Kanisha Williams

Safe and Sound in Chicago

Playing—and working—with Ambl Lyrics and L.A. VanGogh

SafeNSound is a newly minted collaboration between two up-and-coming locals—L.A. VanGogh, a self-described “producer/artist,” and Ambl Lyrics, a self-described “DJ/producer.” The pair released their first mixtape together, named for L.A. VanGogh, a month ago; individual cuts from the tape have since been referred to as “hidden gems” by various small music blogs. The project, which features only seven tracks, is at once playful and meditative, exuberant and thoughtful—a breath of fresh air when compared to the drill and darker, more seductive R&B that have been trending lately on the South Side and in the city.

When I met the two at their “production lab” in Hyde Park, I was expecting mysterious and distant figures—the kind of people you can never quite set a meeting with, but only spend time with when you see them in passing. Sure enough, they were hard to get a read on at first: AmbI, relaxed and reserved, makes a perfect match for VanGogh’s extroversion and friendliness. Yet, despite her quiet demeanor and minimal internet presence, it’s AmbI’s constant jokes that have me rolling: when I ask how the two met, AmbI begins by telling me that they met on Tinder—“He had a picture of himself turned around, and I couldn’t resist that booty.” I couldn’t help but feel that AmbI was sizing me up, seeing what I’m about as I took notes on what she said, but, in hindsight, it seems more as though she was trying to gauge how serious and boring I was going to be during the interview.

This intense focus and observation of others comes through in AmbI’s personality, and inevitably, in her work. “I like to dissect other people. I like their music and how they work, and I just want to incorporate it into how I work,” she told me. This philosophy of integration and interpolation is apparent on many tracks on SafeNSound: “the whole nine,” which samples Lil Jon’s classic jam “Lovers and Friends”; “changed my number,” which extends the recent trend of songs about cellphones (see “Hotline Bling,” Maxo Kream’s “Cell Boomin,” Father’s “Nokia,” and the entirety of Erykah Badu’s “But You Caint Use My Phone”); and “numb,” a track from the duo’s mixtape that sounds like an underground cousin to Frank Ocean’s breakout track “Novacane.” The last of the three pulsates with persistent drums and its second verse finds VanGogh’s voice in a deep, dark vocal modulation, a style AmbI returns to several times over the course of the project.

But despite Ambl’s sensitivity to recent trends and obsessions in production, L.A. VanGogh claims he isn’t a fan of contemporary music, and his flows represent that. The rapper’s voice winds through the playground of AmbI’s production, but grounds each track in a deep kind of soul.

No matter how passionate VanGogh’s voice becomes, the duo just wants to have fun: “14,” arguably the most poignant track on the mixtape, shows AmbI and VanGogh reaching for joy as they try to work through exhaustion, creative jealousy, and distraction. After a song-long struggle against apathy and defeatism, VanGogh ends on a mixed message: “Low key feel like Brown v. Education / We just want the same opportunities in life right now… I swear y’all always trying to cut a brother off when he’s got something to say, man…” He trails off.

This playfulness is as visible in the duo’s chemistry as it is in their music: they talk about each other, the music they’ve made together, and their future projects with nothing more than a vague excitement, as if they’ve already well exceeded their expectations in the past, and don’t feel any need to think about what’s to come in the future. When I asked how the SafeNSound project came to fruition, VanGogh responded, “We didn’t know we were gonna make this project. It just became what it was, and it’s the first of many…We both gon’ be millionaires.”

Indeed, the duo is currently at work on their next project. This first offering was all “about” (at the very least, it was named after) L.A. VanGogh, so the next project will be “about” AmbI Lyrics. It’s coming out this June. Whether either project will make them millionaires remains to be seen.

But neither Ambl nor VanGogh thinks things should always be playful, nor do the duo’s ambitions revolve around themselves: at the end of the interview, when I ask if they have anything to add, AmbI replies with confidence, “You are now SafeNSound.” After a second, she changes her mind: “Save Chicago State, Don’t pay Dante, Justice for Rekia Boyd.”

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