Czarface’s Czartificial Intelligence Leans Hard Into Real Life Through Myth

Czartificial Intelligence
Inspectah Deck wants you to know: "I can feel you, feeling me, feeling you, feeling this. If you know what I mean." --"Gatecrasher" from Czartificial Intelligence. (Pictured Above: Joseph Campbell, who brought us the theory of the monomyth, with Czarface's latest release.)

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An ear-catching moment in Czarface’s latest release Czartificial Intelligence is the end of of the song “Gatecrasher” where Inspectah Deck gets a little meta, saying he feels us feeling him feeling us feeling this song. Numerous moments like these combined with memories of leaving comic books in mom’s basement, hearing non-stop sirens at night while trying to sleep as a kid or the ever-personal perspectives in parenting, topped with the album title’s play on the words artificial intelligence make Czartificial Intelligence anything but artificial. The comic book album covers shouldn’t fool you into thinking there’s a mask on what Czarface does, unless you count putting Jimmy Carter in a headlock with that mask on.

Czarface (7L/Esoteric & Wu-Tang member Inspectah Deck) along with Kool Keith and a few others released this 9th studio album (12th release overall) at the end of 2023 in time to sell the LP on record store day (November 24), and subsequently dropping on Spotify on December 1 2023. This release marks 10 years of generation-defining hip hop from the group.

Using Joseph Campbell’s theories on mythology and archetypal heroes helped me understand why Czarface’s work has seemed a little extra impactful over the last 10 years, all of which felt like it came full-circle with Czartificial Intelligence.

Always on the Come-Up

Through numerous autobiographical references from their formation as adults, Czarface tell their own stories of making their way through life, some stories of lessons learned, of nostalgia(?), and of the strong headwinds of childhood poverty.

In “All That For A Drop Of Blood” we get some points of reference (Kobe Bryant and thinly-veiled Snoop Dogg reference) and an authentic view into Inspectah Deck’s childhood. Even though the details from these life stories aren’t new to the world of hip hop, the telling of them in this album are fresh enough to keep clichés far away:

I remember when I didn’t have a dollar
Young black and hungry just living with my momma
Eyes out for one time, sliding on the collar
Old photographs how I got to know my father
Always on the come-up, that’s just how I came up
Kobe on his prime how I swore to light the game up
Money on my mind so I swore to never change up
Lost many lives we just trying to get our name up
We stay up thinking of a master plan to get that bread up
Head on swivel my boy avoid the set-up
It’s getting harder to eat, streets are fed up
Everybody king til they facе who the next up
Rough times no signs of gеtting better man
Reporting live from the storm, like the weatherman
Flying high bird’s eye, hope I never land
To all my fallen, we love you forever fam

Inspectah Deck on “All That For A Drop Of Blood”

Czarface and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces

There’s a bit too much connection in my mind between Joseph Campbell and Czarface to not bring this up. Regardless of whether this is intentional (which I imagine it is, whether directly or indirectly), Czarface seems to support Joseph Campbell’s theory of the monomyth.

Joseph Campbell was a writer and anthropologist in the 20th century as well as a scholar of sanskrit (which he called the great spiritual language of the world) and his contributions (although widely debated and perhaps not truly all-inclusive) remain highly influential. Campbell’s monomyth theory essentially states that all peoples from all places around the globe have myths that share a unifying pattern.

In Campbell’s book The Hero with A Thousand Faces, he describes this unified myth (which he calls “The Hero’s Adventure”) as containing these essential steps:

  1. The hero begins in the “ordinary world.”
  2. The hero must depart this ordinary world when they receive a call to adventure.
  3. The hero, with help from a mentor, crosses a guarded threshold leading into a supernatural world.
  4. Upon entering the supernatural world, the hero faces trials or challenges.
  5. The hero overcomes these challenges and wins a reward.
  6. The hero returns to the ordinary world to bring home the reward, facing more trials on the way back.

Prometheus, Moses, Christ, Muhammed, Buddha and many other persistent mythologies seem to follow this basic plot, even if sometimes out of order or in a symbolic way. These ideas weren’t completely new, Campbell used concepts already asserted by Freud and Jung and related them to the stories that cultures tell and pass down. Comics are the western secular mythology that is being told and retold generation after generation, and so it seems fitting that Esoteric (in this and past albums) builds songs around spending time with his kids talking about comic book characters. Comics are the stories of his tribe and these characters are the archetypes of Czarface’s own personal stories.

Czarface’s Mythology

In the case of Czarface, their version of the monomyth is represented by the metal-masked super-villain (because every hero needs a villain), but the myths play out in the songs as kids born in the ghetto (which to them is the “ordinary world”) and gets the call to adventure (in the case of “All That For A Drop Of Blood”, he’s called to adventure by Kobe and Snoop Dogg). He gets help from mentors (samples from musical influences) to cross into the supernatural land (a land where money or class no longer exclude them) and claims the reward of economic freedom and a spot in hip hop history.

For artists like those that make up Czarface who all came from obscurity, the return home is characterized by remembering who they are in the face of fame and keeping their feet grounded in where they came from which is perhaps the biggest challenge of all. This is, in our modern sensitivities, what we’d potentially consider the most heroic part of the story: the part where, after fame and success, our beloved hero stays real.

Reconciling False Narratives in “Mama’s Basement”

The track “Mama’s Basement” is perhaps the most literal example of a narrative that played in the mind of Inspectah Deck his whole life until realizing it was a false one. The story is that he believes he left his comics in the basement of his childhood home. The context of the story seems more important: he mentions the emotional neglect his mom put him through when he was a kid and the complete absence of his father. Comics were his parents.

In the song he returns home to get the comics but his mom reminds him that he sold them a long time ago to impress the girl down the street.

I think we’ve all had moments where we may blame the tough circumstances of our lives for certain outcomes, and find out in our later adult years that we’ve been telling ourselves a false narrative that enables us to feel a bit too sorry for ourselves or caters to our egos.

Showmanship, Not Ego

Just a bit of an aside. One of the reasons why we get uniquely intimate access in these autobiographical glimpses has to do with a lack of any cumbersome level of ego. Although mainstream hip hop is well-known to include lyrics of self-promotion, all musical genres have their own ways of confronting the question of Showmanship vs. Ego. The difference for me is that Showmanship is an exercise in playful competition with the goal of mutual improvement in a craft and for the benefit of everyone involved. Ego on the other hand is a different competitive nature that can’t see the bigger picture and instead sees the craft as a zero-sum game where others must fail for them to succeed. In this and past albums, Czarface clearly takes the showmanship road which results in less barriers between the listener and the artist. Esoteric could have easily and understandably name-dropped himself as a super hero when he came to the letter “E” in “Marvel at that (Road Trip)” but instead decided to mention ego:

E: Electro and Ego so there
But don’t go on a ego trip (why ?) that’s a trip to nowhere

Esoteric on “Marvel at That (Road Trip)”
(note the omission of “E is for Esoteric”, bringing up ego instead)

More of the Same and More Maturity

Besides the increased vulnerability in showing increasingly personal slices of life, whether from their past as kids or from their present as parents, Czarface do not stray far from the formula that got Inspectah Deck, 7L and Esoteric together 10 years ago to make their first self-titled mixtape. 7L’s signature and subtle high-frequency buzz (subtle bitcrusher effect?) that we’ve heard in past releases can be heard playing along with many of the samples in songs like “Blast Off” and “Frenzy in a Far Off World”. The effect gives a subconscious nod to 90s video game sounds while also brightening the mix. Like with past releases, each track is chalk full of carefully curated samples to support (or give witness to?) their personal narratives. The song structures in Czartificial Intelligence feel a bit more cerebral than in past releases but the samples that were selected still lend heavily to the super villian theme. The musical elements weigh a little heavier and strike more serious shapes than in past Czarface albums in this listener’s opinion.

This, mixed with the rawness of their personal narratives, and all of this while the usual humor is toned down, puts a darker and more serious tone to the production overall. Perhaps not necessarily dark, but unmistakably concerned about the future that their kids will inherit. It’s not the added seriousness that adds maturity to their finished product, but the wisdom that they relay from their lives as dads living in the real world.

Also read: The Radicalism of the Middle-Class in Brazilian Tropicália.