Published on October 12th, 2013 | by Daniel Rahe0
Rockwell Powers Makes No Small Plans on “BUILD”
Rockwell Powers is putting out an ambitious full-length album today (October 12), his first in far too long. Powers collaborated with the keen-eared D.J. Phinisey to make “BUILD,” and brought in a van-load of his Tacoma friends to supply guest vocals. The result is a hip hop album that sounds big, but still grounded in the City of Destiny. The album release show is also tonight, at Grit City Grindhouse, and will feature Ra Scion, The Breaklites, and Mr. Melanin. Concert details here.
Powers, known in civilian life as Zach Powers, is Tacoma’s revitalization personified: community-oriented, activist, artistic, intelligent – Powers is a confident and talented advocate of many things, and comfortable in many roles. He’s also the kind of restless young guy who, even when still, appears to be moving. He’s going places, no doubt about that.
Although the music Powers makes is, in ways, separate from his community work, his personality and experience is an inescapable part of “BUILD,” striding through each track as the agitated and wide-eyed protagonist. It is a gamble to make an album as profound as “BUILD” hopes to be; nevertheless, in some key ways Powers and his compatriots have delivered emphatic satisfaction.
There are a lot of words in “BUILD,” and not a single one is casual. Rockwell Powers and friends are clearly aiming for the bleachers with every swing. Though this record bears the imprint of many talented artists, Powers dominates with ease, his earnest words and husky voice taking center stage. Many of the songs reach for big ideas with boldfaced lyrics (such as, “There’s more to this place – it’s time somebody say it,” on “Gone”), deliberate rhythms, and soaring music. And with 12 tracks combining to make “BUILD” about an hour’s worth of listening, there’s a lot of powerfully delivered messaging to take in.
The album also succeeds in being approachable even for listeners who would not usually listen to rap. Some might see this as a drawback or a dilution, but Rockwell Powers is a passionate, no-bullshit guy who has never presented himself as an innovator or auteur. He’s in love with hip hop and he’s focused on delivering his message. With the release of “BUILD,” he is zeroing in on his established themes – justice and self-awareness – with commanding velocity.
While you can sense Powers is standing with shoulders squared, facing the world’s complexities eye-to-eye, Phinisey’s unerring compositions make the confrontation enjoyable. Since the rapping is always literal and direct, Phinisey elegantly delivers doses of abstraction in his clean, silky vocals and refined, almost stately, beats.
“BUILD’s” standout track is the stark “Denial,” which features a guest verse from Ra Scion. Powers and Ra Scion rip into descriptions of social inequality like rabid sharks, loading each line with damning conviction. It’s one of those songs that can reignite the cooling embers of radicalism in those of us who used to live for every new issue of Adbusters, Village Voice, and Mother Jones, but are now chained to a cubicle and a mortgage.
At times, tracks like “Up to Old” (with beautiful guest vocals from Goldfinch’s Aaron Stevens and Emily Peterson) and “True” come off a little predictable and safe, or at the worst, not quite fully formed. But even then, Powers is still pretty damn likeable in the chaotic wake of righteous boldness, insecurities, and wholesome confessions, glancing off the walls of his still-verdant integrity.
“Alive” is the record’s moment of pure pop bliss. Powers’ verses serve less as lyrics than as a rhythmic instrument, weaving between Phinisey’s most effective vocal hook and an expertly restrained, distorted backing track. “No Bull” taps the same sweet vein, but with a leaning, rocking edge, and a verse from Jay Barz that climaxes at the line, “Yes, I’m hopeful that one day, I won’t have to call my music ‘local.’”
“BUILD” is a rallying cry for the prematurely contented, and a reflection of a sometimes downtrodden city. Rockwell Powers is a natural rouser, and Phinisey adds an echoing sonic backdrop to the titanic scale of the album’s vision. BUILD is wrapped in a life-affirming tone, with the mundane details of life constantly tied to cosmic concepts, as if grandeur is a daily experience. Maybe it’s a bit cinematic and lacking in subtlety, but if it catches you at the right time, “BUILD” can make you starry-eyed.
Without a doubt, most of Rockwell Powers’ audience is in Tacoma. There is nothing wrong with that. But in listening to “BUILD”, one has to wonder how these tracks might be received in any other city. Why does it matter here? What does it say about Tacoma?
This record cannot be easily dismissed. It’s Powers’ best work, and hints at an evolution in his sense of composition. It is a milestone for Rockwell Powers and his scene, and perhaps a key element in the perception of our city’s music.