Image via Joseph Torres
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Will Hagle hopes the ghost of Gene Wilder haunts Timothy Chalamet at night.
The legend of Angry Blackmen began long before Brian Warren and Quentin Branch were born. It is the entire history of America. The duo’s music transmits the emotions of two individuals raised in and living through the modern dystopia.
Warren and Branch formed Angry Blackmen in 2016 to critique the systemic issues impacting their existence. They speak about struggles unique to them, but the underlying despair is universal. Think of Angry Blackmen as somewhere between the abstractness of the underground and the pop sensibility of the mainstream. They rap with more clarity than Death Grips. Their rage is less vibey than Travis Scott’s. If there was an Animorphs book where Chief Keef turned into Chance the Rapper, Warren and Branch would be the mid-way point on the cover, like this half-human half-tiger. Branch can spit like Wayne in the early era of Tha Carter if he was produced by Trent Reznor. That’s their pocket.
Their debut LP on Deathbomb Arc, The Legend of ABM, serves as an official introduction to the wider world. It’s an origin story but it’s also a reboot like Creed. After all, Warren and Branch have made music together for almost a decade after meeting as solo artists in the vibrant Windy City music scene.
But it hasn’t been a frictionless ascent. Midway through recording The Legend of ABM, Branch was involved in a three-car crash. No one got seriously injured, but the experience sent him into an existential tizzy. He channeled this mortal dread into his art Charlie Kaufman-style, unloading an introspective psychological torment onto the beats. The wide-ranging subject matter makes The Legend of ABM, and the broader “Legend of Angry Blackmen,” more complex and layered than what appears on the surface. They aren’t a modern incarnation of Public Enemy, even if they come from that lineage. Angry Blackmen are well-rounded individuals who comment on politics and society by displaying their true selves. Their true selves happen to be products of their environment.
A beatmaker named Formant – who Warren tells me listens to Nine Inch Nails more than contemporary hip-hop – produced the entirety of The Legend of ABM. The metallic glitchiness of Formant’s beats make the LP fit well on Deathbomb Arc, a label who’s released albums by Death Grips, JPEGMAFIA, and clipping. But Angry Blackmen have always considered themselves Boogeymen, both as Black men in America and as nonconformist artists. The way they rap over avant-garde beats makes them an outlier on their label and within the “noise-rap” scene. It also makes them more conventionally appealing.
Warren encapsulates this sound’s almost-dichotomous nature on “FNA”: “This that rap caviar mixed with the mosh pit.” Angry Blackmen are capable of rapping over anything, but Formant’s beats can be grating and discordant. This sound makes sense with lines like Warren on “Suicidal Tendencies”: “You can see the pain / When you staring deep in my eyes / People say I changed, but they hating on the sidelines / Trying to maintain, my depression on a fine line.”
Few rappers on either side of the Drake—Yasiin spectrum can juggle so many concepts in couplets, and orate them over bone-rattling dissonance. Both members of Angry Blackmen do this across The Legend of ABM with ease. Their closest analogue might be Fatboi Sharif, who apparates into a swelling cloud of synths on “Dead Men Tell No Tales,” singing a haunting threat toward a cop then cackling his way back to whatever dimension he came from.
Warren and Branch’s worldviews are distinct, yet interconnected in core ways. Warren grew up a movie buff, Branch was outside. Both understand, and are talented at conveying on record, how racial and economic circumstances shape their inner lives. The Legend of ABM is a complete reflection of who they are. It re-establishes their legend, telling one part of a story that’ll outlast us all.