BLKD’s debut album Gatilyo hits all the right notes
Exciting times out here for local hip hop.
Time was, Filipino rap musicians were at the mercy of mainstream radio stations and record labels. Quietly branded as jologs, or at least not as cool as Pinoy rock, Pinoy rap lived in the sidelines as the occasional novelty song or short-lived hit. Today’s underground hip hop has gone their own route, thriving in the digital age. Bangers are churned out through accessible music and recording software and promoted through the internet’s viral, peer-sharing culture. Mainstream’s shunning of early hip hop has shaped it into the monster it currently is: unafraid to say what it wants, with a diverse spread of MCs across the country, and a dedicated following.
Among the new pantheon of Pinoy hip hop’s wave-makers is BLKD (“Balakid”) who made his bones rap battling in FlipTop. To the uninitiated, a quick Google search should yield some of his finer rounds (and a few brutal moments of epic choking). He’s built his name as a smart, socially-aware rapper with thick-framed glasses, unabashedly dropping bombs about his UP and activist background.
These days, BLKD has ditched his specs –they never had lenses, he admits– and put on some pounds, but his zingers still sting. With the launch of Gatilyo, he’s stepping up his game.
9 tracks in, Gatilyo (or trigger) clocks at a modest 30 or so minutes, but every song packs quite a punch. Generously supported by DJ UMPH, the beats touch on all the hallmarks of a modern hip hop classic while BLKD’s razor-sharp lyrics sound the alarm on our 21st century, 3rd world living.
Style, Structure, and Powerful Pronouns
Listening to Gatilyo makes two things abundantly clear: the songs are ordered in a particular way, and BLKD is very conscientious about how he positions himself with his audience.
The tracks flow into each other in a patient, almost exploratory method. It feels like listening to a hip hop academic paper– complete with an abstract, about the author, statement of purpose, arguments, and a call to action conclusion.
It helps as well that BLKD doesn’t jump on the trend of machine-gun fast rap. There is a time and place for bullet-speed rap, particularly when MCs want to show off their skills. But when an MC wants to deliver a message, a clear and compelling flow is best.
BLKD puts his rhymes to work, switching his flow two or three times over for each track, and peppering songs with wordplay. But his strongest suit may be when he’s throttling a point with stark clarity, and counting himself as one amongst many, an element of a larger group, part of the audience and the wider Filipino experience.
“Pagmulat ay pagkasa, tayo ang gatilyo,” he says in the title track. It’s rare to pinpoint any instance in the album when BLKD refers to himself as ako*. The handful of times he says “sila” is when he’s accusing an oppressive upper-class of profiting from the wider populace’s suffering, in a track that loops “Mga kapatid, sugod” as hook. In a Game chockfull of rappers who keep feeling themselves, BLKD firmly declares that he is one of us.
Track by Track
Is it a track? An intro? An abstract for the rest of the album?
Whatever it is, Gatilyo sets the tone. From the get go, BLKD clearly defines the scope of his music. “Luwal sa panahon ng nakapaniping kalayaan” is exactly what Gatilyo the album is– a product of a strange and complicated time. He outlines certain bitter ironies (“Panay sakahan may kagutuman?”) as well as the state of our generation (“Tayo’y minamanhid sa sakit ng ating mga kapatid”). It’s a haunting track and a clear warning: this is a political album. No two ways around it.
Fellow UPRISING MC, slick-talking KJah joins BLKD in this riding-in-tandem track that shows off how different they are from the rest of the rap game. Kawal could well be a boast/ diss track if they bothered to drop names, but as is, they simply take shots at a whole range of arts culture in general. These boys aren’t here for the money or fame but for the noble calling of making radical hip hop.
Beat-wise, this is very likely the album’s weed song. Slow and chill, inviting you to hit that J. Then BLKD comes on, taking on the persona of the Philippines– yeah, literally the entire country (“*Ako ang perlas ng silangan/ mayamang sadlak sa kahirapan”). Just as Kawal was a twist on a boast/ diss track, Mayyaman is BLKD’s answer to the hometown anthem (see also: Nas’ NY State of Mind and 2Pac’s To Live and Die in LA). Instead of repping a single city, BLKD puts the whole country on the map.
Now this is impressive. The previous songs had BLKD slinging one-two lyrical punches, but Bente has a narrative. The track follows a 20-peso bill exchanging hands, through the stories of different people on the street. BLKD’s characters (promdi newcomer, strung out jeepney driver, hapless saleslady, desperate crook) are somewhat similar in archetype to the jeepney passengers in Gloc 9’s stellar Bayad Ko (broken-hearted father, suffering whore, rugby boy). Though the songs differ in attack, these familiar faces of poverty are two sides of the same coin. While Gloc 9 paints lonely pictures of hardships, BLKD draws a line connecting these stories together. And while Gloc has veteran musician Noel Cabangon singing his chorus, BLKD opts to have no hook whatsoever. Point, BLKD.
A round of applause to DJ UMPH for this great party beat. For all intents and purposes, this is the radio track, the danceable song meant to appeal to the average listener (see also: Eminem’s My Name Is and Outcasts’ Hey Ya). But BLKD has other plans. In this track, he calls out the fat cats who pad their pockets while the rest of us toil and starve. The hook is a ballsy threat: “Mga gastador, wag nang magtaka, letchon na kayo bukas makalawa.” Considering the timely context of the Pork Barrel scam and other government corruption scandals, there is near zero chances of ever hearing this on the airwaves. And that’s a shame.
Para San ang Tapang Mo?
The sixth track has beats you can bump to when driving slow at night. Like Bente, Para San ang Tapang Mo tells two stories of disaffected youths who join seemingly similar gangs but with different outcomes. Without being too overt about it, the first verse is of a kid who joins a mass organization (hem, hem) and takes up arms to fight in what he believes in. Barely skipping a beat in between, the second verse picks up on another kid already in deep with his chosen gang, but their sudden violence is sparked by petty reasons. All this is neatly tied up with a hook that asks listeners what they’re willing to fight and die for. As a brilliant cherry on top, the track samples quotes right outta Rizal’s El Filibusterismo.
Another curious track. DJ UMPH spins a perfectly chill beat suited for hanging out on a beach, then BLKD goes all in with absolutely no chill at all, sounding more at home on a megaphone than a mic. Lyrics-wise, this is a war song where BLKD draws a line in the sand, pointing fingers at a clear enemy (“Sinong namumuno? Sila-sila lang.”) and calling on hip hop soldiers to ride.
No lie, this song is incredible. Paring the beat down to a simple bell loop (reminiscent of 2Pac’s Hail Mary), BLKD’s already slow flow goes even slower so you never miss a line, like a friend giving sober, serious advice against the ills of trusting people too much, too fast. Of the entire album, Taksil may be the most traditional of hip hop tracks. It’s also the least political but for a crazy sharp line– “Aral ng kasaysayan, bunga ay peligro, ng pagpapabaya sa mga Hudas at Emilio.” Did he just call out the first Philippine president from over a century ago? If Gatilyo teaches us anything, it’s that our present situation is the fruits of past sins.
For an album that goes HAM to agitate its listeners, May Pag-asa is a welcome break and the perfect note to end Gatilyo. It’s a head-bopping party beat and for the first time, BLKD shifts to a slightly lower gear. He underlines everything he’s been saying in the album (“May mga problemang panlipunan, pasan-pasan nating lahat”) but makes sure to highlight that changing the status quo is possible and completely in our power. It’s a hopeful song, a feel good song, and the best way to wrap up this strong debut album. #