by Nick Hanover
Mainstream hip hop may be at a futurist point in its cycle right now, with the charts dominated by apocalyptic trapsters Migos and playful synth mumblers like Lil Yachty, but some of the most vivid work in the genre is coming from time travelling explorers looking towards the past for brighter visions of our future. Childish Gambino kicked that off in a big way late last year with Awaken, My Love!, an epic love letter to George Clinton and the space funk that would go on to fuel the West Coast gangsta rap of the ’90s. Sonically, it may not seem like Childish Gambino and Austin’s Mindz of a Different Kind have much in common, but MDK’s new album Borderlinez is at its heart a spiritual successor to Awaken, connected by a shared affinity for G-funk sounds and the “anything goes” mentality of Outkast and their Dungeon Family cohorts. The difference is that while Childish Gambino slides all the way back to the material that would birth hip hop, MDK want to explore the ’90s heyday of hip hop’s adolescence and give it a modern lyrical spin.
An unabashedly crate digging album, Borderlinez is the best kind of throwback, using the era it references as a common language rather than a crutch. The nostalgic feel of the album and its classic funk and jazz samples also masks the true intent of Borderlinez, to explore the inequity and struggles that have only intensified since the ’90s. In other words, things haven’t changed except now thanks to social media, it’s harder than ever to escape the reality of that.
That gets explored in depth on stand out track “All I Know,” where MDK detail street harassment, stating “It’s my right to proclaim my name” while picking apart all the social forces that do their best to shut down that right. From there it transforms into a day in the life narrative, the opening resistance giving way to the hustle and grind that MDK go through to survive, all while a soul sample loop fleshes out the background with subtle melancholy.
MDK’s street hussle narratives drive home the exploration motif throughout, bringing unity to tracks that otherwise sound like they could have come from totally separate projects. The abstract jazz producer Brown v. Board brings to “Never Back Down,” for instance, makes the song straddle both the classic jazz rap era of Digable Planets and the more modern work of Thundercat but MDK’s vocals are brash and commanding, talking up their wild style and failed attempts by enemies to “blackface” them while they’re on the move. The song is simultaneously frantic and leisurely, atonal piano lines attaining unexpected beauty when melodic flourishes cut through the mix while the verses stroll through the cacophony without a care in the world.
Those roles get swapped later on “New To This,” with Brown v. Board adopting a production style that’s closer to the cinematic soul vibe of Soundtrakk’s beat for Lupe Fiasco’s “Kick Push” than, say, Madlib, while MDK breathlessly push themselves to daredevil verbal heights. The swelling strings and fuzzed out guitar licks make the contrast all the more dramatic, particularly when the vocals get doubled up and run through a chorus effect deep in the background, like an emulation of the hustle and bustle of a crowded bar waiting for a show to begin.
But the most surprising shift in style is right at the beginning of the album, on “222.” In both lyrics and production, “222” is a tribute to the pioneering women of hip hop, complete with a soulful vocal hook by Kitty Angel, bluntly calling out masculinity for “straight up ruining hip hop” with it sexist criticisms of vocal women in the scene as simply “black and negative.” MDK self-describes the track in the verses as “that get get better shit,” clarifying that the goal is to help improve the scene by frankly discussing the toxic elements weighing it down. So consider Brown v. Board’s airy, optimistic production the spoonful of sugar helping that medicine go down.
This progressivism stands out as especially important within the microsphere of throwback hip hop, which all too often uses its back in the day nods and nostalgic references as an excuse to indulge in the worst habits of bygone times. It also signifies MDK’s growing confidence not just in their musical skills but also in their identities, indicating that as they continue to mature they’re growing into a leadership role in Austin hip hop as it goes through its growing pains and struggles to find its own voice. By looking back at the thriving scenes of hip hop’s past, Mindz of a Different Kind are finding the tools their own present scene needs to achieve success and setting themselves up for dominance in the process.
Mindz of a Different Kind play Radio Coffee & Beer this Saturday, May 27th with Allysa Grace.
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