As Interpol’s heart and (perpetually morose) soul, Paul Banks was a leading voice of the indie rock revitalization of the early 2000s. He and his bandmates have continued to push the evolution of post-rock, finding new ways to soar with recent efforts like 2014’s El Pintor. And yet all the time he’s been this modern-day rock star, Banks has been building to life as a rap kingpin.
It started with his solo career, including 2009’s Julian Plenti Is… Skyscraper and 2012’s underrated Banks. These were minor flirtations, with Banks experimenting with beatmaking and utilizing sonic ideas culled from ‘90s alt hip-hop outfits. In 2013, he took it a step further by releasing Everybody On My Dick Like They Supposed To Be, a mixtape featuring heavyweights like El-P and Talib Kweli. But now Banks has made a proper leap into hip-hop-dom by teaming with the legendary RZA as Banks and Steelz. The project name isn’t the only thing that doubles as a ’70s buddy cop flick.
The first success of Anything But Words and the group in general is RZA’s involvement. He’s an icon of the industry, the Wu-Tang Clan’s unofficial high priest, skilled at blending ideas and sonic influences. While he’s always had an experimental streak as a producer, it seems he’s been increasingly open to newer, less traditional ideas. The Man With the Iron Fist OST comes to mind as pushing hip-hop production boundaries. That dynamic between the pair — two elder statesmen meeting in the middle musically — is what both drives and impedes this record.
When they duo is in sync, the result is tracks like “Conceal”. It’s the perfect synthesis between Banks’ sullen crooning and the rapid-fire flow of RZA. Even the production is near perfect, a hodgepodge of organic drums and a spidery bass groove that bubbles with passion and intensity.
“Can’t Hardly Feel” isn’t as profound an example, and the production struggles to find the balance between aesthetics. Yet Banks and RZA are practically speaking to one another, their shared emotional output digging into the heart. Offerings like “One by One” and “Point of View” further this sense of collaboration. Banks nearly fades into the sweltering guitars and boozy pianos, but you can feel him lifting up every one of RZA’s bars.
These tracks work because they’ve found a way to overcome an essential problem in the long and sordid union between rap and rock: There’s not always time for everyone. And when this record does fall short, it’s because of that very mismanagement.
Take, for instance, “Giant”, one of the most manic and inspired vocal performances from RZA. But, as happens in several key moments, Banks feels like nothing but support, left to hum some poetry outside all of the action. It happens again in “Love and War”, where the added heft of Ghostface Killah stifles the Banks-RZA dynamic.
Sure, the Interpol-Wu-Tang bond does permeate most of this 12-track record, providing ample structure and support. But the fact that they aren’t back to back at all times, swinging axes into our synapses, hurts the momentum and prevents even more profound moments.
The two have still done a great job of carving out a very specific and yet varied sound. They’ve raided their personal catalogs and myriad influences, birthing this living monster where tropical horns exist happily alongside chugging guitars, strands of punk noise, and gospel serenity. While the record shifts wildly in tone and intent, it’s anchored by compelling performances from Banks and RZA. They bring out the best in each other, with Banks wailing and emoting like never before as RZA brings heaps of nuanced lyrical fire.
It’s that sense of camaraderie and mutual uplifting that ultimately matters most. We’re seeing two guys with great track records reach across the musical aisle to find new ideas and inspirations to explore. It’s not perfect, but Banks and Steelz take risks many other artists might avoid, more than proving their worth.
Essential Tracks: “Conceal”, “Can’t Hardly Feel”, and “Point of View”