Fresh off the release of his mainstream debut Pray For Haiti, the cryptic and mysterious emcee Mach-Hommy has returned with Balens Cho, a stripped-back victory lap of minimal jazz loops and hard-hitting punchlines. After Haiti propelled Mach from the underground’s best-kept secret to one of its most acclaimed protagonists. What does an artist defined by his own mystique do once he’s been unveiled to the world? Mach’s answer seems to be: show them what they’ve been missing.
Pray For Haiti was very much a Griselda project in structure and presentation. Westside Gunn’s role as executive producer is evident all over the record, resulting in lavish production from a range of up-and-coming producers like Conductor Williams and Sadhu Gold. It also resulted in a more introspective and immediate performance from Mach-Hommy, who spits quotables for those in the cheap seats while still dropping obscure gems for the front row to pick up.
Before linking back up with Griselda, Mach’s projects had grown a reputation for their brevity and complexity. 2020’s Mach’s Hard Lemonade was, at only 9 songs in length, a quick tasting platter of everything Mach has to offer as a rapper. His relentless flow on ‘SBTM’, street knowledge on ‘Marshmallow Test’, bilingual raps on ‘Clout Dracula’. It seemed like each track had a clear goal, and the album finished just as the listener was getting warmed up to the approach.
Balens Cho is a return to this minimalist approach of album-crafting. A loose concept is tied together from samples that wrap around the eight songs—framing Mach as “An American businessman on the export-import line” to Haiti. Like the rest of the album’s minimalism, these skits run less than twenty seconds each, and give the project a unique flavour without overstaying their welcome.
The first song, ‘LABOU’, overwhelms the listener with a roaring horn sample complemented by the softest drumline. Here, Mach comes with the kinds of hard-hitting punchlines he flashed on Pray, claiming “When we moved that snow off the stoop, we wasn’t shovelling”. “Let’s take them back to the swamps with the green moss” Mach says, setting the viewer up for the grimy production that will line the rest of the record. He engages again with his new audience again on ‘SEPARATION OF THE SHEEP AND THE GOATS’, with the all but humble “Holla at me if you want the throne back / Not bad for some gibberish and monotone raps”. The breezy swagger of these early tracks set this record up to be a casual victory lap, which Mach has only earned at this point.
An eerie highlight is ‘MAGNUM BAND REMIX’, produced by the late Ras G. ‘LAJAN SAL’ is the opus of the album however, with blindingly sunny strings ringing out under a soulful melodic hook from Mach. He croons “Lajan sal (Haitian for ‘dirty money’) / I ain’t seen my P.O. in a while” with such overpowering gratitude—the result is an anthem to recklessness and its virtues. Count on Mach to say more with less; “Where we grew up, we really played pick-up-sticks”.
The final leg of the album finds Mach in a different bag than the pure swag raps of the above tracks. Over a simple, haunting piano, ‘WOODEN NICKELS’ sees Mach reflecting on his father. He recounts the life of a generous man who helped his friends and relatives escape from the poverty and hardship imposed on Haiti under the boot of global capitalism. Until this heroic figure disappeared from Mach’s life completely, without a word. For an artist so instinctively indirect in his lyrics, hearing such a vulnerability from Mach here is heart-wrenching.
One wonders if this directness would have been possible from him before making his version of a mass-market album in Pray For Haiti. In the style of MHL and other projects, Balens Cho seems to offer a selection of each skill Mach has mastered—what sets it apart from his other project is the sharpness and clarity of his newly developed skills. The introspective storytelling on ‘SELF LUH’ is vivid, with Mach describing in a hushed whisper how he cut his dreadlocks “when they were at leg length / … felt like I dropped the dead weight”.
‘TRADITIONAL’ offers a weighty perspective from a global mind—“What happens when conditions ain’t liveable?”—all with a human perspective and a hint of affected elder wisdom. He notes his own status as an underground oddity, “up on the mountain but nobody comes to visit you”. He reckons with the futility of obscurity, brushing up against the necessity of bucking trends when the flavour-of-the-month tastes sour.
If anything, Mach-Hommy takes this victory lap as an opportunity to reflect on where he is, where he came from, and how best to manage both worlds. The result is an intuitive mix of lyrics (and beats) that challenge and satisfy in equal measure. Its brevity could be a perceived weakness—it doesn’t quite match the totality and weight of Pray For Haiti—but the fact that it comes close in half the runtime says a lot for Mach’s unique methods.