The Wild, Liberated Hip-Hop Of Algernon Cornelius’ ‘Segundo’

Words: Son Raw

One of the joys of UK MCing’s glow-up over the past decade has been the dissolution of lanes and genre orthodoxies. While grime MCs were once (bizarrely) reprimanded for rhyming at anything below 140BPM, and UK hip-hop artists’ more adventurous impulses would be rapidly checked by purists dedicated to ensuring boom-bap remained unchanging and encased in amber, today’s barrers have options—and lots of them, too. From pop-leaning crossover rap to UK drill carrying on the torch for road rap’s nihilism and grime’s high-speed performances, a plurality of sounds compete for listeners, leaving us spoiled for choice. Yet some of the most interesting rhyming in the UK today simultaneously feels like a throwback to UK hip-hop’s early underground era while also looking towards a dark and unknown future, avoiding the temptation to chart entirely in favour of a subterranean art for art’s sake ethos. Enter Algernon Cornelius, and his striking sophomore album, Segundo.

Born of a Jamaican and Northern Irish background, Manchester-based Algernon (note the soft “G”) has been in and out of bands and making beats since the mid-aughts, breaking out once he began spitting in 2018. Listening to Segundo, you can hear this musical journey’s payoff, as the record is awash in heavily distorted shoegaze guitars creeping into tracks like “Where We Are” and “Cloy Royster”. The tumbling beat scene breaks in “Curry Mile”, meanwhile, are a far cry from the typical 808s and soft synth-based beats dominating streaming and mainstream festival stages. There’s a temptation here to lump Cornelius’ music with the sort of lo-fi, high-price point underground rap that’s earning accolades in the U.S. Bandcamp scene—in terms of abstract lyrics and off-kilter beats, Segundo can stand toe to toe with a Dump Gawdz or Backwoodz release.

Despite any musical similarities however, the album is also intensely British, more so a product of post-Brexit malaise and post-lockdown exasperation than anything happening in American hip-hop. What’s more, while the textures pack enough grit and noise to scare off the pop-minded, the album’s fidelity rarely feels low for its own sake, bolstered by weighty engineering courtesy of post-metal savant Joe Clayton. Landing halfway between Roots Manuva’s dubwise, distinctly British take on rap and the experimental side of Dean Blunt, it adds up to a truly singular record that nonetheless maintains a deep-rooted sense of place.

Both musically and lyrically, Algernon describes Segundo as his “blue” album, and it wastes little time letting listeners know why: this is a weary, sanded down record that wears its sadness and grief on its sleeve. Take “Portland Gap” with Leeds’ Beige Palace, for example: a noise-rap soundclash with references to Jacob’s Ladder and Ring Di Alarm, it’s carried by a constant tension between the artist’s interior world and the banal cruelty of life in 21st century England. This forceful, low-fi aggression is counterbalanced by moments of beauty, such as Iceboy Violet’s poetic flow on “ATV” and the aquatic synth motif first heard on “Make The Sun”, which repeats throughout the album before culminating as a full track as the record’s outro. Perhaps Algernon’s greatest strength throughout the record is how these two poles, noisy and ambient, never feel disjointed, as tracks can either build to crescendos or pivot on a dime, revealing new ideas without ever losing the listener.

Segundo’s toughest sell is its occasional lack of intelligibility, as the vocals are occasionally buried under walls of distortion and mixed low, which can turn Algernon’s already abstract and complex lyrics into complete mysteries. This shouldn’t be a dealbreaker, given that his words always deliver musically, but this can be occasionally frustrating, particularly given that he has a lot to say. Taken as a whole, however, the album’s message of resilience in the face of despair rings loud and clear in every looped guitar and distortion blasted exclamation. Though it’s on the outside looking in when it comes to popular trends in UK MCing, this singularity only makes Segundo stand out more, and I doubt Algernon Cornelius would have it any other way.

Posted on May 18, 2023