Consider yourself lucky if you can’t empathize with Red Pill. No one channels bleakness better than the blue-collar Michigan MC, whose sophomore solo LP for Mello Music Group, “Instinctive Drowning” plays out like the ghost of Bukowski on a snarling bender. His songs are lifelines for the doomed, death letters written for fatigued skeptics, the anthems of an existence precariously balanced among a fifth of gin and a loaded .38 revolver aimed at the temple.
The album title doesn’t come from some glib “sad boy” gimmick-it’s an allusion to his unstinting depression and chronic alcoholism. The saddest stories are usually the most honest and almost no one is more honest than Red Pill. His music is his own atheist confession booth. “Instinctive Drowning” unravels as a litany of fear and loathing: rooted in the worry that his afflictions are genetic. Many others in his close family have suffered their own battles as well. Pill’s own mother passed at 45 from alcohol-related issues. If he ends up next, the album might as well serve as his requiem.
There is “The New Normal,” which chronicles his bout with viral meningitis, a disease practically alien to those in their late 20s, save for those whose livers are already ravaged. After two weeks of vomiting and vows to quit drinking, Pill finally recovered and went to the liquor store. “Club Privilege” is a club song for people who would sooner kill themselves than go to the club. It doubles as examination of white privilege, where Pill acknowledges the absurdity of his self-pity, while starting brawls and screaming at bouncers.
There is “Fuck Your Ambition.” It is what it sounds like: a rejection of white-picket fence ideals that never really existed. It lampoons the Horatio Alger myths, the lies about self-sufficiency and the way Capitalism has created a slovenly class of consumers. It could come off as self-righteous, but Red Pill is never above the fray. He’s the condemned marching alongside us, suffering for our sins, chewing on stale pizza crust.
Virtuosic Ohio native, Ill Poetic, handled production. The co-owner of San Diego’s Beat Box Records ceaselessly trawled his own bins, sampling forgotten art-punk 45s to foreign psych-funk. From there, he enlisted his Ohio band and a a wide range of musicians and singers to add their seasoning. The music is equally comforting and unsettling, eerie and familiar, offering the ideal contrast with Pill’s lyrics-creating something with soulful depth but raw grit.
Of course, there is a paradox at the heart of this record. For an album that courts death so closely, it manages to be oddly life-affirming. Maybe Pill is an optimist after all. There is the still the slight hope that he can escape, the notion that by writing these songs he can somehow heal himself and help others. He still probably will drown, but for now, few can float this well.