Stan Chisholm is a St. Louis native with no plans of relocating, but he has harsh words for those whose lack of support has driven away many of his peers. "When you kick us to the coast, don't come along/And if you feel like something's missing, fuckin' hum along," he raps on "Hum," the first track of the proper debut under his long-time alias 18andCounting. If you do feel like something's missing, you are right. "Hum" and the other eleven tracks on Unstrumental Raps are completely devoid of background music. In other words, there's no beat.
"I use the word 'unstrumental' because 'a capella' means that the instruments are supposed to be there," Chisholm says. "I don't want to present this like something should be there that isn't. This is my first record, and I need to represent myself as honestly as I can. I don't make beats, so what should I do? Hunt for beats or steal beats from the Internet? I have never wanted to put out music and have it succeed or fail based on the popularity of whatever beats I'm using."
The recording of "Hum" was taken from a guerrilla-style video of Chisholm rapping while driving around the Tower Grove neighborhood. Others were produced by Damon Davis, one half of Scripts 'N Screwz and the mastermind behind the FarFetched Collective that released Unstrumental. Most tracks, like the second cut, "IceColdTofu," were recorded to an actual beat, which was later removed from the song.
"Tofu" is a throwback to Stan Chisholm's time in Chicago, where he and his friends made hate raps for fun. "I can't remember how it started, but we were just hating on the most ridiculous shit, like clouds and water," Chisholm says. "Tofu" bashes on the police, the education system, mass media, homophobia, bad parenting, and the shit list goes on. "I had to take care of the process because ['IceColdTofu'] could easily sound like bitching," he says. "There is some petty shit in there, but I think it deals with something bigger."
The result is Chisholm at his most fiery; a beat would only distract from a lyrical jewel such as "Depression's OK, I just hate when there's weather to blame/So when the springtime bad luck stings/I'm chopping every foot off every rabbit that the carrots bring." The following track, "Adam," is about confused lovers, and it uses parallels with the Garden of Eden to hit on a unique sentimentality. Instruments just a touch too delicate or hard-hitting could send the song awry. And you can practically feel the rude, laid-back snare hits on the fourth cut "NowOrNever" in Chisholm's voice, especially when he drops the line "I don't collaborate for the sake of being friendly."
"Usually I'm pretty standoffish about collaborating," he admits. "Too many other guys are out there collaborating with everybody else just to get in with what's hot and what's happening now. If it doesn't feel relevant, I don't want to do it just because this is what I have to do to make myself famous."
On the next track, "Zoo," Chisholm vents his frustrations at weak local rappers with bad attitudes: "There's a certain pedigree to upkeep/It's getting watery, and as of late we could go for a leak." Later, he deflates his own ego by referencing the record deals he deserves while painting himself penniless at a bar repeatedly saying he's "No alcoholic, just like things a lot sometimes." He is similarly self-deprecating on the following track, "NoBeat," saying, "I got mad hungry when the temperature froze/And never lost my appetite when the temperature rose."
"Sometimes people just want to hear someone rap about status or rap about how good of a rapper they are," Chisholm says. "That's something that's always going to stay true. I get it.
"I have my ways of bragging, but I'm not bragging about status. That's just not me. I'm bragging about being in the broke corner, bragging about being human and still motivated. It's just fun to take that same shit and approach it from a different angle."
18andCounting's mid-album "Interlude" is the perfect example of Chisholm playing with his approach. In an antagonistic experiment, he repeats the phrase "Stay bent, stay busy" with little variation for three minutes. "It's a huge genre no-no to say the same thing over and over, but that's the conversation I want to start with, to take the structure away," he says. "You hear this same thing in ghettotech —there's some hoes in this house — over and over again, but what happens if there is no beat and it's not electronically looped?" After a handful of tracks on Unstrumental driven by his lyrical prowess, Chisholm drops a track that literally anybody could execute — but it's hard to imagine anybody else wanting to.
On "Filth," Chisholm offers a brief explanation for his oddball mentality: "It's some of that old-soul shit." He explains the "old soul" concept as "not being on the same plane and not caring about the same things as your peers. It has a lot to with moving at a different rate and being stubborn in a certain way." This same description is apt for the FarFetched Collective, a group he calls "humble, honest people who are relentless about doing things their way and dead serious about fucking shit up."
He does not mention FarFetched in the next track "NameLook" — the track was written before the collective formed — but the group comes to mind with the line "I surround myself with a certain breed of crooks who don't follow the same book." "NameLook" deals more broadly with the St. Louis community. "It's easy to have city pride and be uplifted and positive," Chisholm says. "But that's not really how I work and what motivates me. I'm thinking about how to talk about the city I'm in with the attitude I'm in. It's exciting to make music and be from St. Louis, and a lot of people haven't heard that story. The underdog complex, that mystery is just ingrained."
Chisholm ends "NameLook" with "When I'm making these moves/It's W.W. MacGyver D. with his neck in the noose" and follows with "Implode," a track that touches on mortality and fame with the urgency of a bomb countdown. He asks, "I wonder if Stevie's gonna die with his eyes closed/And if so, who am I to leave mine exposed?" The song reverses itself in a palindromic form not unlike fellow local rapper Prince Ea's viral "Backwards Rappers," but 18andCounting's is more nervous breakdown than afterschool special.
Stan Chisholm closes out Unstrumental Raps with its most conventional pair of tracks. "Bounce" is all well-earned braggadocio and contains the only direct shout-out to his FarFetched crew. The final track, "Split Seconds," is his most melodic and structured, recurring hook and all, but any normality is erased by Chisholm and Damon Davis' decision to record the vocals outside, behind Davis' studio to allow sounds of wind and distant street noises to seep into the microphone.
"Whatever I make, it's always set out to be a full-blown song, but I end up breaking it down and stripping it," Chisholm says. "I put 'Split Seconds' last on the record because it is the most complete song from a practical sense. You can think of it as a 'to be continued' kind of thing."
Unstrumental Raps is an immediate and challenging collection that blurs boundaries and raises more questions than it answers. It invites deep excavation of its lyrics and long conversations about them afterward. It is not the kind of record an artist makes in order to propel himself into stardom, although it may sell enough copies for Stan Chisholm to buy a drum machine. The entire album is a big ellipsis, and what lies next for 18andCounting is anybody's guess. But no matter what the form, the guiding principles will likely remain humble, honest, relentless and, as he says it, "dead serious about fucking shit up."