Review: Ensemble Mik Nawooj, Ensemble Mik Nawooj: A Hip-Hop Orchestra


EMN © Golden Fetus

Ensemble Mik Nawooj • Ensemble Mik Nawooj: A Hip-Hop Orchestra • Golden Fetus Records • Release Date: July 28, 2014 

Has there ever been such a thing as classical hip-hop – a blend between two completely different styles with seemingly little in common? It seems like a complete odd-couple stylistically, but talented composer/pianist JooWan Kim makes it work alongside high-flying chamber group Ensemble Mik Nawooj on Ensemble Mik Nawool: A Hip Hop Orchestra. Who would’ve thought hip-hop could be brought to the concert stage or that the orchestra would enter the clubs?

JooWan Kim’s classical training (Masters of music in composition) and his innovative spirit make the five-song EP the success it is. Rather than following the ‘traditional’ path of the composition graduate, Kim embraces non-conformity, looking outside classical repertoire, hence embracing popular music.   Still he doesn’t shun his roots, with his ensemble featuring instrumentation of flute, clarinet violin, cello and piano, as well as soprano (voice), drums, bass, and of course rappers.  You can read more about EMN here.

EMN © Golden Fetus

Much of Ensemble Mik Nawooj is about the gorgeous sounds themselves. The MCs (Do D.A.T. and Sandman) certainly kill it, particularly when the rhymes are agile, motor-mouthed affairs, but Mawooj’s imaginative orchestrations truly make this one of the year’s most unique listens, not to mention its contrasts and impacts on hip-hop in its current state. One of the most notable highlights of the orchestration is how vital the soprano is (Lauren Woody) – she adds an extra spark and colorful contrast to the other instruments. (Annie Smith serves as the current soprano, but Woody was featured on this project).

“First Song” sets the tone for the ‘hip-hop orchestra,’ clocking in at just shy of eight minutes. Despite its ambitious length (definitely a classical music characteristic), “First Song” delivers an epic statement that permeates throughout the course of the LP. The extended length allows for a host of musical thoughts to be shared throughout the instrumental musicians, not to mention the soprano herself.

One of the pros of “We Will Conquer” is the string arrangement. Kim composes some truly alluring passages between violin, cello, and bass. Furthermore, the pronounced use of piano, particularly the heavy left hand bass, adds extra meanness to this minor key cut. Given the music darkness created by Kim and the ensemble, “We Will Conquer” is an exceptional backdrop for the MCs to spit over without a hitch.

“Hope Springs Eternal” is most certainly ‘hopeful’ – filled with the bursting optimism of its musicians. Even those less versed in classical music have to appreciate the skill and exceptional arrangement that Kim and the ensemble have created. Another cut extended in length “Hope Springs Eternal” is worth the time.

“Morning Light” features some of the highest degree of emotion contained within the album. With plenty of dramatic, characteristic classical cues in play, it’s amazing how musically the MCs perform atop the ensemble’s brilliant, inspired accompaniment. The rhythmic intensity of “Morning Light” certainly stands out, particularly towards the end. With all things working soundly, the close of “Morning Light” is the best moment – the soprano’s power sustained high C.

Although the entire album is captivating and beautifully orchestrated, The Wu-Tang cover “C.R.E.A.M” (“Cash Rules Everything Around Me”) certainly draws the most attention. The main reason being because the song is considered one of hip-hop’s most heralded classics, and hearing a classically infused cover is exciting. “C.R.E.A.M.” is initially less elaborately orchestrated compared to the previous numbers, but that soon changes as JooWan Kim ‘does work’ as he does the entire album, building powerful crescendos chocked full of passion and emotion.

All in all, Ensemble Mik Nawooj: A Hip-Hop Orchestra is top-notch. Words can only go so far as to describe the unique and rich experience that has been birthed by this project – the music speaks best about such an exceptional, moving listening experience. This is a truly special EP; it is by no means something you hear everyday. More musicians with such a progressive spirit as JooWan Kim deserve attention.

Favorites: “First Song,” “Morning Light,” “C.R.E.A.M.”

★★★★½

Photo Credits: © Golden Fetus, © Jeff Spirer
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