As a student of La Monte Young and a collaborator with Phill Niblock, Michael Vincent Waller's musical path began as a minimal composer. Even when he started incorporating elements of melody and ambience into the more playful classical music of his 2019 album Moments, the change was notable but not jarring. In some ways, Classic$, Waller's debut release under the MVW moniker, is as sharp of a turn as an artist can make, moving from classical minimalism and thinner-than-air chamber music to contemporary rap styles with vocalists delivering heavy bars over instrumentals that bring together Waller's compositions with trap beats. Co-produced by Lex Luger, who's worked with some of the biggest names in hip-hop, the eight-track project offers a bracing perspective on the boundless possibilities of rap production as Waller's haunting string arrangements and hovering piano figures compliment the songs' 808 booms and sinister pulses without a hint of novelty. Valee's reserved flows flutter over tracks like "Still Do" and "4Fit," while "Really Wanna Know" finds Duke Deuce, Valee, and dancehall vocalist Shanique Marie trading verses over an instrumental that loops bassoon fragments. Marie shines on "Survey Says," moving from swaggering verses to a weightless sung vocal hook as a beat made up of samples, pushy rhythms, and Waller's chamber arrangements keeps the song simmering. The more traditional rap tracks on Classic$ are held together by brief, beatless interludes that focus more on violin, piano, flute, and other classically informed sounds, but still maintain a rap aesthetic with eerie vocals from Jaydonclover. While Classic$ is brief, it's remarkable in just how differently MVW approaches these instrumentals while staying within the framework of commercial rap. Instead of the anonymous sad piano loops and occasional string samples that make their way into so many beats for mainstream rappers, Waller's sounds feel intentional, strikingly moody, and full of personality in a way that's almost as vivid as the personalities shown by the songs' various vocal performances. MVW consistently takes chances on every song, including some that might be firsts for rap on the whole. It's an exciting pairing of seemingly polar opposite styles, and one that still allows Waller's compositional gifts to shine, however drastic of a stylistic turn the project might seem like on its surface.
by Fred Thomas