There’s No Place Like "Mirrorland"
by Kate Mettetal
“I go loco for my freedom / it’s the only thing that’s real these days.” Acting as the muse for the fictional country of Wakanda in the 2018 film Black Panther, Atlanta, Georgia is no stranger to artistic transformations. With a history entrenched in racism, poverty, violence, and drugs, the city often serves as a metaphor for the urban minority struggle. However, being the home of the most historically black institutions, soul-funk music, one of the most praised hip-hop scenes in North America, and award-winning barbeque, the city has made a significant imprint on contemporary pop-culture. These sticky streets of Atlanta, baptized the Mecca of black culture, provide an energetic backdrop for hip-hop duo EarthGang’s debut album Mirrorland, released this month.
Comprised of rappers Jonny Venus (Olu) and WowGr8 (Doctur Dot), the Atlanta natives’ album sought to thank their hometown for all that it has to offer. The album has been under construction since 2017 and was released on the tails of J. Cole’s Dreamville label’s Revenge of the Dreamers III, which featured Mirrorland’s “Swivel”. By the time of its drop on September 6, Southern rap fans were scrambling to listen. It certainly does sound like the best that Atlanta has to offer.
Inspired by the iconic 1978 film The Wiz, an adaption of The Wizard of Oz starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, the duo’s goal is to give the listener a cultural tour of true black Atlanta while pushing the boundaries of modern hip-hop styles. The first track, “Lala Challenge” is supersonic, vibrant, and groovy. You, as a listener, are prompted by Venus to place your head to the ground and feet into the sky. His somewhat haunting hoodoo makes him sound as if he is some sort of cartoon character. And this feeling is only intensified by samples of an accordion. Yes, an accordion. Although voices distinct with WowGr8’s gritty Southern tone and Venus’s flamboyant howling, the two are dynamic and feeding off of each other’s infectious energy. Mirrorland’s tornado equivalent is over. Silky smooth jazz piano begins to play. Gospel chanting and clapping rises from the rubble. A woman begins ordering chicken. Venus attacks again alongside an expeditious double-time discussing racism and war. Oh, Atlanta! The album’s overall use of wack instrumentals and incoherent ad-libbing exaggerate the bountiful magic that can be found in Atlanta’s streets. A place where people within the margins know true freedom? Insane. Inner-city neighborhoods that are not over-policed and profiled, like the one described in their track “Avenue”? Also insane. A stark contrast from the reality in which they are familiar with. But, according to Venus’s second verse in “Up”, released as a single in 2018, freedom is the “only thing that’s real” in Mirrorland. To Venus and WowGr8, Atlanta is a fantasia of color where artists have the power to create freely and unapologetically.
Mirrorland’s buttery soul-funk, trap, and freaky country blues-inspired tracks pay homage to the music that defined the Empire of the South. EarthGang use their first full-length project to celebrate the black artists behind Atlanta’s flourishing music scene, embodying sounds that applaud the works of city musicians, specifically OutKast and CeeLo Green. The deep soulful melodies that Venus busts out at the beginning of “Blue Moon” are blissfully reminiscent of the Atlanta soul-funk sound of CeeLo. But, let’s clear the air now. Placing EarthGang in the same space and position as OutKast or CeeLo is an unfair assumption. Mirrorland does not aim to replicate the sounds of renowned Atlanta musicians, like OutKast, whom EartGath is so often compared to. The similarity can be drawn in the sense that EarthGang has a sound unlike any other in the current Atlanta rap scene, the component that shot CeeLo, Yung Thug, and OutKast to stardom.
With references to Six Flags, the Falcon special, and the I-85 bridge scattered throughout Mirrorland, it is evident that EarthGang’s hometown is always in hindsight. Tracks like “Trippin” featuring Kehlani, which include samples from a 70-year old organ at Venus’s childhood church, show the very raw and emotional bond that EarthGang has to Atlanta. The harmony between Venus and WowGr8 and R&B-soul-submerged beats brings life to the multidimensional underbelly of Atlanta. WowGr8’s metaphorical lyricism in “Avenue”—stayin’ on my toes / came from the slaves and sharecroppers—offers up an impassioned, poetic reliving of his experience with the black struggle for equality in Atlanta. If you did not know, Atlanta demolished nearly 95-percent of all affordable housing by 1995. It has problems. In track six, “This Side”, Venus, although rapping about his humble beginnings, states that there’s a “whole lot of love” on the side of Atlanta that they identify with. Rather than an emotional commentary on the strife of life in the projects, Mirrorland reads like a love letter to Atlanta and its resilience. While the “wokeness” of the album is incomparable to Kendrick Lamar’s 2017 release Damn, for example, the way in which Mirrorland analyzes and rejoices black Atlanta is buoyant and refreshing.