The fervor in SKECH185’s voice is a lot to process. He raps with frenzied energy, compressing and elongating complicated thoughts as if trying to outrace his own brain. It’s jarring at first; if you’ve never heard SKECH rap, his animated rasp can shock your system like a polar plunge. Though he’s lived in New York for the better part of a decade, the Chicago native and his Tomorrow Kings crew were (and still are) a dominant force in the Windy City’s rap underground. He began as a battle emcee at age 14, rubbed elbows with crews like Galapagos 4, and made a name for himself as a caustic force to be reckoned with. And though he channels gruff-voiced rap icons like Freddie Foxxx and Mystikal, there just isn’t anyone who sounds quite like SKECH185.
In the video for “He Left Nothing for the Swim Back,” the first single and title track to him and Jeff Markey’s blistering, brilliant new album, SKECH often peers down the barrel of the camera with a calm intensity. His stare is unwavering, only accented by the occasional furrowed brow. It’s the kind of eye contact someone holds when delivering a message meant to stir the soul. He’s not a manic street preacher, but simply an exasperated human getting tired of asking variations of “Why?”
When asked about his searing delivery during a recent appearance on The Rap Music Plug Podcast, SKECH explained that it’s to make the listener “feel as tired as [he does].” He records each verse in one fell swoop but does several takes until he’s fully explored the emotional crevices of each line. It sounds exhausting; you can feel his tensed neck muscles when midway through “The River” he snarls, “There’s a war going on outside/ you were born with your uniform in uterus.” Throughout the song, an examination of how the corpse of Manifest Destiny festers in the American psyche, SKECH’s gruff voice spirals upwards towards dizzying peaks before descending into quieter — but no less anxious — valleys. He ends by sighing, “The march continues as it always does,” one of many instances across He Left Nothing for the Swim Back that finds SKECH slumped, utterly spent from another day in dystopia.
No line gets wasted across the entire album, with each listen plucking new pull quotes from the maelstrom. SKECH’s succinct observations cut through like a chiseled, sharp dagger, often distilling enormous ideas into short, staggering sentences. On “Western Automatic Music Part 1,” he explains the American political preference for optics over real change: “We were all drafted into the march of progress.” He laments the commodification of art in “Badly Drawn Hero,” frustrated with the levels creatives have to stoop to in order to keep the lights on, musing “most of my heroes barely recognize themselves in what they sold me, while only denying that selling was part of the premise.” SKECH writes with a mixture of righteous anger and weariness, aware that today’s cathartic moment will fade and the sun will again rise on fresh atrocities.
The album’s structure mirrors its title, starting off with a burst of near-manic energy and slowly unclenching, settling into a sustained smolder. During the first half, Markey’s production feels like a continuation of the Bomb Squad to El-P to Parker Corey lineage. Shards of noise scrape against bizarrely filtered drums while bass booms heavy enough to help you count your teeth.
Songs like the shapeshifting “Badly Drawn Hero” combine horn stabs and cannon-fire snares into a futuristic funk groove. “East Side Summer” sounds like a glitchy version of Public Enemy’s “Give It Up,” wrapping a wheezing church organ around a stuttering drum break. As the album winds down, Markey turns his attention to dusty trip-hop: “Up to Speed” could comfortably sit on a Massive Attack album, and the enormous drums in both parts of the “Western Automatic Music” suite move like Sneaker Pimps on a morphine drip.
The wobbling, distorted melody that ends “Western Automatic Music Part 2” feels like a thankful gasp, the kind you take after surfacing, seconds before your brain forces your mouth open to draw in your surroundings. This is not a record made for comfort and SKECH isn’t here to offer answers. He Left Nothing for the Swim Back is an album full of goodbyes: to home, to relationships, to the future you once anticipated and prepared for. It’s not an album that advocates for giving up, though. There’s nothing to swim back for; the only way to stop from getting crushed is to move forward.