Hip hop came to Iowa City in the boom box on the shoulder of celebrated University of Iowa basketball player Ronnie Lester, blasting the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979. Ever since then, hip hop culture has been passed down from MC to MC, cipher to cipher. Local hip hop MCs and producers never quite blow up on the local scene the way some rock and jam bands have, but hip hop from Chicago and the coasts is a unifying sound; if you’re under 60, black, white or whatever, you’ve nodded your head to Public Enemy or Tupac or Common or Kendrick Lamar.
Jim Swim (real name Tyler James) sticks his neck out on Half Woke. Swim means ‘half woke’ in the sense of the hypnagogic state between sleep and waking, but he also might be referring to the idea from the Black Lives Matter movement, where ‘woke’ means fully conscious of systemic racism and oppression. On “C.S.A.W.” he muses, “I can’t sleep but ain’t woke,” and it can be both political — “Airwaves toxic from the hacks and the jackals plottin’ for office” — and personal — “thought I was through with this sad boy act,” but he finds solace in word images: “splitting these clouds to make room for some moonlight.” On “True Lucidity,” he makes reference to lucid dreaming, but again brushes against the political: “stuck in the shift of history ’til I find true lucidity.”
The other tracks, “Breathe” and “Space You Need,” take different looks at the same basic themes, but don’t cohere in the same way as the first two. Lyrically they seem slacker with fewer original metaphors. The beat on both tracks falls into a two-chord rut and stays there.
By contrast, the beats on the first two tracks have an off-kilter, falling apart funk. “C.S.A.W” (produced by bzkt.) has a raw, throw-the-drum-kit-down-the-stairs beat and muted, reversed piano chords. “True Lucidity” has wistful chords mixed with vinyl cracking, reminiscent of British artist Burial. Like Burial they are hauntological, woozy expressions of a dreamy sadness. Combined with Swim’s slightly hoarse voice that drags and pulls against the beat, they’re a nearly perfect hip hop dream.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 209.