After listening to Transcendence, the latest full-length LP from Islamabad artist Adil Omar, my first reaction was to marvel at how vulnerable it is. It’s no surprise that the album ends on a vocal sample of Omar’s grandmother saying, about Omar, ‘you were so vulnerable, so vulnerable…in your own little world’.
Omar’s scratchy, gravelly rap voice may initially come across as posturing, as a display of toughness. His overt arrogance and narcissism may also be a reason to be skeptical. But as you listen, this album opens itself up and blossoms into something that is deeply fascinating, emotional and complex, and worthy of repeat listens.
First things first, the production on this record is incredible. Adil Omar leans heavily on thick, crunchy synths that run throughout the entire album. Revelations, for instance, is just a straight banger, a 4-minute endorphin rush of pure pop adrenaline. The Great Redeemer has a much sparser beat, interspersed with vocal samples and a swagging bass line, showing that Omar can do both: maximalist pop and minimalist hip hop.
As Omar has said in the liner notes, the album is supplemented by a eclectic mix of old Lollywood and Pakistani music samples, dug up from various vinyl crates and internet searches. Although these samples rarely make themselves obvious, they form a colourful background for each track, and give the album it’s own distinctive, albeit subtle, Pakistani character.
Lyrically, Omar draws from the blueprint of artists like Kanye West, flipping between grandiose posturing and blistering honesty. The former is where the album is the least interesting. Whenever Omar proclaims himself to be, as he does on Discovery, ‘the king of the jungle’, I just want to shrug my shoulders. Or when he raps ‘this is the greatest song you ever heard’ on Champions – these lines are a dime a dozen from soundcloud rappers. Where the album gets really fascinating is when it explores Omar’s complex relationship with his late father.
The shadow of Salim Omar looms over the entire project. On We Need To Talk About Adil, he raps with searing honesty about his father’s death: ‘Dad’s dead body in the TV room, a couple thousand people at the funeral’. This is where Omar really shines; in being able to juxtapose and construct visceral images with impressive efficiency. While he often enjoys being verbose – reading the lyrics can sometimes feel like leafing through a thesaurus – he is at his best when relating his experience in these simple and effective terms.
We come to the final, stunning track Searching for Salim Omar. A clear standout, the track is wonderfully emotional and encapsulates the album. From a grooving beat overlaid by scratchy raps, he segues into a beautiful flute instrumental. ‘Baba I did it!’ says Omar, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a lump in my throat here. Omar lets the track play out, giving plenty of space, allowing his grandmother to have a spoken word monologue. ‘My baby’s had a baby!’ she says gleefully, remembering Adil’s birth. Here’s a mother talking about her son, and a son rapping about his father. It’s a beautifully constructed track that accepts all the complexity, difficulty and beauty of a cracked family relationship. By the end, you just have to be thankful that Adil Omar allowed us to take a glimpse at his story.