Three old men look back at their lives and think over the choices they’ve made; are forced to weigh up the pain, the difficulties, and the sacrifices against the material and immaterial success they gained. This is Epik High Is Here, Part 2.
Ok, not exactly. Mithra Jin, Tablo, and DJ Tukutz are not old men, all three are right around 40. But in an industry that worships youth, they might at well be. And their greatest strength is that they have embraced age. As they have passed from underground artists to mainstream stars to living legends of music, these three men have always made their music from where they are in life, and have let life change them rather than keep up an image. Both parts of Epik High Is Here are them taking stock and looking back over the years. Part 1 sits in judgment of the world, bitter and angry that they are fighting the same fights twenty years later, but with a core of resistance that they will not go gentle into that good night. Part 2, on the other hand, is introspective as Epik High sit in judgment of themselves, wondering “was it worth it?”
There are three major themes in Epik High Is Here, Part 2. The first is the expected but least explored– the cost of success. It is very difficult to make a living as an artist, and most people will not manage it. Epik High detail both sides of the coin. They are open about their beginning as literally starving artists, not knowing where their next meal was coming from, and the way they clawed their way to the top. But they also show the difficulties of stardom, how the endless travel stops being exciting after years, and the strain it puts on their familial ties.
Not just their wives and children either, but their parents. “Family Portrait” in particular juxtaposes Tablo and Mirtha Jin’s childhoods with their current relationships– Tablo has to live with the death of his father amidst the TaJinYo harassment, while Mithra acknowledges that he and his brother have both improved their lives, but time with their parents is short and getting shorter. Moreover, both men lament that the parental bond is wholly unique, and once their parents pass, so will versions of themselves, unknown by anyone else.
The second theme is also not unexpected from Epik High: artistry versus fame as a measure of success. Obviously, Epik High has both of these things, but on Epik High Is Here, Part 2, they dig into the difference. “Prequel”, “Super Rare”, and “FACE ID” delve into Epik High’s mindset when creating: They strive to make great art. They want to impact their audience, to produce something lasting. And because they honed their skills, worked themselves to the bone, Epik High achieved their goals and said artistry was rewarded with fame, accolades and monetary success. Moreover, they never rested on their laurels, but strove to keep elevating their art. The end result, twenty years later, is a group that can be neatly placed next to Beyonce in the exclusive category of “musicians who have transcended chart success”.
This is in sharp contrast to the younger hip-hop crowd who view fame as the measure of success. Epik High wastes no time tearing those children to shreds, particularly those who deride them for being old.
They make clear that they are old masters, sitting on hip-hop’s throne while the aspirants fight over scraps, having never known the hunger Epik High built themselves on. The youth may whisper snide comments, but Epik High know their empty music and fame-chasing will never tear asunder the crown they forged of artistry and passion. When asked to put your hands up if “you know you’re super rare”, the music seems to discourage the action, because of course very few people are and Epik High are well aware of that.
The final theme is the question of how to treat people and how to react to mistreatment. While opening with dense, layered lyrics, there is a shift to tracks that are simpler but far more cutting. “Gray So Gray” revolves around the endless chain of cruelty—people are cruel to you, so you withdraw and are in turn cruel to others. Everyone is gray as everyone is lashing out in pain; no one is right or wrong. “
Rain Song” and “Rich Kids Anthem” are then able to bring in the wisdom that only comes from living. They push for working through your pain, to have compassion for those on different walks of life. Whether starting from behind or having a life in a pressure cooker, everyone suffers, and finding ways to connect is the only way to change anything.
Then there’s “I Hated Myself (Tablo’s World)”, a vicious and painful exploration into self-loathing induced by others’ mistreatment. Though he tried to stay strong, when so many people are hell-bent on tearing you apart, it kills your self-worth. The misery, the loneliness, the hatred, it would have broken a lesser man, and Tablo is very aware of how close he came to that edge, but he did not let it. Hate may beget hate, but only when we let it. We can choose better paths, even when it nearly kills us.
Of course, wrapping these themes and emotions together is some of DJ Tukutz’ best work. The instrumentation is heavily classical, featuring mainly pianos and strings over synths or guitarwork. While Part 1 is very sparse, Part 2 has a sense of warmth and layering that invites the audience to take part in the assessments Epik High are making of their lives and choices, and to make our own. Every piece of music flows effortlessly into the next track, allowing for a full immersion in the music. Toss in the classical influence and it feels more like a score than anything, a flawless backdrop to flatter the emotions and lyricism shown by Mithra and Tablo perfectly.
By the time Epik High Is Here, Part 2 comes to a conclusion in “Champagne”, it can be jarring to return to the question of “was it worth it?” The pain, the regret, and the choices made throughout the album seem to say no, the acclaim and money was worth it. But of course, this is Part 2.
When one considers the full weight of Epik High Is Here, one project of two halves that flow right into each other, you understand the answer. Mithra openly says that he probably wouldn’t have been happier in a normal life, because Epik High have the very rare gift of satisfaction. They lived on their terms. They made an impact. They mattered. Regrets and what ifs are inevitable, but no matter what happens, people will always remember that Epik High was here.
Epik High Is Here, Part 2 is an absolute gut-punch of an album. It shows all three men as egotistical, regretful, pain-ridden, vain, skilled, angry, proud, but most importantly as people. Tablo, Mithra Jin, and DJ Tukutz showcase their humanity, with the questions and doubts that come with. And as their audience stumbles forward and faces their own problems, we are left with one consoling thought: that whenever we feel alone and overwhelmed, Epik High is here with us.
(Images via William Morris Endeavor, YouTube)