The bright and melodic introduction in “Beautiful” would be more than enough to set the tone for the entire tracklist included in the new record 30K: The Upper Echelon from Big Pharaoh, but in reality, the entire song is a bit of a feeler for what’s to come in the following material. If you can withstand the eclectic arrangement of this piece, “Decree,” or “Esoteric,” you’re going to find the whole of 30K:

The Upper Echelon to be as stimulating as I did – if not one of the more thoughtful and complicated hip-hop releases of 2023 thus far. This is not a player who wants to live within mainstream parameters, but rather than simply embracing the frills of rebellion as a lot of his peers have imagined it, Big Pharaoh seems intent on creating his own form of discord in this record, and it all starts with the melodies between his beats. Much like “Beautiful,” songs like “Decree” and “Euphoria” are structured around their sublime hooks, giving our rapper quite a bit of room to flex where a lot of his contemporaries would have filled the space with unnecessary filler. 

I like the beat symmetry of “No Discernment” and “Kingdom Come,” and given the contrast in the tempo, I don’t think they could have shared the same tracklist with a less-adept player at the helm. Big Pharaoh has a lot of swagger when he steps up to the mic, but it’s not contained within his lyrical output; if anything, it’s spread out across the entirety of a track to give us the feeling he’s always in control, stalking the groove from behind the mixing board and perhaps exerting more dominance in the arrangement than his use of lyrics would ever let on.

There hasn’t been a lot of discipline in the mainstream iterations of “Minority Report” or “Permeate” – because, make no mistake about it, there are a lot of other players trying to create this sort of a sound – and this is precisely what sets are leading man apart from any of his closest rivals on either side of the dial. He’s not overthinking concepts in 30K: The Upper Echelon, but instead relying on natural moodiness within the music to make statement pieces like “Studious” sound even more compelling and physical than they would have to begin with. 

30:: The Upper Echelon is a studded piece of content from the jump, and although there’s a lot of interesting work coming out of the drill underground, as well as the melodic trap movement, this fairly relaxed look from Big Pharaoh can contend with the best in hip-hop this February for sure. This is a rapper who puts a lot of value on the strength of compositional balance, which puts him more in line with the erudite alternative scene in his genre than it does anyone simply cutting and pasting different samples together in hopes of becoming soundcloud famous.

From where I sit, this is the kind of player we need to be paying way more attention to in the American underground this season. 

Garth Thomas