Often we treat records as developments to an artist’s career or a response to their previous work. It’s become a game of would-you-rather: Contra or Vampire Weekend? Visions or Art Angels? We expect each new release to explain who they are as succinctly as the last. With Emay’s newest album Ilah, now is the time to break the habit; dwelling on career perspective is inconsequential as he need only point to Ilah to prove himself.
Emay, born Mubarik Gyenne-Adams in Hamilton, Ontario, is a vibrant young rapper who has a knack for setting raw lines of poetry against distinct, self-made beats. He grew up in a Muslim household and his family frequently moved around between shelters, living briefly in Toronto and Brampton, eventually returning to Hamilton where Adams has put down roots in the local music scene.
His debut was titled Adam, a double entendre, conflating the Quranic figure with himself in seemingly the same way that Jay-Z does of Jehovah. In a demonstration of his most basic form of wit, Emay even draws on the homophone “atom,” the primary source of matter, or non-life as it is. This album was called a feat for the young Canadian artist, though as many have agreed, Ilah expands on Adam tenfold; the new LP has been in the works for five years, but draws more accurately from Emay’s entire life.
Adams is both an artist and an activist. He uses his voice to expose struggle and contribute to or, if necessary, start conversations, such as when a recent video he shot of a racially-charged altercation went viral. In the video, a woman is seen yelling at a cab driver, accusing him of stealing from her before she physically attacks him. She is white, the driver black, and so almost predictably, she began using the N word to assert her superiority. When he posted the video on Facebook, Adams questioned this in a broader context:
“In pretty much any conflict between people that’s of an abusive nature you’ll have one individual, or both, trying to belittle one another as much as possible, but it’s always interesting that when it’s between a white person versus a black or brown person that their race more often than not will have to be mentioned as if it’s a crutch.… This behavior and reaction by the woman comes from a system that discriminates against certain people in order to exploit the lot of them while only a few are benefiting in the long term. This commotion you see is only the tip of a leaf violently rustling, with the root of the tree being capitalism linked with systemic racism. Alas.”
Adams’ anger turns into action on Ilah. This record achieves an intersectionality that leaves no one out and invites us to question everything.
Before releasing his newest LP, Emay was restless. He mentioned it in several interviews over the years, teasing it in surprisingly profound bursts, and even threatened to leak a track early. In January last year, he told Pigeons and Planes that his new project had to do with “ideas as deities,” and with Ilah now in hand, his meaning is almost too clear, ironically so. ‘Ilah’ is an Arabic word that refers to a lesser, nonspecific god; it is in direct opposition to the term ‘Allah,’ which of course refers to the accepted God of Islam or Judeo-Christianity. And the opening track on Ilah is titled “Idea,” an introduction to a lifetime of experiences and emotions which have made Adams into the infallible sinner he is today.
Ilah is intrinsically linked to Islam, seen through a mind riddled with doubt of everything, including himself. He asks both rhetorical and concrete questions intending to explore more of humanity’s psyche through his own experiences throughout its twelve tracks (the number twelve acting as another important Quranic symbol). “7th” is a more personal introduction to Emay, spelling out his dreams but also admitting a lack of confidence in getting there. God is nearby, but Emay hasn’t given Him a purpose yet, and rather questions whether God will have one in his life at all: “If God already knows my destiny, then what’s the point if he controls my entropy?”
Adams worked mostly solo on this record. A few guests contribute on the refrains, grounding the lofty project, but never detract attention away from what is largely autobiographical. Emay also produced all the backing tracks throughout Ilah, filling it with chopped drums and spliced samples for a unique listening experience, if not an acquired taste. The album’s production is tied to its sentiment, starting with a breeze that carries light chimes which evolves into harsh industrial crashes. Compressed samples accent drums, at first in short cuts, but that grow into another, manipulated voice on the record. On “Yesu,” Emay incorporates the hums of a crackling soul clip into the spine of the track’s beat. An obscure folk sample of Footscray College comes in after a verse on the title track, and somehow feels like it was always there, mixed in organically to sound as if this were a folk record with a guest rapper rather than the other way around.
At once both heartbreaking and vindicating, “Ibn” confronts many of Emay’s personal issues front and center. Emotion reaches a milestone, helped by a lone, elongated brass note as it whizzes past us like a speeding car; a man shields his eyes from the sun, frantically searching the distance when he interjects: “Son?” But Emay is not related to that father, nor does he wish to be found by his own. “I never had a father and I’m past one. So when I don’t pray I curse God and thank God I never had one.”
Throughout the record, Emay grows and we grow with him. Nebulous ideas become more solidified as opinions as Emay leads us through his lifetime of struggle. For the final two-thirds of the record, he discusses societal hypocrisies as they converge with organized religion and other social injustices. He finds his voice when he realizes that you aren’t always supposed to do what you’re told:
“I didn’t listen so now I’m drifting in dissidence
Enlisted in dissident dissonance and initiatives. Incidentally
my instrument in this instance is insolence”
Racial tension rears its head in memories of racism endured by himself and his close kin, as well as in descriptions of police brutality on “Yesu,” which is also the only time he uses the N word. The rest of the verse is a thesis on Emay’s political opinions. In addition to racial injustice, he recognizes that a woman’s greatest enemy is men and that the indigenous never got their retribution. Of course, Emay is too coy of a songwriter to put it bluntly, but he let L-SPEX do so on the only guest verse on the record: “If you don’t fight for equity, it’s hard to take you serious.”
Approaching the final few tracks on the album, there is a sense of maturity. Not at the songwriting level–Emay achieved that long ago on Adam–but rather inside the songs themselves; conflict becomes internal. “It’s fucked up that I have the privilege,” he says on “Apolitico,” after acknowledging the systematic pressures on even his fellow oppressed. This track is set apart with a fairly structured superhero narrative where Emay wants to “save the day.” After internalizing all the troubles that affect our world, he understandably wants to take action, but even the righteous have bad days: he forgets his cape, he laments his own biases, the situation overwhelms him. Does he even deserve a cape? With the amount of suffering that continues each day, do we deserve to celebrate even small justices?
Emay never needed a God, after all. He sought guidance from Allah, but was only left with more questions and vitriol on the condition of the world that He supposedly created. Yet, in an ironic twist, Emay knows when his work is done. Just as Allah rested on the final day of creation, the twelfth track on Ilah is instrumental. It’s also the most pop-like song that he may have ever recorded, which is an eerie reprieve from the intentionally dissonant cuts of his main catalogue. Perhaps “Setsuko II” is Emay’s purgatory: a lyricless track meant for those chained to their doubts, eternally waiting for judgment.
Words: Zoë Elaine