As Adil Omar unveils the first single from his 2020 album, Mastery, Instep lends a closer look to Transcendence – the album accompanied by a film that represents the rapper and songwriter’s most personal work yet, after which he will leave certain things behind – for good.
There is a vile perception that rap and hip hop music – the American kind – that has gone on to inspire artists at home only lends itself to guns, gangster groups, gore, girls, rivalries and violence. Some of that may have been true, once upon a time, and maybe is still true today but rap music is also about a narrative, be it leading life in the ghettos, selling drugs to feed a family or taking out frustration via a creative method at a time when white supremacy is once again on a colossal rise and many mothers have lost their sons at the hands of cops.
It is also true that we now live not only in the age of Dr. Dre, the billionaire rapper who sold Beats to Apple Music, making history along the way but more significantly fans of Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino whose music video and single for ‘This is America’ hits so close to home that you end up asking yourself, “If that is America, what is Pakistan?” due to the facts that guns are readily available in Pakistan and America.
But not all is lost or ever was. We now belong to the age of Kendrick Lamar, the only rapper and hip-hop artist in history to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize and rightly so. The world belongs to The Carters now and to Kanye West.
We also belong to an age when rap at home has also grown by leaps and bounds. Now is the time of Abid Brohi, Young Desi, Young Stunners, Sunny Khan Durrani, Lyari Underground, Faris Shafi, Taha Malik, Sami Amiri, Osama Com Laude and many others. Bollywood also has its eyes on the genre and Gully Boy has a killer soundtrack. Straight Outta Campton from Hollywood and 8 Mile before that represent two powerful films that come to mind. In other words, the perception about rap, particularly one at home, needs to change.
Good to Great
Before we delve into Adil Omar’s Transcendence – an artist who has always been ahead of the curve, having released songs like ‘Paki Rambo’ that still live in memory as well as Mushroom Cloud Effect EP followed by Margalla King EP. He is also one half of SNKM with Talal Qureshi (think ‘Nighat and Paras’) and we must acknowledge that both the audio-visual experience he has created for Transcendence is a form of [revealing] art. We will, as listeners, continue to find different meanings.
You may think, for instance, that Ali Azmat’s ‘Dil Hai Pakistani’ is about jingoism or pure nationalism but to me it is a euphemistic song unlike every other national song you will hear. But again, my interpretation may well be different than yours or the man who created the song in the first place.
However, as the great Susan Sontag wrote in her book, Against Interpretations and other Essays, “Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world – in order to set up a shadow world of ‘meanings’.”
She adds at a later point: “It doesn’t matter whether artists intend or don’t intend, for their works to be interpreted.”
With this in mind, we come to Transcendence – that can be viewed as a whole, immersive experience or for those who do not wish to spare time, can view it as music videos.
Transcendence, the debut studio album is written, produced, performed and directed by Adil Omar. The visual film is also directed by him. Ten music videos feature in the film as a whole while the lyrics are available on Genius.
As for the audio-visual experience, let’s begin with the former, which is where Adil Omar comes home. In terms of collaborations, it features Elliphant, SNKM, Talal Qureshi and Tim Armstrong of Rancid. And upon first visit, it is obvious that it carries a great deal of Omar. He raps in the title track, “Before I taught myself to speak, I had the gift of rhyme/Before impediments and stutters had my lips reclined/I climbed through a tunnel with a vision of a mystic kind.”
In ‘Searching for Salim Omar’, a track about his late father, Adil writes/raps: “Abandoned everything, to go off on my own/And do anything to talk to you or touch you again/Even if it meant going insane, soaking the pain/Self immolation in the flow of the game/We both gamblers by nature, guess we both are the same/I threw the keys of my salvation on the ocean floor and got ‘em/Imagine if I hadn’t, what all this could have been/A nose dive, failed engine and a crooked wing/Denied your presence for the longest time/And then I learned you always had my back along the lines/And as I face not only my demons but also yours/I saw your face staring at me through the corridors/Then all the pain it turned to blessing for me/When I learned you had a message for me…”
Every song, both visually and sonic wise, is about his demons and victories, be it screaming in front of a mirror, or learning lessons from life. But because this is a visual film from Adil Omar, it also feels like a personal but colourful trip, one featuring a protagonist who searches for the self via his authentic, if somewhat kaleidoscope-esque trip.
The greater context between transcendence, the film, album and instrumentals
In addition to the ten-track album, Adil has never been this vulnerable on any of his releases. With each song, Transcendence reveals something.
On the first song, the tone is set for the project via the lyrics. It is also a precursor of Mastery in tone and mood as well. Several songs also represent Adil Omar’s overall taste in music, a stylistic ode that is also present in the intro, ranging from Dr. Dre, NIN to psychedelic ‘60s rock like Pink Floyd and The Doors.
In ‘Champions’, a self-explanatory track in terms of lyrics, it feels like an inner dialogue. It’s the fuel and fire and self belief that has kept Adil going, even when things were working against him. Sonically it’s Adil getting nostalgic about Islamabad on the entire album. So we see a vibe consisting of big Jeeps, guns, 1990s, street fighter, childhood, video games, rocky, victory. That’s what the music looks and sounds like to me.
‘The Great Receiver’ is co-produced with Shamoon Ismail and appears as if an ode to early 90s hip hop: Gang Starr, Tribe, etc but Adil’s own spin with a focus on spirituality and time travel.
On ‘Observer’, there is a Noor Jehan sample and is more about people and perceptions with Adil’s ‘Moreso’, an alias, having an inner dialogue with Adil as he has a conversation with his higher and lower (ego) self and those who doubted him.
But the heaviest song on the album is ‘The Void’ where and while a nod to Nine Inch Nails stylistically is present, it tackles themes of depression, childhood struggles, the loss of a father at a young age. It doesn’t end there, as Adil raps: “Lost our father to the void without a turn for any closure/Didn’t let the same happen to our mother.” He goes on about his own near to death experience, being electrocuted in the shower, mental illness, suffering abuse as a kid, PTSD, loss of innocence – things Adil Omar doesn’t talk about. In the video of the ending of the ‘The Void’, we are introduced to Adil’s M Bison inspired super-villain alter ego, which we assume he will build on further in Mastery.
‘Discovery’ is the follow-up to ‘The Void’ with the vocal sample throughout in the intro and bridge being Adil’s Nani. It’s a very spiritual track with Talal Qureshi having served as co-producer and a featured artist; it also features Tim Armstrong from Rancid on guitars.
Vulnerable, naked, sarcastic, narcissistic, the album is about his journey in life and all the lyrics featured on Genius (the website) give one a deeper insight about who Adil Omar is – his humanity, his struggles and his triumph.
The record is Adil’s personal triumph as well as he breaks the barriers set for him as a Pakistani hip-hop/rap artist. It is also symbolic because Adil has no plans to use desi sounds in his upcoming work, almost as a farewell.
It would be unfair to recommend one song. Listen, watch and read (the lyrics) of all of them and a different Adil Omar will emerge, one the public doesn’t get to see often – or at all.