Illy – The Space Between

The Melbourne hip hop superstar Illy (Alasdair Murray) was compelled to further delay his long-awaited sixth album, The Space Between, due to the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, Illy kept us entertained through 2020. He revived his Friday Flips series, even personalising Dua Lipa’s ‘Don’t Start Now’.

Then he participated in triple j’s 24-hour songwriting challenge Quarantune, yielding the hilarious pub-rap ‘Parmas In June’.

And, an engaging Tweeter, Illy offered satisfyingly frank commentary on the US election, declaring the outgoing president Donald Trump a “snowflake cry baby” and suggesting he “have a sook then fuck off mate.”

But Illy didn’t forget The Space Between, releasing successive singles – December’s ‘I Myself & Me’ the seventh overall.

The multiple ARIA nominee has always striven for momentum. Early on, he resisted traditional Aussie boom-bap purism. But, through embracing the new electronic hip hop hybrids as well as rock and pop, Illy is no iconoclastic post-rapper.

He believes in evolution, both musically and personally, but finds space within trends for his own stories, style and classicism.

The law student began his rap career as a member of the Crooked Eye crew alongside Phrase and Daniel Merriweather before making an official solo debut with 2009’s Long Story Short on Obese Records. The next year, The Chase spawned the radio hit ‘It Can Wait’, elevated by Owl Eyes.

2012’s Bring It Back won “Best Urban Album” at the ARIAs. Illy subsequently started a label, ONETWO, presenting Cinematic. The Guardian boldly proclaimed him “Australia’s answer to JAY-Z.”

In 2016 Illy issued Two Degrees – his first chart-topping album containing the mega-hits ‘Papercuts’, featuring Vera Blue, and ‘Catch 22’, with the UK’s Anne-Marie. Illy toured solidly behind the album, rightfully accepting an ARIA for “Best Australian Live Act”.

Illy announced a global record deal with Sony Music in 2018, heralding another album for the following year. In fact, he’d only drop the hooky lead single ‘Then What’ – today platinum.

Meanwhile, Illy materialised on Hilltop Hoods’ ‘Exit Sign’ with Ecca Vandal off their comeback, The Great Expanse.

In many ways, Illy has bridged the generational divide in Australian hip hop – emerging soon after the old school Hoods and Bliss N Eso, but pre-empting new wavers such as ONETWO’s own Allday, influenced by Kanye West’s radical individualism.

Like 360, Illy contemporised his sound, and assumed a Drake-y sing/rap approach, but without shedding any ‘day ones’. The goal for him now is to re-establish his pace and remain relevant.

The Space Between signifies a soft relaunch – Illy flexing about his rise on the braggadocios intro ‘Wave’. Indeed, he doesn’t so much as recast himself as consolidate and expand. Illy has reunited with longtime beatmakers M-Phazes, Styalz Fuego and Cam Bluff.

But, this go, he also collaborates with the Swedish LIAS, credited on John Legend’s Bigger Love. Again, Illy favours homegrown guest vocalists – the most unexpected Guy Sebastian. Nonetheless, there’s a notable international singer/songwriter in the American Wrabel.

Crucially, on The Space Between, Illy opens up more. The thirty-something thematises change, journeys and growth, alluding to hedonism, a relationship ending, loss, mental health, and isolation. Yet Illy is aware of his fortune – and privilege.

Several songs have the pop fervour of ‘It Can Wait’ or ‘Papercuts’. Illy teams with local newcomer Carla Wehbe for ‘No Feelings’ – airy Allday-ish trap; his vocals Auto-Tuned.

Wrabel graces the electro-hop ballad ‘Mirror’ – produced by M-Phazes, who, since famously contributing to Eminem’s 2013 The Marshall Mathers LP 2, has worked with Demi Lovato and Noah Cyrus plus his soulful protege Ruel.

‘Lean On Me’, with New Zealand singer (Anna) Robinson, is effervescent Styalz-stamped EDM.

The album’s immediate festival anthem is the percussive single ‘Loose Ends’. Melbourne power-pop virtuoso and queer icon G Flip is shining in her first big cameo, with Bluff at the board.

Illy writes poetically about passing time, recognising the latent poignancy of nostalgia and faded idealism. The rapper has understandably expressed dismay that ‘Loose Ends’, released last winter, wasn’t “an absolute fucking smash” – but it’s never too late.

Illy switches up things majorly for the bass-heavy ‘Codes’ – which could be mistaken for a Chillinit track, its gamer-referencing lyrics are grime-y, emo and self-destructive. But most revelatory is ‘Lonely’, Illy addressing grief in a tuneful duet with Guy.

A battle rapper of old, Illy can still spit. In the LIAS-helmed ‘Then What’, he wryly dissects the vagaries of success and fake friends. Similarly, ‘I Myself & Me’ delivers straight lyricism, Illy decrying his overthinking and being terminally online on top of M-Phazes’ throwback beat.

In the swaggeringly on-brand ‘Last Laugh’, he mocks the haters.

Illy has cut hard rock previously – soliciting The Amity Affliction’s Ahren Stringer for ‘Youngbloods’ – but ‘Cheap Seats’, a rowdy collab with Brisbane band WAAX, is a punk banger. The MC rebels against the celebrity and VIP mindset, preferring to hang with his larrikin mates.

A decade on from Long Story Short, Illy continues to diversify creatively, but he isn’t sacrificing authenticity for aesthetics. Ultimately, Illy manages to centre his art while avoiding pretension. The Space Between is a manifesto of dynamism.

Illy’s The Space Between is out now. Listen here.

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