Album Review: Sleep - Branded: The Damon Winton Story

Almost since the birth of rap music, the genre has had an inextricable connection to gang culture and drug activity. The dopeboy-turned-radio-superstar persona adopted by many of today’s artists make “trapping” look downright glamorous. If you’re skeptical, take a look at the Billboard charts. If Future’s “Move That Dope” is still in the Top 10, the point has made itself. But this is all the more reason Cincinnati MC, Sleep, with is unfiltered perspective and gripping sincerity, could be one of the most important voices emerging from the underground.

More than a rapper, Sleep is a story teller unfurling the tale of Damon Winton: a run of the mill kid who, as a result of an upbringing fraught with poverty, molestation, self-mutilation and drug abuse is pushed to a heart-wrenching breaking point.

Sleep is no amateur in the concept-album style, and fans of his debut release, Lockland 95, will recognize the no-holds-barred attitude of his narration. However, where his previous effort focused on nearly a dozen of the characters that made up his childhood, Branded finds its resonance by focusing on a single narrative. Track by track, layer by layer, Sleep shapes a character with dimension. Damon begins to feel like someone we all know; someone whose pain we can all feel.

“Heart racing/the beating is like a stampede/crying as I’m walking down the damn street” Sleep spits over the fragmented wails and gritty backbeat of “Question 1”. Branded hits hard and heavy from the get go. This project couldn't have found a better match than producer Dope Antelope on the boards. By melding subtle gangsta rap influences with ambient cloud rap elements, Antelope creates a juxtaposing soundtrack that reflects the internal conflict of Sleep’s character. Record scratches chime with hollowed, echoing vocal samples. Urgent, screeching piano riffs clash against deep, steady baselines. As Sleep’s lyrics simultaneously resist his desires to be both callous and vulnerable, Antelope creates a landscape both haunting and angsty to match.

Branded: The Damon Winton Story is a collection of memories from just one person’s life. However, together, each trial that Damon faces offers a greater commentary on the thug mentality that our society tends to glorify, and the vulnerability of a child’s psyche to that influence. One of the more unique trademarks, which make Sleep’s performance so memorable, is his use of spoken-word samples and monologues. “The children of children are trapped by adults,” an unknown speaker asserts on “Question 1”, “who fail them then jail them to hide the results... The children of children while still young and sweet/are all damned and programmed for putrid defeat” Prepare yourself for a wakeup call. For Sleep, sugar coating is simply against his artistic creed.

Download Branded: The Damon Winton Story via Band Camp

 - Syron Townsend,  Contributor