Loyal fans of Sufjan Stevens salivate to the string melody that drives “Chicago,” the most affecting track off his 2005 twee-pop opus Come on Feel the Illinoise. Some of those acolytes might cringe, though, at the idea of that sweet sentiment being seized and looped by enterprising emo-rappers. Risking possible resentment, two NYC emcees named Sentence and Swell—known collectively as the Metermaids—have commandeered “Chicago” and other beloved Stevens tracks for the free Web mixtape Nightlife in Illinoise, using vocals from their more funk-driven debut album, Nightlife.
It’s a bizarre fit, but actually a better one. Sentence and Swell—whose nearly identical voices betray the influences of Atmosphere, Sage Francis, and Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda—favor couplets like, “I’m just trying to keep the dream how I found it/But guarding it so close destroyed everything around it/So crumble what’s left and assemble the bed/Like this night could last forever if that sun couldn’t set.” Naturally, such exaggerated torment sounds better when offset by Sufjan’s angelic choirs and banjo reveries. “It truly started out as more of an artistic experiment,” explains Sentence, who migrated here after enlivening Denver’s indie-rap scene (!) in the late ’90s. “We always had a rock influence, and wondered, ‘What’s a great album that most of our audience listens to, and has elements we can mash up?’ “
Swell, a suburban New Jersey native who hooked up with his Metermaids cohort two years ago, helped provide the answer: “Illinoise is honestly one of my favorite albums. I always thought there were some amazing samples on it.”
That synergy has resulted in tracks with names like “John Wayne Gacy, Jr. Is Never Far From John Wayne in a Clown Suit” and “A Breakdown in Chicago, or, How to Sabotage Your Own Happiness in Two Easy Steps.” (They’ve also inherited Sufjan’s taste in laborious song titles.) The latter, with its autobiographical mix of poverty and pathos, serves as the project’s highlight: Swell and Sentence shout, “Bounce the rent check/Set the mood/Head’s been a mess/Haven’t slept since June” over those familiar swooning orchestral flourishes, jolting their recycled lyrics with a newfound energy. This twee-pop/emo-rap clash isn’t a long-term strategy, plucking some heartstrings and badly missing others, but it successfully bolsters two talented but inconsistent emcees as they search for their own identity and, for the moment at least, greatly benefit from the presence of someone else’s.
The Metermaids play Southpaw February 11