Usually I wouldn’t want to seem cynical right from off, but the fact that Hemlock Ersnt is a pseudonym and hip-hop orientated project of Future Islands lead-singer Samuel T. Herring is something that finds itself (probably unwillingly) at the centre of focus when considering this new Trouble Knows Me EP, provided for musically by legendary beat and sample composer Madlib. That’s not to say that Herring’s performance as Hemlock Ersnt is devoid of a compassion for the genre and soul (more on that later), and it’s a performance that is certainly approached with no lack of energy. I hate to throw this word into the mix so early on, but the problems with Trouble Knows Me surround the various connotations of the word “gimmick”.
There are good things about Trouble Knows Me (a 6 track EP in its entirety). Almost all of Madlib’s beats have that trademark soulful, needle-on-a-vinyl-record hue that embeds so much life and history into the track’s ouvre. The 30-second intro of “Intro (Sensuous Crime)” sets the tone in abundance, and there’s the husky, down-town shuffle of mid-day in 1970s New York- indebted “Interlude (Vision Incomplete)”. “Outro (Drums & Loops” does exactly what it says on the tin, and it’s a gorgeously circulating minute and a half of swooning organic sampling.
It’s Hemlock Ersnt lyricism that lies behind most of the doubtful glances on Trouble Knows Me. On “Streetsweeper” Herring certainly sounds enthused, his gritty rasp residing over the beat with efficient energy. His imagery is often vivid (sample lyric: “Half asleep, like Van Gogh on Death Row”), but his flow borders on ordinary, and sometimes he just sounds faux; there’s no real sense of character yet so nothing to measure the accuracy of his portrayal on.
That sense of character comes through more pertinently on the title track and centre point here. The instrumental is an upbeat re-fitting of soulful brass and deep, baritone vocal cuts. Here Hemlock Ernst paints himself as a desperate, lowest common denominator alcoholic, and the pain somewhat feels genuine as he opens up by talking about a “crash course in addiction” and how his “quarter life crisis got me pissing on the floor at night”. His delivery is more reserved to suit the lyrics’ *ahem* sobering and low-cut tone, letting the unnamed target of his drunken affections on a night out that he is probably only going to let her down.
However, the Beastie Boys-sampling orchestral boom bap of “Celebrity Vision” is much less than a qualifier on both fronts. Madlib’s beat is uncharacteristically unimaginative. And in terms of Hemlock Ernst, this is where the word “gimmick” can be most necessarily employed. “I make gangstas feel shit, that real shit” he spits, before further proving that he might be running short of poetic ideas by continuing “Dust off my dick, took a week to think about some shit”. Hemlock Ernst’s portrayal of himself as a hard line, thuggish persona doesn’t have enough basis; he hasn’t built the character over the course of the EP, and imagining Samuel T. Herring as a member of a Bronx gang hardly reflects any actual facts about.
Whilst the idea of a longer and bigger release by this partnership is still intriguing, there are screws that remain loose here that need to be tightened up if Hemlock Ernst’s persona is looking to be taken seriously. Maybe that’s what we need; a real, 12-track and deep pressed release exclusively on vintage vinyl to test just how authentic and progressive certain aspects of the duo’s countenance are. Trouble Knows Me is a nice idea, but an actuality that needs work.