Opening with Charlie Chaplin’s rousing speech from The Great Dictator, Unite sets the stage for the return of two of Sydney’s most dextrous lyrical pontificators, Bliss N Eso. Their new album Circus In The Sky is rife with their usual dime-store profundities and street-level Tony Robbins-isms, which when coupled with a soundbed of overwrought beats cheesier than a rat’s breath, saturates the album in a grandeur akin to a less menacing Army Of The Pharaohs or the worst excesses of Lupe Fiasco.
It is refreshing, however, in the age of tinnily clattering trap rap, to hear scratching on a hip hop record. Though it’s scarce and nothing one would call turntablism, it’s important to note as it’s symptomatic of Circus In The Sky’s biggest problem. The scratching, rather than occupying its own space as it does for Jurassic 5, Dr. Octagon or even Run DMC, rarely serves as anything more than an ancillary soundbite in the cacophony of Bliss n Eso’s music.
The soundscape on Circus In The Sky can at times remind you of the graffiti on fences flanking train tracks — loud, messy and varicoloured with each individual piece left fighting for attention on a cluttered background.
Occasionally though, when the beat is stripped back and the two MCs are allowed to spit unencumbered by string sections and Lecrae-like platitudes, the album is very worthwhile. It’s been said ad nauseum but it bears repeating, when Bliss N Eso are good, they’re very good.
Animal Kingdom is a propulsive masterclass in riding the beat, manoeuvring name-checks of Carl Sagan, Bill Hicks and Hunter S. Thompson, biting a hook from Kendrick and sampling Richard Pryor with tongue-in-cheek flair.
Reservoir Dogs, which features 360, Pez, Seth Sentry and Drapht, is another jaunty highlight though marred by some haphazard lyrical mis-steps, “My crew’s on some bullshit / And I’m not talking about a poo that a bull did”. While Next Frontier perfectly samples Sarah Blasko’s We Won’t Run, creating a rather sublime ride that recalls The Roots circa How I Got Over.
While every moment isn’t “honestly magic, like South Park writers at the Oscars on acid,” Circus In The Sky is sparingly peppered with legitimate gems. Deft wisecracks, a good sense of history, a blistering verse from guest star Nas and lines like “From here, Earth looks like a pale blue dot / In the vast enveloping cosmic dark” work in the album’s favour. Overall, however, it’s two steps forward, three steps back, with sodden beats paired with the duo’s tendency towards didactic “believe in yourself and you can do anything” clichés, as though teens weren’t entitled to their own misery.