Heavy psychological difficulty is a hot theme in chart-topping hip-hop these days, with artists like Eminem and Rihanna making Al-Anon worthy testimonies to codependency, and Macklemore vying for soberest man in all of pop. Joining them could be Seattle's Raz Simone — he's part of a scene within the local rap sphere there looking to do national numbers, a new ambition in the city, post-"Thrift Shop."
Raz enters the ring with utmost seriousness. On his opening track, "They'll Speak," he throws rhymes of hardship and heartbreak into the abyss (no drums). He disturbs but doesn't linger — in the middle of a list of things for which he feels guilty, he includes his girlfriend's rape. He raps passionately, and listening to him is an intense experience.
Cognitive Dissonance sounds like a brooding hit, built musically on tidy chord progressions with addictive choruses in the style of Kendrick Lamar (the twisty "Natural Resources"), Macklemore (the gangsta kumbaya of "Still Mobbin") and Seattle villain Nacho Picasso (the way Raz says "bang bang" in "8 Rangs"). There is a smooth geography-less-ness to it all. You won't hear a James Brown drum loop which would indicate East Coast style, but you will hear Japanese Taiko-style blasts ("Don't Shine"). There aren't the wailing synthesizers of California G-Funk, but there are the crossover sounds of trumpets and keys ("Swim Away"). The whole thing is catchy and excellently mixed and mastered and difficult to place.
Content-wise Raz is openly contradictory: "Swim Away" is about leaving Seattle, because, he says, everyone there moves too slowly, intoxicated by legal weed; "Thirsty" ends in a spoken word love letter to the city, an artistic utopia where emotions are automatically richer. He performs the act of rapping like he's running out of breath, like much depends on his words, or delivering them extracts a cost. He presents his lines like the truest autobiography, and some of them may be, though we know that his craft requires him to play roles.
He's skilled enough to make admissions of violence and misogyny believable, eerily so. In the context of Seattle's longstanding issues with human trafficking and prostitution, the pain caused and felt by Raz in songs like the Adele-sampling "Hometown" is difficult to take. Cognitive Dissonance alternates between rhapsodic and discomforting, confessional and dead-eyed.
This swinging-for-the-fences album comes from a city where most rappers (and rockers, and DJs, and practically all musicians) are resigned to staying close to home. It feels like a plea for outside connection. It was made by somebody on the move.