“We constantly want to reinvent our sound,” Quentin Branch tells me. “We’re seeing how to bend music in a certain way,” Brian Warren adds. “We’re trying to get weird and go all out.”
Branch and Warren are the Chicago-based rappers behind Angry Blackmen (ABM), and since forming in 2017, the pair have become known for their sharp bars and explosive beats. Last March, after the pandemic shut down their live performances and day-to-day activities, ABM refocused their energy and doubled down on recording music. Through collaborations with a rotating set of producers and constant writing, they developed the momentum for relentless experimentation. In September 2020, Angry Blackmen signed with Deathbomb Arc, the esteemed independent record label where groups like Death Grips and JPEGMAFIA released early material. “That was damn near monumental,” Warren says. “[The signing]had me pumped to do more work.”
The album HEADSHOTS! debuted soon afterwards in October 2020. It’s a project that exemplifies ABM’s ability to package revolutionary thought into laconic lyrics. Now, a mere nine months later, ABM’s latest EP, REALITY! iterates the duo’s ever-evolving nature. “The overall vibe [is] discombobulated and dark,” Branch says. The new EP is notably different from previous works: its lyrics are less political, more centered on being trapped in a system, and more focused on paranoia and fear. This can be heard as they rap in the title track: “Paranoia got me tripping/5am something wicked/ Hearing voices in my kitchen/Demons lurking with a whisper/All I hear silence, crickets/birds chirping in the distance/N****s feel kinda distant/While I question my existence.”
The production is chaotic, but not disjointed. In fact, the hectic sounds feel quite fitting for present times.
REALITY! was soft-released via Bandcamp on Juneteenth, with an official drop across all streaming platforms on July 2. Comprising four tracks and just over ten minutes in length, your one complaint may be that the EP isn’t longer. According to Branch, the shorter duration is because “for newer artists, it’s a race against time to get and keep people’s attention.” Warren compared their songs to juice cups as “It’s short, sweet, easily digestible”and similarly effective in packing a punch.
However brief, the EP is unquestionably their most free-form venture to date. In “BLUEPRINT!”—arguably the most political track of the EP—Branch raps, “Black male, twenty-six, suspect, usual/ dumb it down for these white kids so it’s suitable/ make it consumable, package it, movable/ profit off of Black skin, pain, and their funerals.” These bars are blunt, and characteristic of ABM’s focus on societal hypocrisy (and what it might look like turned in on itself).
ABM employs an impressive modulating cadence to their rhymes on tracks “VOMIT!” and “REALITY!” This pairs nicely with Derek Allen’s production, which is dramatic and ominous and, at times, evocative of the sci-fi show Stranger Things. The song “HAYWIRE!” is more percussive, filled with cicada-like buzzes. Warren and Branch’s parts are distinct, but bridged by an eerie “I’m coming for you” cackling halfway through.
Whether it’s industrial rap or electrifying punk, Angry Blackmen are honing their skill at making cohesive works of music. “We make it a point to work with our producers to create a certain sound or a vision we all share. We want to expand our horizons, we don’t want to make the same thing twice,” Branch says. Side by side, REALITY! and HEADSHOTS! clearly accomplish this goal—and even more so when one compares them to their earlier projects.
ABM’s drive to challenge themselves musically is also driven by other creative outlets. Warren teaches story-building with the organization After School Matters. He also works on haikus in his spare time, and tries to write a story a day. Moreover, he has been sharpening his skills as a producer—and is playfully mischievous when he mentions this, alluding to producing tracks on future ABM projects.
According to Branch and Warren, Angry Blackmen are just getting started with another album in the works (possibly to be released within the year). “If we attack it with the same mindset, it will come out,” Warren says. This project will include multiple past producers— a talent supergroup akin “to the Avengers,” Branch says with a laugh.
When asked how they hope their music affects people, Angry Blackmen’s answer is simple: “You have to angrily get to work,” Warren says. Branch adds, “You gotta stand for something, life is too short.”
Donna Das (she/her) is a freelance writer and cyclist from Colorado. This is her first piece for the Weekly.