By: Tommy “T-Rod” Rodriguez
London wordsmith Phoenix Da Icefire and producer Husky Brown assemble an exhilarating tour of the crumbling world with great beats and rhymes.
If there is one word I could use to describe London rapper Phoenix Da Icefire, it’s aware. As the world turns around him, his dense lyricism and attention to detail turns everyday moments into centerpieces for thought provoking stories. It’s the core of hip-hop: to describe what the people of the world are feeling and seeing on an emotional and physical level.
On Panacea, Icefire’s latest collaboration with skilled producer Husky Brown, the duo create and deconstruct a dystopian world not unlike ours. It succeeds as a fusion of old school jazz rap and modern psychedelia, while reminding its listeners that the conflict in our world will soon explode in a rainbow colored firestorm.
For fans of hip-hop and trip-hop aesthetics, Panacea is an essential listen. The album is thick with atmosphere, often laid down by some crunchy drums and juicy extras like pianos and synthwork. The album sounds ready to collapse under its own instrumental weight, much like the world that Phoenix crafts in his lyrics, but it supplements the album’s themes in a fitting way. “Shake Things Up” has a horn line that sounds like a chase scene from a classic spy movie, while “Black Queen” serves as a mesmerizing mix of ghostly sampling and mystical drumming. Husky Brown refuses to lessen the impact of his production; every skit adds another interesting layer to the record with its use of dialogue, while the beats are the sets on which Icefire’s characters act and react to oncoming catastrophe.
Icefire’s and Brown’s partnership is a classic example of yin and yang; for as different as the duo seem to be, their ideas couldn’t have come to fruition without the other. When Icefire’s surprisingly good singing voice and melodic flow combines with Brown’s instrumental taste on the Mo-Town esque “Life is Magic”, I’m reminded of the golden hip-hop of yesteryear and a new sound altogether. The album walks on two paths at once: one of the past, one of the future. This mix of old and new ideals is fitting for an album that uses old-fashioned hip-hop techniques to talk about present day vices like racism and environmental collapse with crystal clarity.
Icefire’s writing here is what truly makes for old-school appeal. Throughout the project, Icefire’s bars are consistently thought-provoking, topical, and absurd. His passionate voice makes for a thrilling compass in Panacea’s crazy world, as we follow him through his journey in a moral wasteland. While his topical variety seems to be very scattershot, he nails his subject matter with deadly accuracy, especially when he tackles gang violence on the gritty “Dark Rainbow Light”, whose imagery is so detailed and honest that it’s uncomfortable at points. His rapping is solid, usually taking a medium pace, but it truly hits when he goes into his upper register, like on “Mr. Shine”, where he works in references to Murphy’s Law, King Kong, and breathalyzers in a show-stoppingly cohesive way. Phoenix is excellent at grabbing a variety of words, images, and similes from his word pantry, and making a delicious hip-hop buffet. Better than many other rappers’ lyrical offerings for sure.
Phoenix isn’t afraid to go light either: “Seasons of You” is a gorgeous love song that brings a melodic bounce, gorgeous natural imagery in the lyrics, and a lovely hook from Natalie May. The diversity of the song topics here make sure that a casual listener will find a handful of bops for any occasion. Older rap fans will find easy favorites in the more straightforward cuts like “Judgement Day”, whose effortless delivery and potent lyrics evoke the classy-smoothness of acts like A Tribe Called Quest. Even vegan rap fans can find an anthem in the fantastic “Veganite”, a tropical ode to vegans that employs foreign instruments to create a sense of nirvana amidst succulent fruits and crunchy vegetables. The descriptive nature of the track makes me want to become a vegan…shoutout to Phoenix for planting this seed in my head.
Phoenix Da Icefire and Husky Brown’s efforts, while succeeding on individual levels through good songs, truly shine holistically. Panacea is a perfect example of how to build an in-album universe through track sequencing. With strange interludes that reference mental disorders and relationships, the duo builds a human element that ties into the album’s themes of dystopia and panic. The album’s many protagonists sound confused, but in a way that resembles our own confusion. “Cosmic Soul” and “The Humans are Coming” are perfect examples of this. While they dissect the humanitarian pains that we face today, they are sprinkled with numerous references to alien life and sci-fi that take our real world and turn it sideways. It allows for analytical listeners to recognize the similarities between the album’s world and our own, using alien life as a potent parallel to the oppressed of today. The writing maintains its wittiness throughout the album, describing the numerous highs and lows of today’s world through equally absurd highs and lows in the songwriting. Husky Brown’s musical direction seems to go this route as well, utilizing jazzier sounds for more conscious tracks and zany electronics and horns for more celebratory songs.
Overall, Panacea is an excellent record. As I write this review, I want to run the whole record back and dissect its themes even further. Phoenix Da Icefire has left a lot for us to unpack on his lyrical tour de force and Husky Brown’s production remains as classy and unique as ever. For any conceptual hip-hop fan, this is an essential listen. Hell, a casual music fan will find some joints on here to love. The world may go to shit, but at least we have excellent music like this to soundtrack the apocalypse.
Must Listen Tracks: “Judgement Day,” “Dark Rainbow Light,” “Seasons of You,” “Life is Magic,” “Veganite,” “The Humans are Coming,” “Mr. Shine”
Panacea has arrived to streaming services Oj May 5th. Stream it below! Special thanks to Phoenix Da Icefire, Husky Brown, New Dawn Records, and Urbanelite Promotions for an early preview!