Praise be to Spillage Village, the US supergroup whose live-in lockdown studio made this year’s best hip hop, soul and gospel offering.
Rarely is an album so well-situated in time as Spillage Village‘s fourth outing, Spilligion. Uniquely a product of 2020 and pandemic lockdown, the album is reflective of the impacts on community and spirituality in hard times.
Spillage Village stems from the friendship between Atlanta heavyweights J.I.D and EARTHGANG (rapper/vocalists Johnny Venus and Doctur Dot), having met at Hampton University. The collective quickly grew to include brothers Hollywood JB and Jordun Bryant, with soul singer Mereba, multi-instrumentalist Benji, and RnB star 6lack joining later. In early 2020, J.I.D. rented a house to complete a personal project, but instead began inviting S.V. members to live together during the coronavirus outbreak. Spilligion is the child of this environment – a coming together of friends in a time of crisis.
“Each member personally adds to a collective spiritual service.”
The record feels like a glimpse into that house. After a scene-setting opening skit, the first full track ‘Baptize‘ feels dark and menacing, a taste of the outside world at the time. After some top-end lyricism from both EARTHGANG members and J.I.D., a sonic ‘baptism’ brings listeners into the warmth and comfort of the S.V. house. The record stays in a positive, more RnB-centric space for the remainder of its run time, only looking through the window to the outside world on ‘End of Dayz’. Like ‘Baptize’, ‘End of Dayz’ is an out-and-out hip hop track, mulling over the state of lockdown America over a moody, slapping beat.
The remainder of the album focuses more on the positive, celebrating community despite the uncertainty of the world outside. Throughout the album, listeners get a sense of the artists being all together in a studio, bouncing off each other and jumping in to provide verses, backing vocals or ideas. Rather than recording to create an album, it feels like the diary of a series of jam sessions amongst friends. Cuts like ‘Shiva‘ and ‘Cupid‘ reflect this the most, with the mic passing from artist to artist for verses, while everyone lends a hand on the chorus. Although this formula does render some of the tracks a little predictable (especially in the middle of the record), there’s still plenty to unpack thanks to the sheer depth of talent in the room.
Alongside this community, spirituality remains the defining focus of this album. While the cover art (an altered Madonna and Child) and the opening skit point to a Christian version of this, the group explores something more universal. “Don’t try to tell me that it matter what I call God” raps Dot on ‘Mecca‘, a sentiment that extends throughout the album. The complex, yet often scrappy vocal harmonies feel like an impromptu gospel choir meeting, outside of church hours, but a celebration nonetheless.
“It’s a response to coronavirus, B.L.M., inequality, and so many issues of today.”
Gospel music permeates the record. On tracks like ‘PsalmSing‘ and ‘Ea’alah‘, this is front and centre with layered harmonies and buoyant choruses. ‘Hapi‘, one of the two closing songs, features an ecclesiastical ensemble of instruments, with the piano, organ and guitar providing the comforting warmth of a Sunday morning service. A stunning solo from Johnny Venus and spoken word sermon from Big Rube float over the top. It feels like the end of a tough week in the S.V. house, with each member personally adding to a collective spiritual service.
Peppered throughout these broader themes are pockets of brilliance. Benji’s bass playing is a constant on the record – soulful grooves that tie tracks together and add to the session feel of the album. EARTHGANG’s Venus plays a similar role, providing hooks, adlibs and vocals that glue individual performances into something cohesive. Usually solely a singer, Mereba delivers one of the best verses of the album on ‘PsalmSing’ matching contributions from J.I.D., EARTHGANG’s Doc and a guest appearance from Chance the Rapper on ‘Judas’. Spilligion has allowed for experimentation outside of artists’ usual musical remits, and the record is the better for it.
Now, is this really the best album to come out this year? Personally, I’m yet to enjoy an album as much as this, but there’s still time left for a heater to drop. However, Spilligion remains 2020’s album. A response to coronavirus, B.L.M., inequality, and so many of the issues of today. Yet also a confirmation and celebration of community in the face of these challenges. The record is both soothing and contemplative, intensely optimistic and wittily cynical. The high calibre of musicianship shines through, with the rapping, singing and spoken word as good as anything released in the past few years. The album’s crowning feature, however, is how it invites us into the Spillage Village house, so we can sit in on studio sessions, group interactions and conversations. If times this bad produce music this good, we can’t worry too much, right?
“So hold my hands and dance with me tonight /
You know, they say we’re all about to die /
And maybe it’s the love we all are tryna find /
Who knows what lies, it’s only by design”
Stream Spilligion here
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Written by: Nick Penny