ALBUM REVIEW: Charles Laney – Midnight & Lion
Written on: July 9th 2021 Matthew Bailey
“I’ma bring the heat, I’ma bring the heat, like a one-man army” says Charles Laney, Columbus, Ohio-born, Los Angeles-based rapper/singer/ producer, on “OMA”, the opening track to his debut album “Midnight & Lion”. The first in a number of catchy-ass hooks (Seriously, THEY ARE) peppered throughout this album, it perfectly sums up Charles’ DIY approach to his debut, as everything from songwriting to mastering was handled entirely by him. Additionally, it sums up the ‘character’ he plays on the album; because while, upon first listen, you’re treated to a seemingly non-stop playlist of nocturnal, EDM-laced rap bangers, it’s the ‘one man’ himself and the internal and external battles he faces – or tries desperately to avoid – that’s front and center.
Thematically, “Midnight & Lion” plays out like a night on the town set to hyper-energetic music, with Charles playing the role of a wild, promiscuous individual who buries his insecurities with inebriated partying, one-night stands and shallow flexing. However, when the sun rises, the high comes down and he’s forced to truly look himself in the mirror, that’s when his insecurities are unearthed (a sub-theme which shows up on the album’s third act) and revealed to the listener.
Over the pounding, 90s electronica-inspired beat for the aforementioned “OMA”, Charles’ odyssey begins. Here, he’s in full braggadocious mode, and you can picture him looking fresh to death, in the middle of a nightclub dancefloor, fist-pumping (People still do that shit, right?) every time the hook kicks in. And before you think this is some “A Night at the Roxbury”-type shit where you’re supposed to laugh at the trying-desperately-to-be-cool protagonist, the production brilliantly sustains a dark, moody vibe throughout, placing us in the unstable mind state of the album’s antihero.
The album’s first act continues with four tracks centered on Charles’ club-based sexual escapades. On “Potent Love Potion”, which features a spacey, chillwave beat laced with a moody keyboard melody, Charles hits on a woman, despite his friend warning him that she’s “loose” and he “might fade away…..like them other nas”. Vocally, Charles comes off as incredibly exuberant on this track, like the way he pronounces “nah” on the first verse, the ridiculous way he enunciates “rear”, “pier” and “fear” on the second verse and the way-longer-than-necessary final verse where he makes reference to things like “Jurassic Park” and “Spongebob Squarepants”. Over the quirky instrumental for “Cool Girl”, Charles who, within the context of the album thus far, sounds like he has TEN drinks in him with his hushed, chilled vocal delivery, hits on a woman who’s clearly not down for a one-night stand (“She can’t stand me (I can’t stand you) / But she gon’ make that py pop like she planned to”).
Speaking of one-night stands, “That Work” treats us to a successful (I guess) stand involving Charles and a woman who he may or may not have hit on in the previous tracks. This is easily the sleaziest track on the album, with its steamy, sweaty nightclub-evoking, string-assisted electronic beat which intensifies when the hook comes in (which sounds eerily similar to the ‘Izzo Kizzay’ section of the classic Frankie Smith song “Double Dutch Bus”). The following track “Long Gone”, the shortest song on the album, plays like an extension of the previous track and an interlude of sorts. Charles’ vocals sound particularly robotic here, fitting neatly with the track’s futuristic-sounding instrumental, as he informs potential sexual prospects to take any opportunity presented to them to be with him since there “won’t be a second chance”.
The second act delves deeper into Charles’ hedonism, starting and ending with references to fashion. “Dressed to Kill”, one of the album’s best songs, finds Charles rapping non-stop – and bordering on a bit of insanity (from the delivery of his hook to the hushed, repeated lines on the song’s second half) – over an instrumental which ironically sounds like it’s designed for a fashion show, even though Charles, in easily the most memorable hook on the album, declares that “this is not a fashion show!” The posturing he exhibits on that track carries over on “I’ve Got Nothing Left”, which opens with drumline horns and drums and leads into a beat which feels lifted from an intense sequence in an action thriller. Charles’ warped-sounding vocals, chant-like hook of “I got nothing. You got something”, and prevalent dark humor (in one standout moment, he brags about successfully persuading someone’s daughter to do molly) creates the impression that our antihero is clearly ‘not right in the head’ at this point.
Over the haunting production of “Rock & Roll”, Charles delivers a hazy, drugged-up version of what is essentially the lyrics to a basic, innocent-enough pop/R&B song (up until the sexually-charged final verse, that is) where the guy encourages the girl to get involved with him. The second act concludes with “Designer Beauty”, another great song on the album, which features a bright, bouncy instrumental laced with periodic synths which, for some reason, kept reminding me of Slava Tsukerman’s musical work on the 1982 sci-fi cult classic “Liquid Sky” (which, not only should you DEFINITELY seek out but is also centered on nightlife, high fashion and substance abuse). By framing himself as overly confident in front of two ‘model-type’ women (of course, he doesn’t know their names so he switches between Halle Berry and Meagan Good), Charles slowly reveals the self-deprecating way he views himself. Emphasized by the FANTASTIC hook, he feels ‘good’ within their superficial beauty, though it’s painfully clear he’ll feel the absolute opposite way about himself when they’re gone (“Beauty’s our design / Beautiful by design / Your skin, babe, is so sublime / But I am so ugly / It’s okay when I look at you / My skin glows a little bit brighter / Smile a bit wider / Baby, you’re my fire taking me higher”). He tries to keep their, and his, spirits up with these intentionally redundant and pointless refrains near the end of the song (“Hold up… I’m hoed up”, Hyped up….I’m hyped up”, “Python… Gotta python”) but to no avail, as the beat slows down to a crawl, signaling the end of the party.
In the final act, more of Charles’ insecurities are uprooted. On “Fire with Fire” – my favorite song on the album, in case you were wondering – Charles delivers a grandiosely sardonic assault on his haters and detractors, opting to use ‘fire’ to expose and decimate the proverbial ‘snakes in the grass’. He makes great use of the track’s bouncy, piano-driven beat with his half-threatening, half-animated delivery throughout this song (Points for the HILARIOUS Kermit-like vocal inflection he uses on the pre-chorus). We then get “Rock & Roll (Part II”), which is more of a reprise than a sequel to “Rock & Roll”, but serving as a darker continuation of the disdain established in “Fire with Fire”. The combination of crackling, chant-like lyrics and minimalist, cavernous instrumental gives the track the feel of falling headfirst into hell.
On the penultimate track “Midnight in the Morning”, Charles’ insecurity surrounding women is finally revealed, as we learn that he’s still hung up on the fact that his ex has moved on with someone else. The beat has this dramatic, revelatory, pop ballad-like vibe to it, as if the clouds are finally parting and sunlight shines on our antihero for the first time on the album. And yet, though he finds difficulty in moving forward from what was most likely a doomed relationship, it’s one of the primary influences behind his personality and creativity (“I guess that means you’re winning though / I made this instrumental tho / I created from what we went through / I took my pain and made it beautiful”).
The album closes with the epic (in the sense that it runs for roughly 8 ½ minutes) “Lord of the Crowns”, where his alias “Midnight & Lion” is finally mentioned. Backed by a cascading, slightly melancholy beat with a buzzing keyboard melody at its center, Charles finally looks at himself in the mirror, picking out his flaws and imperfections, yet assuring himself that he’s already destined for greatness. I actually dug the long-ass final verse where he literally raps as if his life counted on it. Interestingly, the legendary Egyptian pharaoh King Tut is brought up verbally by Charles and in the haunting sample used in the track’s cacophonous final moments (the blaring horns and swirling synths are guaranteed to stay with you long after you’ve heard this track). Upon first listen, the mention of King Tut may seem like some random historical reference, but it adds a significant piece to the already-fractured portrait presented on the album. Does Charles see himself as a king right now, or one who’ll be revered long after he’s dead and buried in some figurative catacomb? What’ll be left when his remains are unearthed? His failures or victories? And most importantly, will he be remembered for the former or latter?
Clearly, I’m reading WAY too much into “Midnight & Lion”, which is to say, I didn’t expect that much thematic and emotional complexity (more of which will show itself with subsequent listens) from this album. And while it’s not flawless (my one gripe is that at times, Charles’ vocals seem slightly overpowered by the production and vocal effects), and won’t be for everyone, especially those who like their party-oriented music with little to no nihilism or cynicism, I do recommend checking it out for yourself. As for me, I found myself enjoying this album way more than I expected, thanks to Charles’ sonically captivating production, sticky hooks and refrains, and energetic, versatile vocal performances, along with the album’s after-hours, under-the-influence journey to hell and back. If you’re a fan of abrasive, adventurous, experimental hip-hop, by all means give “Midnight & Lion” a listen!