The roll-out for the Hilltop Hoods’ eighth album, The Great Expanse, has been unusually long – the Aussie hip-hop faves offer a welcome alternative to today’s ubiquitous unannounced urban blockbusters. But, then again, the Hoods’ last LP proper, Walking Under Stars, did materialise in 2014.
The Great Expanse campaign launched in July when rappers Suffa and Pressure plus DJ Debris dropped a comeback single, ‘Clark Griswold’, prior to their Splendour In The Grass slot. A SIXFOUR production, the catchy af ‘Clark Griswold’ is trademark Hilltop Hoods, belonging to the same wistful tradition as the now notorious mega-hit ‘Cosby Sweater’ – Suffa and Pressure gently joking about family responsibilities and being fallible fathers. Notably, it introduced their fellow Adelaidian Adrian Eagle, a rootsy hip-hop soulster, to a mass audience. The Hoods subsequently scored their ninth ARIA.
They followed with the playfully absurdist ‘Leave Me Lonely’ ahead of Falls Festival, the retro R&B sample from Richard Berry’s 1950s classic ‘Have Love, Will Travel’. Curiously, ‘Leave Me Lonely’ was produced by Plutonic Lab, Hilltop Hoods’ sometime live drummer. (A decade ago, the Oz hip-hop veteran contributed to Brit MC Speech Debelle’s Mercury Prize-winning Speech Therapy.) Both of the Hoods’ 2018 singles made the triple j Hottest 100 — the ultimate validation. Then, this month, they topped off their promo by joining Eminem’s Australian tour (incidentally, Pressure hasn’t lost his Shady-like flow).
The Great Expanse is aptly-named. The Hoods’ current manifestation is preoccupied with magnitude. The group’s evolving sound has clearly been influenced by 2016’s lavish orchestral project, Drinking From The Sun, Walking Under Stars Restrung (their fifth consecutive #1 album) and the accompanying arena concerts. The transitory preface (and title track) is actually performed by a string quartet. However, Hilltop Hoods haven’t done a Drake by squishing in 100 songs. At just over 40 minutes, The Great Expanse is a statement in brevity: impact over exhaustion.
Hilltop Hoods are also sharing the love – and their platform. Never has a Hoods album had so many specifically Australian guests. The trio have brought in Nyassa, a local pop-soul novice, indie singer/songwriter Timberwolf, and Illy. The Melbourne rocker Ecca Vandal is on two cuts, channelling a soul diva like she was born for it. (Vandal has ventured into hip-hop before, recording with Sampa The Great and Birdz.) Oh, and Ruel shows up.
Hilltop Hoods have outgrown ’90s boom-bap or barbecue rap – although Debris’ turntable scratches and the samples remain. Instead, they revel in a new hyper-psychedelia with big beats. Some songs on The Great Expanse, particularly Plutonic Lab’s swinging ‘Be Yourself’ (featuring Vandal and Nyassa), evoke the UK outfit Propellerheads – immortal for 1997’s ‘History Repeating’ with Shirley Bassey.
One Above – the dude behind past Hoods pop glories ‘I Love It’ (with Sia) and ‘1955’ – masterminds the JOMO bop ‘Exit Sign’. With its choppy piano, and micro-wobble, the track broaches house (Illy and Vandal enliven the anti-party). But ‘Here Without You’ is rock-hop with bounce, courtesy of AB Original’s Trials. Hilltop Hoods aren’t wholly trend-adverse. While there’s no modish trap (unless you count the pitched-down vocals of the outro ‘H Is For…’), the Hoods’ rappers are singing more.
Hilltop Hoods may tease dad rap, but they’ve largely transcended that on The Great Expanse – even if it is informed by parenthood, domesticity and life passages (the aforementioned ‘Here Without You’ references the MCs’ kids). Indeed, the album is reflective, occasionally wryly so, being comparable to JAY-Z’s 4:44 (or Eminem’s Revival). The Hoods could be universalising a male (mid-)life crisis on the early ‘Into The Abyss’ – an epic beat ballad helmed by Cam Bluff, previously credited for ‘Won’t Let You Down’.
Still, the first half of The Great Expanse is surprisingly uptempo – and upbeat – for Hilltop Hoods. ‘Leave Me Lonely’ is backed up by further bangers, such as ‘Be Yourself’ and the Timberwolf-blessed ‘Sell It All, Run Away’. And Hilltop Hoods circumvent excessive sentimentality through humour. ‘Clark Griswold’ centres on daggy dads, and ‘Leave Me Lonely’ on personal space-invaders. But even geekier is ‘OOFT (Ponda Baba)’ titled for a cult character from the Star Wars universe. Pressure sing-quotes Australian Crawl’s ‘Reckless (Don’t Be So…)’ and Debris flexes his deck skills.
The Great Expanse takes a darker turn. Yet, while the Hoods have their existentialist doubts, they avoid cloud rap’s nihilism. ‘Counterweight’ finds a solo Pressure, father of three, contemplating how to balance family life and music. It underscores, too, his convincing singing voice. Destined to be the album’s next smash, ‘Fire & Grace’ deals with mental wellbeing in the age of social media (especially Instagram) and the problematic disconnection from reality. Hilltop Hoods plea for empathy on The Great Expanse’s woke apex. Sydney teen Ruel leads the soulful chorus. Add piano and Bluff’s slick production and ‘Fire & Grace’ is the best Sia song ever with zero Sia involvement.
Overall, The Great Expanse is feel-good and affirming. The triple j demographic will dig it, but so will older heads. The Hoods are cleverly innovating on their own terms. As they enter their 25th year, The Great Expanse is about longevity, yes, but also bridging generational divides – a triumph in itself.
Hilltop Hoods’ Great Expanse is out today, listen here.