Educator, activist, poet, and all-around artist Malcolm London delivers OPIA: a spirited, lively, and persevering debut album.
Malcolm London wants you to look at him, look at his struggles, and he’s not worried about your comfort. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the startling cover art, which grabs and holds your gaze with London’s brutal stare. Malcolm London is concerned with three main things on this album: truth, love, and acceptance. He defines OPIA as “the ambiguous intensity of looking someone in the eyes, which can feel both invasive and vulnerable,” and spreads that complex vulnerability all across the album. This project is a must-listen for anyone concerned with Chicago, activism, social issues, and most of all, good music. We’ve all heard of and respect Malcolm London the activist, but it’s time to stop sleeping on Malcolm London the hip-hop artist.
While I usually like to start at the front of the album, the title track of this project, “Opia,” is a strong mission statement and to guide the listener. If you’re on a time crunch and can’t settle down to listen to a whole project, I would recommend skipping down to the title track for your crash course in Malcolm London, what he stands for, what this project is working to do, and a quick glimpse at his artistic range. Make sure you come back and give the whole project a listen in its entirety. It’s beautiful.
The album kicks off with the refreshing “New Day.” With its sunny leads and lax percussion, underscored by the deep bass, we see London’s ability to work the sounds of optimism in with harsh topics like his “people…getting killed…for bending gender.” He asserts his dominance on the track, as well as his passion, claiming “if you was me, you’d refuse to give up too.” The cut comes off sounding like a few pale shades of purple backing up London’s promise that he’s come to play hardball on this album.
That promise is fulfilled right away on the second track “Get It Right,” which features a much more biting and gritty delivery. The hook is surprisingly aggressive, but the jarring nature of the shift from track one to track two works within the context of the song. London is deliberately switching up the delivery to claw our attention. After all, the goal of this project is sustained eye contact with the truest version of Malcolm London.
This switch-up works again on the tenth track. While London’s beats all work in a similar shade of woozy, syrupy brightness, the variety on this project comes from his willingness to play with his delivery. “Charlie” is an emotional ode to London’s work as an activist, but even more so a love song to protests and the undeniable resilience of the black community. His voice hits the same lower, gritty notes, as it does on “Get It Right.” His swirling singing on the hook also has the same deep pull. The vocal change signifies not only London’s range as an artist, but also his ability to throw himself into his passions without applying a filter. London has no problem asking “who kills Laquan McDonald more/ An officer, a jail cell, or McDonald’s stores?” He’s raw, unabashed, and a true artist.
London can also sing, to a point, and throws some relaxed harmonies down on “ Misses Vagabond” and tucks a few sing-song notes into a majority of the other tracks. For all his success as a writer and speaker, London isn’t impervious to the odd struggle bar. The first verse of “Misses Vagabond” features a few corny and crooning love song lines, but these weaker lines are so few that it’s easy to breeze over them. The bigger issue with this track is how it slows down the momentum of the album to a premature halt so early on in the tracklisting. The placement of the hazy, hopeful, and gospel track “Westside in the Rain,” shows more thoughtfulness in terms of project pacing.
Malcolm London can do poetic, he can do aggressive, and on this debut he also hits the light party note. Not a banger, but third track “House Party” is an upbeat and feel-good dance tune. It takes the edge off the second track, fits into the context of the album, and is an instant playlist classic. The features from Femdot and How To Dress Well, help turn this track into a full-bodied crowd pleaser. Overall the feature list on this project is strong. Enlisting Chicago’s Vic Mensa, Jamila Woods, Femdot, and Donnie Trumpet, keeps this project true to London’s love for his city and the West Side.
OPIA is filled with slight pivots in style, that give us the fullest picture of Malcolm London. Each track on this debut is peppered with social consciousness, optimism, struggle, anxiety, perseverance, and the list goes on. Range; this project has an immense range. Across the lyrics, the instrumentals, and London’s delivery, OPIA hits all the ends of artistry London has to offer and pairs them with one of the main points of the human experience. An album this multifaceted, yet surprisingly cohesive, cannot be slept on; there will be at least one song you’ll walk away calling your new favorite song after sitting down and listening to this project.