"When I first got into rap music as a teenager, there was a sense of religious zealotry within the hiphop community. There was a traditionalism that was considered sacrilegious to break from." So explains Yoni Wolf, a former Midwest head who—despite growing up in a flyover state with a rabbi for a dad—relocated to the left coast to start up Why?, an act that currently anchors the hiphop deconstructionists of the Anticon label. Out of fear of upsetting the aforementioned hiphop status quo, or perhaps just acting upon his deep-rooted artistic desire to destroy the genre from the inside out, Wolf steered Why? far from the lockstep ways of beats and rhymes and into the uncharted waters of Alopecia, their recent, critically fawned over full-length.
But to even categorize Why? as hiphop is a bit myopic: The band knowingly skirts the genre—although they're clearly rap connoisseurs at heart—but they veer away far too often to lay their head beneath the hiphop mantle for more than a few passing fragmented lines. "We were all rap kids," explains Wolf. "We had come up listening to rap and we felt like we had our own way of saying things. Why not make music in a hiphop context?" He pauses, before adding, "But at this point I don't feel like the music we make, I don't feel like it's fair to categorize it as hiphop. It's rap music, at times."
With too choppy a delivery to consider his rhymes "flow," Wolf is more of a verbal scavenger than an emcee, an artist who gleefully picks through the mangled wreckage of the English language with a resourceful pride. Alopecia teems with wildly descriptive metaphors ("We lifted the body from the water like a gown"), flashy verbal boasts ("Sending sexy SMSes to my ex's new man cause I can"), an occasional dose of sincere honesty ("Even though I haven't seen you in years/yours is a funeral I'd fly to from anywhere"), and more than a few heartbreakingly romantic refrains ("You're a beautiful and violent work/with a skinny neck of a Chinese bird/in a fading ancient painting").
Wolf's astonishing gift with the pen might be most evident on the album's single, "The Hollows," where his vivid description of "In Berlin I saw two men fuck in a dark corner of a basketball court/Just the slight jingle of pocket change pulsing," comes across as downright tender, a moment of passion so grand that it could not possibly be housed indoors, away from curious eyes—that is, of course, until the local gypsies sucker him out of 50 Euros in a shell game. He's angered, but fear of retribution at the losing end of a gypsy's knife is what ultimately keeps him humbled.