My homie Charlie used to say that all great hip hop duos were comprised of two distinct personas: the thug/gangster/tough guy and the lyricist/artist/poet. Think about it: Pimp C & Bun B, Havoc & Prodigy, Big Boi & Andre 3000, Daz & Kurupt, shit even as far back as DMC & Rev Run. A good hip hop two-piece makes you appreciate what counts in an MC: bars and delivery.

I say this because by the release of their latest album Escape From Snortlandia, Load B have settled into this exact dynamic; the result being a sonically complex and surprisingly emotionally dense street opus hidden beneath the veil of a jokey concept album about the dark side of ‘Portlandia.’  From the first track (in which, after she makes a crack about black people on Alberta, ‘Carrie Brownstein’ meets the business end of a pistol) Milc plays the thug, with an unhinged flow and a vocal intensity that makes you believe in the ‘56 grams in the sock drawer’ he mentions on the early standout Lord Fine$$e. To balance this, his counterpart Brill (who sounds like Timbaland on a strict gravel diet) plays the poet, possessing a southern-inspired cadence that rides the beat like a fighter jet, all sharp turns and precise movements.

Starting with the lead single 80 Bloxxx (From The Pearl) (and the abduction of Fred Armisen) the album tells the story of Snortandia, the bizarro version of the TV show, chock full of artisanal fishscale cocaine, “scumbag n*ggas” married to the game, guns busted, hoes not trusted, etc.  In interviews, the group plays coy regarding the veracity of their content, but clearly both members have been in enough shady houses to paint a realistic picture of the small time grind. It is only right that nearly every beat gives the same impression, nothing but dirty knocks and trunk rattles. Except after repeated listens, it becomes apparent the songs are so much more than just repeated synth lines and the same skittering hi-hat from every beat in the past 5 years. Rather than just having the two MCs trade verses, the songs stretch and breathe, switch beats and choruses, break down into acapella sections, introduce live instruments just to quickly abandon them, and incorporate vocal samples and harmonies without sounding obvious or pedestrian. They even find time to turn the jungle song from the old Donkey Kong Country game into a perfect slow-ride-in-your-caddy track (awww shit that’s my favorite kind) on the masterful Steak Sauce, followed by the similarly slow-riding absurdity anthem Grey Poupon, complete with a beautifully off-kilter guest spot from Dust.

And yet, directly after riding high on this lyrically hedonistic one-two punch, the album takes an immediate dark turn, as Load B has to deal with the inevitable loss of seratonin from the previous seven tracks of unchecked id and homemade drugs. Suicide Bitch is a delicate and heartfelt plea (if this isn’t a true story, then shouts to Milc for his acting I guess) to a love lost, crouched in a dismissive title and tough-guy posturing (the less said about the Odd Future pastiche Jonestown the better.  Lets just say the depression led Milc and Brill to a dark place, and they found a beat there that sounds alot like a horror movie).  Ending our morning-after triptych is the album closer, I Cut My Face Off For Therapy, a bluesy reflection on choices made and yet to make, role models past and future, owing a bit to Jay and Beanie Seigel’s Where Have You Been.  Milc’s verse is especially poignant, the first and last time on the album where he is one hundred percent without pretense, all raw emotion and slow resignation to small hopes.

After dropping off Fred (“Load B gang for life” he says, in a pitch perfect impression) and dropping into the hidden track Get The Fuck From ‘Round Us, we are back where we started, getting high and “handling work.”  At the close of the record, I was reminded of the movie Taxi Driver; all emotions forgotten, no lessons learned, the story operating on a continuous loop.  Snortlandia is a messy, complicated and complex statement on life in a dirty city with a clean reputation, or it’s just a goofy rap album about guns and drugs.  For Load B, you can’t have one without the other.