Do you have that artist who you ALWAYS look for when digging, even though you pretty much know you won’t find any of their records? I could have dozens of those bands, though practicality and a sense of realism (some might say pessimism) keeps me from looking for Purrkur Pillnikk records in Portland and Fræbbblarnir in Fresno. However, I do have my one white whale of an artist, one who I hunt with the tenacity of Ahab, scanning all horizons in search for even a trace of his vinyl. I speak, of course, of Sensational.
Seattle is not a great place for finding hip hop vinyl. But even in places like LA, Chicago, and New York I have struck out in my quest for Sensational records. In fact, until a few weeks ago I’d only managed to scrounge three of his releases on wax, one of which, 2016s Special Offer, I actually purchased from the man himself. To be clear, it’s not that the records are unavailable anywhere. If I wanted to order from Discogs, I could get most of them today from the comfort of my own home, though the shipping would probably cost as much as the records since most if not all would be shipping from Europe, which is in part what has kept my Sensational searches analog, relying exclusively on in-person digging. Given Sensational’s general lack of notoriety in the US, combined with the fact that four of his first five releases were on German label WordSound, you just don’t find his stuff here that often.
On our recent trip to London, however, I hit pay dirt in the used vinyl basement of Sister Ray. I did my usual search of the Hip Hop S section and lo and behold there it was, not just a Sensational record I didn’t have, but his debut, 1997s Loaded With Power. I couldn’t have been happier. The price was reasonable and the condition solid, and I couldn’t wait to get home to play it.
The thing that makes Sensational special is his flow, both musically and vocally. His beats are far from standard, changing timing and making abrupt unexpected turns. When the groove works, it’s nirvana; when it doesn’t, it can be a bit jarring, and that’s all part of the Sensational experience. But the true magic is the vocal flow. Not the lyrical content per se (there’s a lot of standard 90s hip hop boasting), but the way the words languidly drop from his lips, the lack of formal structure, the at times randomness of the rhyming and near-rhyming words. Can I compare his style to anyone else? Is it even fair to try? I don’t pretend to be enough of a student of the genre to make any definitive connections. To my ears Sensational is unique. And Loaded With Power is him at his most flowing, completely unrestrained by the concepts of structure, not even the remotest attempt at creating something “radio friendly”. You get the sense that these are the sounds that are in the man’s head, the soundtrack in his brain as he goes through life. Listen to the quiet piano on “Create It To Make It”. You have to strain to hear it given the forward power of the beats, but it’s there, a small island of quiet solitude in an ocean of bass. A unique flourish that wouldn’t fit anywhere else.
The album is recorded hot on some tracks. I’m not sure if this is by design or not, but songs like “Hardcore” are distorted around the edges. It feels like Loaded With Power was recorded at multiple sessions, which appears to be the case as there are two recording studios listed and the production quality varies a bit. That, however, should not deter you from experiencing this record. In fact, it contributes that much more to it’s strange power. As for me, I will continue to hunt for Sensational records as I still have a lot of holes to fill.