On Cliff Notez and Dephrase’s collaborative EP, two stalwarts of Boston’s music scene illuminate modern woes and fight them back with creative production and skillful writing.

If variety is the spice of life, then 2020 is a microwaved chicken breast—meal-prepped a week ago. Even if one hasn’t had the privilege to work from home, a tense monotony has almost certainly crept into their daily life, inserting itself through a sustained barrage of negativity on social media, the impossibility of meeting strangers, and seemingly unending political and existential dread. While this all might seem morose, these events have also revealed an underlying social crisis that has left Americans overworked and unfulfilled. On their collaborative EP, Social Absence, established Boston rapper Cliff Notez and producer Dephrase—who recently released an album with Flowerthief under the project Optic Bloom—appear to confront this malaise while offering a remedy through their stylistic approach.

In his piece in The Atlantic about the new religion of “workism”, Derek Thompson posits that “a culture that funnels its dreams of self-actualization into salaried jobs is setting itself up for collective anxiety, mass disappointment, and inevitable burnout.” While Social Absence both lyrically and sonically grapples with this disillusionment, its first track, “Voodoo Doll,” a collaboration with Latrell James, most explicitly captures the EP’s thematic elements.

Over a therapeutic beat reminiscent of an all-too-familiar scene, James laments, “Lately I’ve been working hard for someone else’s dream/ Should I blame it on myself or on my self-esteem?” The brilliance of Dephrase’s production on this track—which surely will be on many local year-end “Best Of” lists—is not only his unwillingness to let the lyricists linger in their rhythmic routine but the smoothness with which he transitions into various movements. Kendrick Lamar’s influence features prominently throughout the EP, but is especially recognizable in the ominous, toned-down voice that James uses to ask, “How are you alive if you do the same thing every day, a zombie?” Dephrase uses this acapella moment to switch into a faster rhythm that captures the burnout of which Thompson warns.

Cliff Notez enters in the second half of this movement and enumerates tragic modern expectations: “Number one: waste your whole life on Earth trying to calculate your worth / Number two: count your blessings with insurance and get what you deserve.” The beat builds to a trumpeted crescendo before disintegrating into a vector that leads into an even more relaxing beat than the one the track started with. It’s an immensely satisfying work that manages to capture modern anxiety both figuratively and literally.

Kid Cudi foreboded in the late 2000s the role mental health would play in hip hop, a topic which largely presents itself through today’s angsty Soundcloud rap. On “Spiral”, Cliff Notez captures the worried thoughts someone might have before descending into an anxiety attack: “You need water? / I need water!” In doing so, he also illuminates another reality: individuals from Black and Latino communities are at higher risk of mental illness due to disparities in access to behavioral health care. White rappers such as Eminem, Mac Miller, and Machine Gun Kelly have rapped about mental illness and substance abuse throughout their careers; it’s only lately that the mental health of prominent black musicians has risen to the forefront. It’s inspiring and crucial to hear hip hop address this issue on the local scene as well.

A device that Lamar often uses is repetition (“Pour up, drank, headshot, drank / Sit down, drank, stand up, drank”). “Repeat” begins with the same method: “Wake up, work, stress, sleep / Cut, copy, paste, repeat.” Yet, Dephrase continues his pattern of surprising the listener by almost completely changing the beat from another classic lo-fi beat—to one that sounds like Flying Lotus, within the same track. Consciously or unconsciously, his production seems to provide an antidote to the monotony and exhaustion that Cliff Notez, Latrell James, and Derek Thompson have referenced. The listener is reminded of music’s ability to produce new possibilities anywhere and anytime, and that in itself is hopeful and energizing.

Despite all the difficulties, boredom, and general frustration 2020 has wrought, one bright spot has been the amount of great music that has come out lately on the local and international levels. Many artists have even been inspired by the experience of the year’s uniqueness. The diversity of sound that constitutes Social Absence mirrors the vast array of new music that has come out this year, but it also reflects the general sense of confusion surrounding future and recent events. One can only hope 2021 will be more like a chicken tikka masala—packed with spice and flavor, but always reliable.

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