In high school, there were bellows about “one of the best lyricists” in Pretoria. These weren’t words from people who followed mainstream musical trends but rather, the words of trustworthy Hip-Hop heads (cause even the plug needs a plug). We took to the time to find out if he’s as talented as previously spoken for. Wolph Gnarly’s “Leviathan”. Upon reading the album’s title, I began to think about a sea monster referenced in the Book of Job, Psalms and Isaiah. Rap Religion, ain’ it? Well, the name alone had dark undertones and I had a slight intuition that a monster was unleashed.
The project starts with “Intro”. The song narrates Wolph robbing someone of their possessions and attempting to run from police. The concept is executed faultlessly. The opening skit is so well done that it could’ve fit into a “Get Rich Or Die Trying” scene. In fact, the song’s message correlates perfectly with idea of getting rich or die trying. On a dark jazz beat, Wolph runs rampage. His dark cadence and daunting delivery style combined with thorough storytelling create an illustrious marriage with the jazz-infused production. High rhyme density, continuous flow changes and vivid vocabulary use – this is astonishing. The thematic cohesion is special and the production is immaculate. A piano plays a fast jazz swing styled melody followed by boom-bap era drums. Simple but effective. This is how you start an album. Within two minutes and five seconds, I already knew that this was going to be an experience.
“Dead Beat”. Already amazed by the lyricism and storytelling in “Intro”, I was hoping for a continued lyrical assault. I wasn’t disappointed but you know what sets him apart? His ear is godly. The production is incredible. The cool production mixes 60s’ modal jazz with Wolph’s aggression. The resultant is a well-balanced masterpiece. His skill set is absurd. Knowing him in my earlier days in school, I didn’t expect much from him. However, I was dumbfounded by his clear musicality and vivid lyricism. Articulating himself powerfully, he rhymes “Listening to Kurt Cobain, my brain go bang but I know his teen spirit still lingers in pain”. His content is filled with depth and rawness. Besides his excellent narrating, he shows his dark wordplay is also dazzling. With dark production and obscure yet humour-filled lines like, “I sniff that white, I’m sure that Michael Jackson knows [nose]”– Wolph reminds me of Earl Sweatshirt. Stacked wordplay, menacing humour, gloomy melodies and introspective lyricism.
“Doodles” is more upbeat than the prior songs. Less melancholy and it’s needed for variation. Wolph teams up with James Crook and Kayos. There’s a distinct sense of creative harmony between the artists as they all attempt to impress. James’ hook is witty, catchy and interesting. “At your funerals like, ‘what you do to hoes?’/ Drawing doodles of their boobies in the cubicles/ Tryna make a musical, oh you’re beautiful/ Try to shoot but don’t. This a movie roll!” It’s easy to spot MF DOOM’s influence – the intricate internal and external rhyming, wit and use of assonance. Wolph has fun with his verse as he exhibits profound wordplay and lyricism. He still manages to continue the expressive dark nature of the project whilst taking shots at the public’s perception of the archetypal “rapper” from Pretoria.
“GUNdi” is a lyrical masterpiece. “I’m doing pretty good as far as geniuses go”. Wolph pays homage to Kanye West on “Barry Bonds”. Yet again, great production as Wolph raps on a light melody fused with boom-bap drum patterns. Genius? Nah but he beyond nice with it. His rhyme density is ridiculous. He’s closer to polysyllable rhyming than multisyllabic. He uses multiple internal, offbeat and external rhyme schemes – it’s heavy and complex. He does this while cohesively rapping about God, his struggles and anxiety. Mainstream South African heavyweights wouldn’t stand a chance. Although, I’ve known him for years, due to his skill, it feels like a whole new experience. I’m lost for words. Towards the end of “GUNdi”, a voice message from Naomi (his female interest) plays with a loop of the next songs instrumental in the back. In this message, she tells Wolph to stay away from her. This created a climax within seconds and made me very eager to hear the next song.
“Naomi” is glorious. Knowing Naomi finds Wolph quite creepy, I was eager to hear how he responds to the news of the breakup. This is a different take on a ‘love song’, the concept is superb and the implementation is special. It’s hard to imagine someone being able to articulate their heartache (that turned out to be a game of cat and mouse, in fact - an obsession) so creatively. Sonically, it’s exhilarating. His storytelling is intense. “Naomi, I tried to call but you didn’t answer. See his name up on ya status. Getting madder, getting angry. Know I’m sad. No, I’m not… try get out this fucking box. Emotions scared, my mental thoughts? I need a j and you’re the spark.” This is just beautiful. Tying in wordplay while telling the story intricately. In addition, the production evokes feelings of nostalgia. A piano plays the melody, a short yet powerful motif. That motif alongside some gratifying drums forms the basis for Wolph to bare his soul. I don’t understand how he could turn heartache into something so beautiful. Love is fucking crazy.
“Diamonds” is impressive because of Wolph’s chemistry with Pxsh and James Crook. The production is reminiscent of College Dropout era Kanye West. Chipumksoul technique, great sampling, progressive chords and boom-bap. Pxsh, Crook and Wolph’s verses are head turning. They use different styles but they’re all imposing and lyrically impressive. It’s as if these verses were on their minds for years, plotting on their time because they sound so raw. They’re opening their souls and showing us their ambition, fear and struggles. Using diamonds in various contexts, they shine. Like “Pac when he’s spitting truth.”? I can hear that.
“Classroom Blues” is twofold. The first half is commanding and threatening as Wolph rhymes viciously – trying to prove his worth on a hard beat. It’s dope. However, there’s an instrumental switch. The second half follows the nature of the song title. The production is slow and calm. An electric guitar plays a beautiful melody. Relying heavily on the bent notes, a simple mixture of a I-IV-V progression and a minor blues scale. It’s so simple but it works effectively with Wolph’s fast paced rhyming style and his dark cadence. “If I drink that Molotov I know some feelings coming through, only when that bottle popped I know that she can tell the truth. They told me to bring some pot we smoking doobies after school. Hold up, don’t blow my high. You see me in the evening news. That classroom blues, that classroom blues” It’s a catchy hook and good narrating.
“Snuff/Tom” just shows how hard he truly he is. He’s a wordsmith. Whether on slow or fast beats, he’s able to adjust his flows well. The first half is calm and slow. Contrastingly, the second half is upbeat and quick. On the first, his flow is crispy and his delivery style is outstanding. On the second, he uses a double time flow with high rhyme density and offbeat rhymes. His use of figures of speech is glaring and show-stopping. It’s scintillating to hear him rap his ass off like this. His guest feature, Emamk, somehow manages to match Wolph. With belligerence in his tone, he came for war. He also uses a double flow but his delivery style is more expansive. Emamk is impressive and he proves his worth. Just listen and you’ll be astounded.
“Callin’ Out” is glorious. On a dark instrumental, reminiscent of RZA’s production, Wolph runs wild. Whether focusing on his flow, delivery, lyricism, content or musicality – he excels in every facet. He has EVERY right to boast about skill. Most MCs wouldn’t even survive against a lyricist of his kind. “Chicken Shit” sees James Crook allowed the chance to steal the show. Crook rhymes his ass off. It’s a dope interlude that allows another great wordsmith prove himself. Sharp wordplay and an aggressive flow, Crook doesn’t allow the beat a chance to live. Songs like “Level Minded”, “Hennessy” and “Oh Jeez” are testament to James and Emamk’s undeniable skills and their chemistry with Wolph. Wolph always gathers the right feature and it’s a skill that many MCs can’t master. On “Hennessy”, “Nasty” and “Office” – Wolph shows he’s a force to be reckoned with. He rhymes with real emotions on response educing instrumentals. Cool cadences and ferocious lyricism, Wolph shows ticks all the boxes as MC.
Falling into romantic cohesive story of his love, “Naomi Pt. II (Infatuation)” and “Naomi Pt. III (Peeping Tom)” conclude the story. The second instalment is jazz-infused. I appreciate the orchestra being used as harmony in the background. It’s marvellous sonically. Flawless boom-bap acts as great underpinning for Wolph to rhyme. Wolph’s complex storytelling details how the relationship fails. The vocal clips of a couple arguing makes the song intense and shows its great interrelation. He’s got a keen eye of detail and that allows him to slip in minutiae that make the song so exceptional. The third instalment is dark. His storytelling is incredible. “She’s feeling sad and alone. Mad in this broken up home. Vaginal open, heart closed. Packs of tobacc’ and deep smoke. Asthma attack in her throat.” He creates a climax as he rhymes about the dangers that Naomi faces breathtakingly. The content is staggering. Furthermore, the instrumental changes from progressive jazz chords to a melancholy and slow Rock-infused ending. Corresponding with Naomi’s drowsy state, the production becomes psychedelic rock. Wolph does this switch expertly. “Outro” is a great finish to the project. It’s a cinematic exit. Fast flow and aggressive delivery as he details his faults, emotions and struggles. He’s cut from a different cloth. One shouldn’t be able to write so vividly. The project reaches its thematic cohesion. “Rollercoaster emotions are getting me so upset.” Same. A prodigious concept project that was performed radiantly.
Leviathan is a formidable project. It’s the type of project whereby an MC struggles to better because of the high quality music, fresh out the gates. When referring to its musicality, production, lyricism and creativity – it’s impressive. However, it's quiet long. Some songs could've been left off as they don't change the feeling of the album. Regardless of the length, it's still a great project. In addition, it's aging tremendously too. Four years after its release, I’m still in awe. Wolph is Pretoria’s greatest lyricist (by a mile, in fact). His ear is remarkable as he managed to put together great lyricism with amazing musicality, flawless features, greater project cohesiveness and sonic variation. Wolph Gnarly is nicer than all you, motherfuckers (Samuel L Jackson voice). Want to know the worst part? He dropped this at 16.
Soundcloud link: https://m.soundcloud.com/wolphgnarly/sets/leviathan