In the broadest terms, Afro-Pessimism is a school of thought that theorises blackness as a social categorisation wherein black people are subject to an appointed societal role that is assigned to them externally. Blackness in America lacks the ability to determine itself, as it exists under constant duress from the dominant white American culture, which it must structure itself in opposition to—a culture whose engagement with blackness is founded upon an aggressive form of violence. This is the inevitable lot of the minority, seeking a way to self-define in a way that is not merely a rejection of what one is not, nor a compromise of what one is and resignation to one’s socially determined societal function as ‘other’. Like any recently emerged social thought it is not monolithic and is subject to a lot of debate, both internally and externally.
By choosing Afro Pessimist as the title for their debut album, Austin rapper CENSORED dialogue (a.k.a. Jazz Aurora), paints the project with a charged sense of urgency and agency that it certainly lives up to in its rawness. Nonetheless, the album is a deceptively personal one, tightly expressive of the frustrating interconnectedness of identity and politics for anyone who is not white and het. This interconnectedness of the private and the political is perhaps best expressed in the track “Race Mixing”, where CENSORED dialogue runs through their romantic history and the bigotry they encountered among their partners families. The bitterness and cynicism in their voice as they describe the disaffection that bleeds throughout their relationships articulates equal parts disappointment and defiance that is the essence of Afro Pessimist. The rage is especially palpable on the opening track “ACAB”, where CENSORED dialogue raps from the perspective of a vile racist cop, giving the character an ironic power anthem to their own corruption.
Lead singles “Chaka” and “Hate Crime” each showcase opposing ends of the spectrum of tones offered by the album. “Chaka” is a triumphant ‘00s Kanye-style anthem built off a blissful chopped soul sample that builds in intensity throughout the track’s runtime, with the second half devoted to a magisterial outro with distorted, honking vocals that sound like humpbacked whales swimming through an endless sea of frenetic gospel voices. It’s a stunning episode that sets a high bar for what follows. By contrast, “Hate Crime” is a prowling, malevolent track with siren-like synth arpeggios that back up CENSORED dialogue’s rage, which pours forth over a society that criminalises and belittles them. The second half of this track too undergoes significant change, with a groove that has more of a break-beat or house energy to it. It still feels vaguely retro despite its haunting, vividly futuristic energy. Given the darkness of the themes, it feels almost indecent for the track to sound so good.
The album isn’t completely without blemish on the production end though. The most notable example is on the track “Hayabusa” which is mixed quieter than nearly every other moment on the album. It’s especially noticeable once CENSORED dialogue’s verse begins. Nonetheless, there’s hardly a bad word to be said about the beats themselves, from the tapping hi-hats and dreamy strings of “Old Yellar” to the tense, horn-like synths and booming drums of “Negro Rockstar”. This latter track’s incensed dissection of the music industry’s history of exploiting black artists and whitewashing genres is impassioned, comprehensive and to the point, I just wish the track swelled more towards the end, as it does start to feel instrumentally one dimensional after what feels like more than five minutes of pure build-up.
Like many underground artists, CENSORED dialogue’s music expresses a complex relationship with the mainstream. On the one hand, “Negro Rockstar” defends mainstream rap from accusations of shallowness and materialistic, while “Social Death” and “Wishing Well” articulate the need for more different perspectives in rap and why CENSORED dialogue’s art expresses the talking points that it does. There’s a hugely exciting wave of Queer rap rising up through the underground in recent years, one that the mainstream would overlook to its own cost, and with this intense, psychedelic debut, CENSORED dialogue firmly stakes their claim as a potent, dynamic and accessible voice within the genre.