In an era where "lyrical" is quite mainstream, through rappers like Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper, it seems like underground/indie acts are working overtime to amaze you with their double-time flows, six-syllable rhyme schemes, deep metaphors, and intricate concept albums. That's all cool, but thank god for artists like Cleen who offer the indie spirit without having to necessarily rely on all the other stuff.
Cleen is a rapper from Lancaster, CA who has been making rap music since the late 90's, both as a solo artist and as part of various collectives such as Unseen Tekneeks and Broken Complex. The man has a very prolific career, though he has been relatively quiet for the past couple years (which is a lifetime in indie time.) Luckily, he's returned in 2019 with his brand new album, produced by Kid B, "Fresh Air."
Cleen has a very direct writing and rapping style, one which often combines social critique with humor. "Fresh Air" generally follows suit, though, especially when compared to previous Cleen records, the social critique does seem to outweigh the humor here. The title track has Cleen noting, over a jazzy Kid B beat, that he's getting older and perhaps more jaded. "Sand Trap" finds Cleen discussing the decay, and recent rise of racism, in his town of Lancaster. "Die" has him wishing death upon some unnamed rappers. "They Live" has Cleen waiting for the end of society. While the negativity is high at times, unlike other rappers, Cleen never really goes melodramatic. You get the feeling that all of the negative sentiments that he's rapping about are genuine.
Not all is gloomy, however. "Peeks and Valleys" has Cleen promising to push through the difficult times. "We Will" shows a lot of optimism for where Hip Hop is headed ("If it's dope, it's dope, regardless of the era/Just cause mine was golden doesn't mean it was better.") The wonderful closer, "Dusk Driver," is nice breezy ode to late night fun. And we of course get lots of random braggadocio lines reminding us that even if the world has gone to shit, Cleen certainly hasn't!
As far as the rapping goes, Cleen is on point throughout nearly the entire album. On several tracks (see "American Gods" and "Chip Party,") he even speeds up his flow which is fun. The only real mis-step is "Curve Ball," a weird track about Cleen hooking up with a gay girl...all told over a pretty bad reggae beat.
And speaking of beats, while Cleen is pretty much top notch on the album, the Kid B production is a bit shaky. I'm not really familiar with Kid B, but from the little I've heard, I'm guessing he's used to making turntable-focused DJ beats sans rappers. For a lot of the album, the beats sound like they were made to exist on their own, without raps over them. When you add in Cleen, who has a pretty slow and steady flow, things sound a bit off. Additionally, some of the blatant samples (which include everything from Queen to 50 Cent) don't really work. Luckily, once you hit about the last third of the album, the instrumentals start getting a lot more progressive, fuller, and fitting for Cleen.
Aside from being a great rapper, Cleen is also a very cool person. I've never paid for a Cleen album - he's always sent me hard copies for free (that's not to say that I haven't tried paying many times - he unfortunately doesn't have a PayPal or other way to accept funds online.) For this release, he's sending out free download cards to people. You can hit him up on Twitter or Instagram for one. It's worth it. Enjoy!