“DECORUM.” Press play on the album’s first song. A grainy keyboard jazzily takes off before taxiing smoothly into the beginning of R.A.P. Ferreira’s lyrical masterclass. It feels like sitting outdoors on an unexpectedly cool yet pleasant late summer night as an orchestra gradually tunes to an A. There is a moment of pause before Ferreira’s address to the “fence-building nihilists” begins. The instrumentals dissipate, creating the effect of a rippling echo. With palpable yet slick determination, Ferreira announces his new alter ego (also his birth name): “of course it’s Rory Allen Philip Ferreira.” Ferreira’s pronunciation sticks in the mind—I was turning over the full-throated “or” sounds in “course” and “Rory” long after my first listen. And when he pronounces his name, each word flows into the next until he reaches on the invisibly italicized Philip, only hardening the thud of “Ferreira” as it lands on your ear. After Ferreira’s self-introduction, he presents the producers of the album, the Jefferson Park Boys. The trio, which provides most of the instrumentals for the album, is made of Kenny Segal, Mike Parvizi, and Aaron Carmack. Not content to merely introduce them as musicians and friends, Ferreira calls the group his “family in funkonomics, the high vibrational ministers.” Ferreira is at once cool, off-the-cuff, and loose, while also being rhythmically intricate and allusively dense. As you listen, you relax into the vibe and your mind opens up.
The album, Purple Moonlight Pages, was released in March 2020 and was R.A.P. Ferreira’s first full-length studio album. Or at least, his first one under that name; he has released under the names Nom de Rap, milo, and Scallops Hotel since 2010. The album is playful, an excellent first run for Ferreira’s new moniker. Why, though, for such a playful and loose-vibed album, does Ferreira start off with a track called “DECORUM?” Decorum is both a custom and an artistic law, a reminder to stay within prescribed limits of style or pre-determined ways of being. It is a call for respect and silence, but also for conformity. This album will do anything but adhere to one mode of existence, do anything but conform to the genre of the heavily produced mainstream rap album. Ferreira is calling for the listener’s attention and asking them to settle in, all the while playing on the heftiness of the idea of decorum.
Ferreira is a “Black Orpheus.” Appearing in “DECORUM, “U.D.I.G,” and “LEAVING HELL,” the phrase encapsulates so much of Ferreira’s project. On a surface level, it is a reference to Black Orpheus, the Marcel Camus film that sets the Orpheus and Eurydice story in the samba-and-bossa-nova-studded world of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. But at the same time, Ferreira is telling us something about his art: this is an auditory project. Yes, Orpheus is a poet, but not one who writes; his inimitable appeal is sonic delight. Contained in the phrase “Black Orpheus” are all the key components of Ferreira’s approach. Cultural references of varying obscurity dominate his lyricism, but he is also telling us to listen to the effect of his words. They cascade beautifully even if we don’t always understand what he means by them. There is perfect communication between musician and lyricist. The down-to-earth feeling of Ferreira’s almost-improvisational flow blunts what could otherwise feel like the gimmicky sophistry of “One Week” by Barenaked Ladies. The album is, as Ferreira puts it in the track “CYCLES,” “a rhythm poetic exploration.”
Part of the genius of the album is Ferreira’s ability to showcase his brilliant style over a ridiculous range of subjects. His skill comes through as clearly in “LAUNDRY,” a stilted domestic meditation that traces Ferreira through a day of doing laundry with his son, as it does in “CYCLES” when he waxes poetic about the role of art as “the nearest thing to a sacramental human activity acknowledged by secular society.” The album’s twelfth track, “DOLDRUMS,” considers the difficulties and revelrous rewards of freestyle rapping, as well as the relationship between the religious and the mundane. The impetus for “DOLDRUMS,” however, is anything but high-flying philosophical nonsense: Ferreira tells us that he wrote this song “outside of Wegmans” after being kicked out “for kickin’, kickin’ too many rhymes.” Ferreira’s dedication to the craft is unbelievable; freestyling is not a job but a lifestyle for him. He can rap about anything because even his breathing is rhyming.
There are as many instrumental innovations as there are tracks on the album: the languorously smooth “DECORUM” abruptly transitions into the stark clap-beat of “GREENS;” on “OMENS & TOTEMS,” he raps, “this beat sound like a long walk to the dumpster.” “NO STARVING ARTISTS,” the tenth track on the album, has an almost club-like pulse; the preceding tracks, “DUST UP,” “CYCLES,” and “ABSOLUTES,” have a contrasting quiet eeriness in their acoustic quality. While gelling cleanly with the whole, each track also has its own distinctive beat and instrumentals. The eerie, windy drone that backs “DUST UP,” for example, is pierced by a high ringing tone at the 1:02 mark of the song. It feels like the soundtrack to a rocket roguely wandering space in a disaster movie. The feeling of post-apocalyptic aimlessness is reinforced by one of my favorite lyrics on the album, “the map is the only territory.” Ferreira again blends references on references (the map-territory relationship has a long history in 20th century literature and thought) with mind-bending quandaries (How can something be both map and territory? Is the album map or territory? What could it map?).
The key is that this album is, above all else, versatile. From track to track, it is alternatingly energetic and smooth, hopeful and isolating, witty and terrifying. Even in Ferreira’s most seemingly incoherent moments, like when he raps “king poetical dingbat, hip cat science, theoretical inksplat, scope that wingding, impeccable Hulk stache” at the beginning of “U.D.I.G.,” there is something so fun about the rhythm and poetics that draws your attention (hipcatscience is also R.A.P. Ferreira’s Instagram handle). Each song demands extensive annotation, but it’s easy to get just as much out of the album by just letting the sound wash over you. The album is full of small lines that could each be the subject of a dissertation. Part of the brilliance of Purple Moonlight Pages is that you choose how to interact with each line—how much you unpack and learn and how much you save for a rainy day. Through its versatility, the album welcomes all sorts of listeners into its 18-track arms.
The album begins with an address to a cryptic group: the “fence building nihilists.” You are either in the know, a member of the exclusive club of “fence building nihilists,” or you are an intrigued outsider. As the album continues, it welcomes those intrigued outsiders, widening the circle of the exclusive club. The distinction between in and out fades. As one track links to the next, Ferreira strings together words that have been friends nowhere else. The world gets bigger; you are reminded of the connection between seemingly unrelated things; your first-person experience is contextualized as a piece of a bigger puzzle. If none of what I’ve described about the album sounds appealing, give it a listen anyway! My interpretation of this album is just that: my own. The album asks you to try it on for a size, to give it a chance to explain itself. Ferreira once told an interviewer, “I make music that’s about becoming smaller.” So stop reading; go lose yourself in the album and shrink yourself into the growing world of “fence building nihilists.”