[INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING] As much as longtime Portland MC Sleep contemplates the unknown in his verses, it’s not really fair to peg him as “dark.” Thorough examination of death is a hallmark of the entire Oldominion crew he co-founded over a decade ago, but like his pioneering Northwest peers, Sleep voyages into the void for a bit of perspective on life. So while the title of his new record, Hesitation Wounds, may elicit images of grisly failed suicide attempts—the sort of themes explored on the album’s title track—it means something more to Sleep. It’s an apology for nearly losing sight of his dreams.
After four years without a solo record, hip-hop should be grateful for Sleep’s return. On Wounds—his first disc for Sage Francis’ Strange Famous label—he relights the fire over 55 minutes of smoky, deep-space funk that echoes like basketballs in an empty gym. And though the disc features appearances by Del and Grayskul, it’s Sleep himself—his voice fluttering between overexcited rap fanboy and world-weary vet—who commands the listener’s attention through personal reflection, spiritual exploration and quick-witted humor.
Oh, and don’t forget speed. Though Sleep is among the quickest tongues in hip-hop, this is the first album on which that skill has been used as more than an occasional gimmick. And when he blasts off over the slow-churning soul of “Orchestra of Strangers,” it’s not just his pace that impresses; it’s the spin-cycle style of his delivery and the clarity of his message. Sleep’s voice sounds like a warped spoken-word record spun at 78, and he leaves no syllable behind. When the beat slows behind him and it’s just the MC and an anxious electric guitar, he explains his strategy at light speed: “Complex content not nonsense because I spit it a bit quicker than some kids/ It’s not to cover up a lack of thought, in fact it’s quite the opposite.”
Sleep’s appeal lies largely in his perspective: He’s a blue-collar MC who uses hip-hop as a means to self-discovery. And while his vocab isn’t as elaborate as that of some college-aged backpackers who’ve stolen the indie rap spotlight in recent years, Sleep’s struggle rings truer than most. He lays all the cards on the table on "So Far Away," wherein he details those hesitation wounds we were talking about. Sleep’s real-life alias, Chris Tafoya, is a family man, and furthering his music career can mean missing out on some pretty major dad shit. Where lesser MCs would choose machismo or hyper-logic to solve the conflict, our narrator sounds infinitely torn. “You gotta ask yourself at the end of the day, is it even worth it?” Sleep posits in a plain-speaking voice. “What do you give up for your dreams? Are they the things you love?” There’s no easy answer here, but Sleep reminds us to keep asking the questions, no matter how dark our path may seem.
SEE IT: Sleep celebrates the release of Hesitation Wounds on Friday, June 26, at Slabtown, with Eddie Valient, Quixotic, Verbal Spears, Pale Soul, Nyquil, Destro, Randolf McTools, E.R.D., Bad Habitat and Rocket One (phew!). 9 pm. $10, $15 gets you a CD. 21+. Note: The print version of this article referred to two songs—"Goblin" and "Million"—by their working/demo titles. They have been corrected here.