodgy “Strawberry Fields” reference.
Amazingly, Ladd goes for delf on every cut except the Company Flow-assisted “Bladeruners,” a violent fucking storm of next-level racial and sexual articulation, wide string samples criss-crossing like frozen rivers, and a plodding organic bassline. It’s perhaps the closest to rap traditionalism the album ever flirts with– something for BET to sneak in on that lazy Thursday afternoon to give you a Videodrome-style brain tumor.
“It’s all confused and beautiful” are the lines Ladd chooses to open “Feb. 4 ’99 (For All Those Killed by Cops),” and it’s exactly that. Besides Ladd’s waxen imagery of childhood memories, the lyrics are mostly befuddling and his delivery is unconvincingly wide-eyed enough to fuel a thousand Björk videos. I know good and well that Ladd’s trying to make this closing track a “Strange Fruit” for a future of money, women and computers, and I’ll be damned if he doesn’t actually come shockingly close. It’s a stunning end to the album.
For all the obvious influences (“Starship Nigga” is pretty much just Björk’s “Pluto” instilled with spaced-out black rage), the album still manages to sound pleasantly new, taking all the bits from the past that demand to be resurrected, and recontextualizing them into Ladd’s own brainspace. Of course, this sort of thing has been done before, but I can’t think of anything that’s ever sounded as genuinely beautiful at the same time. It’s all the wires from the liner notes covering children while they spread Christ-like onto antique brownstones. It’s the genius of Ezra Pound and Greg Nice over tinny, rolling drums, and the awkwardness of my first paragraph over beautiful dimethicone symphonies. It’s Mike Ladd assembling his personal afterfuture over the ramshackle remains of a distant past. Fresh!