“‘Trips in Rehab’ is a gift to the ones who still care,” writes Tunisian rapper 4lfa about his new album, which dropped in the last few days of 2022. Produced by fellow Tunisian John Six, the 17-track album is a contemplative, self-reflective and social-conscious body of work with a thematic focus on mental health and addiction. While often overlooked by the music industry, mental health is the anchorage of ‘Trips in Rehab,’ but it is also a point of discourse, as the album cautiously invites its listener into these topics, cushioned by a beautiful and intimate music experience driven by jazz embellishments and old-school hip-hop nostalgia.
Entering into the album’s opener, ’Intro (superbia)’ is like stepping into 4lfa’s time machine into the bygone days of old-school hip-hop. With a classic boom-bap beat, we get the album’s backstory, hearing the difficult journey that 4lfa faced over the years in reckoning with addiction. We hear this through explicit yet vulnerable lines, “I need professional help,” and through this clear announcement, the album in and of itself becomes something of a trigger warning about the content yet to come.
In ‘Speechless’, the album’s lead single, released with a music video directed by Sanad, we see an intimate portrayal of 4lfa and producer John Six in a minimalist set design. The camera cuts back and forth between them, and a dancer towards whom 4lfa’s monologue seems directed. In these oscillating shots, we are given the impression that this is a romantic song that isn’t so straightforward but points to the momentum and limitations of love in the face of addiction.
Opening up with a sample of Monophonic’s ‘It's Only Us’ set against the static of a worn-out cassette tape, the track ‘Lost Letters’ takes on a more melancholic tone regarding the production. But it is in the depths of the minor keys against the lyrics where the album's complexities play out with hopeful lines like “I guess that I understand that I do it on my own, I’m the man now,” that drip with self-reflection built upon relatable mantras.
When we get to ‘Remedy Interlude’, we start to get a sense of John Six’s sound design, and the vocal collages that push the track along as a sombre synth line plays out against the beat. But it’s John Six’s minor keys that continue to hold the tracks together in terms of the production; the album almost feels like it could be one long lo-fi composition made up of jazz, samples and beats. In many ways, these elements feel like characters in 4lfa’s story, and the dialogue between them makes for his most intimate work yet, particularly when looking at his older tracks across drill and trap.
In ‘Ashreenat’, we enter back into 4lfa’s time machine, into his twenties, where he told me in a message that he is “reminiscing about his early twenties, trying to depict where all of the troubles came from.” On a lyrical level, we get deep into the difficult crossroads of 4lfa’s memory and retrospect, but he does this all while embarking on one of the smoothest flows we hear him rapping through. Neither behind the beat nor on top of it, 4lfa rides it by situating his retrospective directly within the rhythmic pathway John Six has so delicately paved for him. Perhaps another nod to old-school hip hop, but it also points to the chemistry between the two artists. 4lfa has always had a knack for choosing his producers, in the past has released some of his biggest hits with Ratchopper as heard in tracks like ‘Hours’.
Across the 17 tracks on ‘Trips in Rehab’, there is less emphasis placed on catchy hooks, instead, each verse is written like a tone poem that doesn’t hide behind the music, as John Six puts the lyrics front and centre. The track speaks to the relatable and unsettled propositions of a conflicted memory trying to figure out when it all got so out of control.
‘Ashreenat’ followed by the jazz-infused ‘L’ feel to be the turning point of the album. By the time ‘MEANT TO BE‘ plays out, the mood has shifted, and it feels like we’ve begun to walk out of the mud and into bouncier, uplifting and crunchy beats, which remain until the outro - a tone poem-styled narration.
‘Trips in Rehab’ isn’t for everyone. It doesn’t chase popular sonic trends. You won’t find moments of trap or drill or anything you hear everywhere these days. But you will find a seasoned hip hop artist pouring his heart out into an album attempting to also bring into dialogue a too often neglected yet urgent topic. 4lfa does this without glorifying or romanticism addiction; he doesn’t promise to have all the answers, but through his self-reflective rap and retrospectives, he also makes a valid commentary on mental health in music and brings it into discourse.
Meanwhile, John Six stays on theme entirely throughout. As 4lfa’s memories of younger years play out, the old-school hip-hop aesthetic is heard within almost every track - with a propulsive, unyielding beat that tosses the listener into a 90s temporality. With this timeline laid out and reinforced throughout, we are provided a blank page on which we can write our own life story, and in the company of someone who gets it.
The album is both intimate, unfussy and beautifully old-school. In it we find an outstretched hand behind every beat, ready to pull you out of the mud. There is as much sadness as there is hopefulness, and in that paradox, we find gems of thoughtful hip-hop, reminding us that this genre was always a lyrical art built on rhyme, rhythm, and storytelling.
Listen to 'Trips in Rehab' here: