by Nick Hanover
Ambition in Austin hip hop usually only comes in a few flavors. There’s the general drive to strike it “big” without really knowing what that entails or what kind of bigness one is after. There’s the more modest desire to be a local fixture and start getting paid halfway decently for gigs. And then there’s that rarest of ambitions, the need to do something different, to succeed creatively without any real concern for what that means in terms of more easily defined success. Curbside Jones has always fit best into that last slot, but he’s never made that as tangible as he does on Wolves’ Clothing, a new EP with a meta-narrative about a longtime sheep deciding to adopt a predatory aspect and not only blend in with oppositional forces but bend them to his own will.
Putting it in the simplest terms, the sheep Curb is pushing his way out of are likely the neoclassicists he aligned with, like underappreciated San Marcos boom bap crew The Lower Class. Curb never fully fit in with the golden age inspired hip hop that was so omnipresent in and around Austin a few years ago, but it made sense that he’d be more connected with them than the coke rap pretenders who had their eyes on XXL covers and questionable major label contracts. Now that the Austin scene is more diverse and the mainstream itself is more open to weirder touches, though, it’s fitting that Curb would don his wolves clothing and get more explicit in his ambitions.
Those two worlds collide hardest on “SHEEP SZN,” the early single Curbside Jones dropped to start building up attention for this release. The track may start with a relatively untouched soul sample, but it quickly opens itself up to include bright synths and brassy rhythms, leaving the low end for Curb’s thrillingly violent delivery. Self-identified as “an open letter to those who say they’re better than me,” “SHEEP SZN” is faithful to Curb’s established aesthetic but has an unprecedent antagonism to it, a willingness to not only shake anyone still sleeping on him but to wage war on anyone looking to stand in his way.
But one of the EP’s best moments also happens to be a pretty major deviation from what Curbside Jones fans have come to expect from the artist. “Been Wolf” is warped and odd, dressed up in the static and grime that coats so many of Curbside Jones tracks but arrhythmic and intense. Curb’s flow, normally so clear and focused, sways between beats, emphasizing the gaps where lines would otherwise be, then flowing into itself for a chorus that would fit right in with Stankonia-era Outkast. By the time it starts to fade out, finding room for a fuzzed out digital psych outro and a spoken word interlude, it feels like you’ve been launched through an auditory wormhole, glimpses at alternate Curbside Jones timelines blurring past.
Curb wisely follows that moment with “Shepherd’s Pie,” a track that’s a bit more grounded, welding together RZA lo-fi orchestration and more modern Kendrick Lamar soulfulness. In the liner notes for the release, Curbside Jones calls Wolves’ Clothing “the most transparent work I’ve released in years” and that rings especially true here, as the artist reflects back on familial strife that scarred him but which he also recognizes had a major impact on his development as a musician. Throughout Wolves’ Clothing, Curbside Jones is eager to impress but it’s in “Shepherd’s Pie” that it’s easiest to parse out whose admiration he’s hungriest for and it’s decidedly not the community of artists he operates both within and outside of.
Maybe that’s why Curbside Jones’ form of ambition has always felt so unique. It’s an ambition that simultaneously straddles the personal and the communal, fueled by a bitterness about forces outside his control yet unwilling to be consumed by that. Where most Austin artists of any stripe would view success as something as simple as gaining the respect of peers and getting to play out regularly, Wolves’ Clothing makes bare Curb’s need to reach heights that can never be reached because they never stop. But it also makes it obvious that these impossible standards are causing Curbside Jones to become more and more devastating as an artist with each and every work.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Ovrld as well as Loser City, where he mostly writes about comics. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with his friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover