What is hip hop in 2019? You might think that’s an unnecessarily conceptual way to begin a review (and you might be right). But it’s something you can’t help but consider when you listen to Haller’s Orca, the latest LP from Elliot Fresh.

Sure, it features all the elements required to qualify as hip hop: slick bars, wavy instrumentals, moody beats. But it’s also an existential exploration of the human condition -the Haller of the title referring to the protagonist of an early 20th century novel on the nature of suffering, transcendence and healing. It’s precisely this willingness to push the envelope that makes you question where the boundaries of the genre begin and end.  

The conflict between the selfish and selfless aspects of our personalities informs the basis of Haller’s Orca. If that sounds a bit heavy, you’d be right. But music only survives when artists are willing to take listeners outside of their comfort zone. Fresh and his Gold on the Mixer compadres thrive when doing just that.

‘H. Haller’ captures this approach perfectly; equal parts abstract wanderings and sonic fire. Who else could deliver bars like: “Ayahuasca rational, mastering abstraction of Sisyphean physics / Giving up the ghost, living free of limits” and make it work? In the hands of anyone else, these bars could sound like the beat poetry of a second-year philosophy student, but Fresh’s laser-focus and verbal dexterity carries it off.

That’s not to say Haller’s Orca is all philosophical contemplation. Tracks like ‘Sheikah & Yiga (Ft. Rawz)’ and ‘Notes (Ft. Benny Diction)’ follow a more familiar boom-bap formula. ‘Heart’, meanwhile, blends guest bars from Kaimbr, Deeq, Tha God Fahim, Flowtecs & Subtex with a simple soul riff to craft one of the tightest tracks of 2019. These songs feel almost like a novelty on Haller’s Orca, where hallucinatory soundscapes rub shoulders with obscure literary references like a Fresan fever dream.

That’s due in large part to the experimental nature of the beats. The rapper and producer has a knack for weaving an eclectic range of instrumentals into stark soundscapes, and  Haller’s Orca is no different. Samples of psych-rock legend Arthur Lee sit alongside cosmic beats and smooth soul samples.

There aren’t many artists today willing to ask big questions in their work. But Fresh delights in exploring the human condition. Above all, it’s refreshing to be trusted with lyrics that don’t offer up an immediate answer. If you’re looking for big bars fuelled by braggadocio and traditional hip hop tropes, look elsewhere. But if you’re open to expanding your mind and exploring how far hip hop can go, then Haller’s Orca is a good place to start your journey.

Haller’s Orca is out now on Gold on the Mixer.