Ten years to the day since Gramatik dropped Street Bangerz Vol. 1 and began turning a new sub-section of music heads on to boom-bap instrumentals, he returns like the long-lost hero Odysseus bearing SB5, or Street Bangerz Vol. 5, a capstone for his hallowed series of high fidelity hip-hop compilations. With gold-plated production, talented features, tiny allusions and clever composition, Gramatik is able to brilliantly gesture toward his musical past while making music that is completely contemporary. Some doubted that Denis Jašarević would come back with another Street Bangerz. What they forgot is that his infatuation with his home city can’t be contained (why should it be?) and that he’ll never miss an opportunity to pay homage to the Big Apple.
SB5 isn’t as rough around the edges as the original Street Bangerz, but surely no one expected it to be. Certain musical material has been left behind and replaced with Gramatik’s newer flare, like the layered guitar and synthesizer melodies that he began to hone on Street Bangerz Vol. 3 and perfected on The Age of Reason. Taken as a whole, the album does not have the beat tape posture that the older Bangerz did. It doesn’t stray too far from the sound design and musical motifs that Gramatik has grown fond of more recently. Songs like “I Know It” or “East River Soul” featuring Chris McClenney & Adam Stehr, for example, would fit within any Gramatik release from the past three to four years.
At the same time, tunes like “Good Lovin” and “What’s the Use of Jivin’” are pure throwbacks to the earlier Bangerz, with the latter song alluding directly to one of Gramatik’s most famous early cuts, “Hit That Jive”. It’s got all the energy of the original, if not the same pocket. One of Gramatik’s many sonic signatures are those high-pitched vocal samples, cut to pieces and spliced back together in a fashion that seems haphazard, but fits so congruently with the backbeat. This stamp is all over SB5 on songs like “Step Aside”, where the vocals jump and duck in between running string samples and stomping keys. While the musical material has undergone a lifetime’s worth of changes, the same attitude that inspired the original Bangerz is embedded in this new album. To have thought for one second that this would not be the case would be to misunderstand the man behind the sunglasses.
Almost right on cue, Gramatik combines the old and the new elements of his catalog on “Bring it Up”, a front-runner for our favorite tune on SB5. Picture a soul standard, complete with James Brown’s voice, led by an effortlessly smooth synth bass that’s mirrored move for move by an electric guitar sample. Closing his album with true showmanship, Denis offers a live recording of his hall of fame cut “Muy Tranquilo”. In fact, the recording captures the first and perhaps only time he’s ever played this song live. It’s improvised by Adam Stehr to the point of becoming a jam, especially on the keys. For Gramatik’s most dedicated fans, it’s surely touching to hear his most famous song live, if only through a recording.
There’s a telling vocal sample in “What She Said”, an operatic tune featuring the Parisian production duo The Geek & Vrv. It says, “any kid can do that in their basement with a sampler, and it just doesn’t seem quite fair.” In the decade since Street Bangerz Vol. 1, the world of sampled music has evolved light years. The music Denis was making ten years ago is no longer revolutionary now. Any kid in their basement can put together big, sexy beats made up of a dozen samples. Indeed, the airwaves are flooded with such instrumentals. But at the same time - and this is what Gramatik drives home on SB5 without hardly trying - no one can do what Gramatik does. He still has the green thumb, the Midas touch, the biggest big city vibe. He’s been to the mountaintop of electronic artistry, and with SB5 he brings it all back home, offering once again that signature spin on beats and electronic music that no one can touch.