The tortured wordsmith of Mello Music Group, Red Pill, is back with a deep study of his alcoholism and depression on his newest LP Instinctive Drowning.
Furnished by his visceral delivery, this project is a family tree, a generational map, of the struggles handed down to Pill. Pictured, in this spirit, on the cover is his late great-grandmother Mabel. The solemn nature of her smile sets the backdrop for the contemplative, vulnerable, and disturbed project Red Pill has put together for us. This is the project meant to keep you company when you can’t sleep at night. Of course, it’s time to stop sleeping, sit up in bed at 3AM, and listen to Instinctive Drowning by Red Pill.
The first thing to notice about Red Pill: his pain is always sincere. It could be the hoarse voice, it could be tide coming in before he gets on the track, but less than twenty seconds into intro “New Normal,” and I believe him. I trust him to lead me on this soul-searching, self-deprecating journey we’re all a little addicted to. He sets the tone of the project over the hook, dipping in and out of singing “the new normal is hopeless,” emphasis on hopeless. Right at the end of the track we get a taste of the self-awareness that’s to come when Red Pill confesses he’s not even sure to make it through the next forty minutes of this project. As far as first tracks go, this is a good one.
So it goes, a handful of Gods walk into a bar. On the second track Red Pill shows off a little creativity, proving that he doesn’t just live in his misery at all times. Rapping from the perspective of imaginary Gods from imaginary universes, bragging about their creations, Pill warps it into a brisk social commentary. Albeit, the social note feels a touch out of place, it goes over so quickly you don’t catch it as clumsy. Over a quick and aggressive guitar riff he reminds us: “do not fear death.” Then it’s the alcoholic speaking with a resigned, brutal honesty: “So I give up and let familial history win/Rather my body’s destruction than letting misery in.” The rest of the verses follow suit, discussing suicide and only flirting with the idea of recovery. Across this song, Red Pill packs in more personal drama than some artists can manage to sprinkle throughout their albums.
Those personal dramas and brutal bars end up being the key elements to having this album draw us in. Red Pill’s lyrics are presented in a take-it-or-leave-it fashion; they’re not the least bit desperate. In his patient and pained flow there’s an element of ‘fine, don’t care,’ that’s matched with a strong sense of attentiveness. He’s curating his audience, because behind the gruff attitude is an element of warmth saying, ‘if you do care, I care for you.’
Production wise, one of the better choices made for this LP was allowing Ill Poetic to shoulder the task alone. As a result, Ill Poetic does an incredible job of making this project sound more polished than previous efforts. He comes to this album with a strong musical vision, one that aligns with Pill’s lyrical and narrative visions. Little details come together from track to track, dressing up the gritty bars in a cleaner outfit than a boom-bap beat could have.
There are other moments on this project, less moving and less depressive, that are rather self-aware, namely “Club Privilege.” A satirical piece about white privilege, inspired by Pill’s earlier lament that “if you grew up poor and white/Recognizing privilege doesn’t take away your plight,” this awkward and oscillating track draws attention for the wrong reasons. Between the unnatural stuttering verses and hook, and how out of place Pill sounds delivering these ironic braggadocios bars, it becomes increasingly difficult to take seriously his serious topic. A shame, because a break from the melancholy would have been appreciated, he just missed the mark. So ultimately, the cut, while well intended, suffers from its weak execution: a symptom of how bound Pill’s best moments are to his content. Pill’s best moments are when he comes off as your best friend, trying to cheer you up at a dive bar in the most roundabout way he can come up with.
The tide rolls back again, giving way to skeletal keys and Red Pill’s voice on by far the strongest track, title track, “Instinctive Drowning.” Starting off with a desolate, image-driven hook: “And those waves come strong/swallowing the water/you can’t say what’s wrong,” we hear the nuances of the producers vision coming together. The imagery of this hook is concise and powerful, leading us right into the most poignant story of the album: the death of his mother. Man, this track is deadly, chilling, with a real moment of silence reflected in the minimal beat of the first verse Here, we get Red Pill’s best rapping to date as he drops us next to his mother, passed out in the middle of the room. Helplessness. The second verse introduces some haphazard percussion to match the choked yelling of his delivery. Quickly, the track realizes itself as an emotional epic as a wailing guitar swells into the instrumental. Red Pill falls apart on this track, and as a listener, it’s not that easy to keep it together.
At its core, this album is the sonic journal of a man on a bender, trying to be happy, but unsure of where to start. This album is particular, as in you have to be ready for it. This album is taxing, for good reason. Red Pill sounds exhausted all over the thing. Depression is exhausting, who can blame him. Of course, I would love to see the focus teeter over to recovery, but if the artist isn’t there yet I can’t force him to be. This album, please excuse me, is a tough pill to swallow, but it is entirely gratifying. On a whim, I listened to Instinctive Drowning at 1:28AM, and the last thing I felt was alone. For those nights you can’t sleep, stop sleeping and let this impassioned project take your mind off things.