Album of the Year Review: Skyzoo – All the Brilliant Things

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Background

Gregory Skyler Taylor, better known as Skyzoo, might be the truest embodiment of hip-hop today. Born in Brooklyn in 1982, Sky came up in Bed-Stuy and was raised by legends such as A Tribe Called Quest, EPMD, Jay-Z (check out his mixtape An Ode to Reasonable Doubt), and most notably, The Notorious BIG. Growing up only a block away from Biggie, Sky was heavily inspired by his success and pen game, seeing such a larger-than-life figure come from his own spot.

He would begin his own career in the mid 2000’s, with his first big project being Cloud 9, a collaboration with producer legendary 9th Wonder. A series of solid releases through the next decade (including The Salvation, A Dream Deferred, and Music for My Friends) led to what has been a phenomenal run from Skyzoo. Dropping The Easy Truth, a collaboration with Mello Music Group’s Apollo Brown, Retropolitan with Pete Rock, and his masterpiece In Celebration of Us. An ode to black culture and a moment of empowerment, In Celebration is a versatile, thought provoking, and grand statement by Skyzoo for his community.

Throughout his career, he has also been a successful ghost writer and shown himself to be a true student of the game. The most common theme of his music is growing up in Brooklyn, albeit from the unique perspective of someone who was trying to balance poverty, violence, and addiction, with morality, academics, and the dream of overcoming the struggle.

Skyzoo tends to heavily interject NY slang into already dense, conscious lyrics and interjects many references to the things that were important to him and his culture coming up (the NY Knicks, chopped cheese, The Wire, etc.). Recently, fatherhood has also become an important aspect of his life and music. Production leans towards jazz and boombap, frequently collaborating with !llmind and Apollo Brown, and citing J Dilla as his favorite producer. Despite this, Skzyoo is plenty versatile and tends to go over something slightly different on every project and even the occasional aggressive cut.

Now, in 2021, Skyzoo has dropped All the Brilliant Things, a dense, masterful concept album regarding gentrification on all levels. The album cover depicts Sky with his son at the corner of Fulton and Franklin in Brooklyn. Where he once grew up in poverty and under African American tradition, luxury apartments are being erected.

The culture he came up with – whether the good or the bad – cannot be truly passed down to his own son. It is this cultural erasure which Skyzoo focuses on across this album: Neighborhoods being renovated with traditionally black residents being priced out to even worse conditions, white kids dancing to drill on TikTok, reviewers criticizing him from their high rises, all without ever understanding the context, pain, and beauty behind it.

As the late great comedian Paul Mooney put it, “The black man is the most imitated in America today, bar none… Everybody wanna be a n—- but don’t nobody wanna be a n—-“. All the Brilliant Things is a sprawling, beautiful eulogy for Skyzoo’s Brooklyn and a tribute to black culture.

Standout Tracks

St. James Liquors

“St. James Liquors” is a beautifully executed track, both sonically and lyrically. Monica Blaire delivers a hypnotic bridge over a dense, constantly progressing beat. With a funky base, Spanish guitar, and keys dropping in and out, this is a good taste of what All the Brilliant Things’ production brings: Subtle but highly intentional, complex jazz samples where Sky paints a rich portrait of his home and culture.

The track’s title refers to a known spot in Brooklyn where Biggie Smalls famously freestyled, Skyzoo juxtaposes the rapper’s mythical status with the imagery of an impoverished neighborhood. BIG was such an important figure in Sky’s youth, seeing someone who came from the same difficult circumstances not only become a star, but continue to put on for his home.

“St. James Liquors” focuses on the ambition Sky felt to emulate that (“Caught a vision… Tryna fly off the stoop”), as well as some factors which affected his early years. He comments on issues like alcohol consumption in this community and the lifestyle of lower-class black families at the time. While it isn’t all positive, Sky makes it clear that it is part of his identity, molded a generation, and should be valued all the same.

Bodega Flowers

Then your face mask sneak off, race draft recall
Give us Larry David and y’all can take back Shameik Moore
Or maybe I’ll just school him some, get to retooling, son
Word to Miles Morales ignoring his father badges
In the middle of November how I’m bumping summer madness
Next to these Fort Greene high rises that’s so attractive

“Bodega Flowers” is a song about recognition. Whether that be appreciation for artists before their passing, victims of racial injustice, or something as grand as respect for a culture’s influence and merit. The beat is sparse and mostly driven by deep drums, but with delicate keys falling in to support a dream like hook by BJ the Chicago Kid. It should also be noted that there are no rap features on All the Brilliant Things, a testament to how personal and expressive its themes are to Skyzoo.

He makes references to iconic aspects of black pop culture which serve as symbols of empowerment (“Word to Miles Morales ignoring his father’s badges”, “Race draft recall, give us Larry David and y’all can take back Shameik Moore”) in order to drive home his greater vision. Sky ties Eric Garner and issues such as police brutality to his own struggles with fame (reminiscent of Lupe Fiasco’s Drogas Wave), asserting that praise and recognition are highly valuable and motivating. We need to show appreciation and give people their flowers while they can still smell them.

I Was Supposed to Be a Trap Rapper

“I was supposed to be a trap rapper, mistaken identity they sat me with the backpackers”. Skyzoo has always made a point that despite his jazzy, conscious sound, he came up just as rough as anyone. Sure Puffy hot when he was coming up, but he was also listening to Mos Def and Common for example.

He was notably an academic (“Honor Amongst Thieves”), but after school came back to instability; There was a devil and an angel on his shoulders. On this record, Sky gives some almost comedic examples of how his tastes and style differed from the norm in his hood, such as playing Dilla around women and the “tug of war” between Little Brother and The Lox. All of this is to say that his circumstances should have led him to a far different mentality and lifestyle than we see today, and he was lucky to both take pride in his roots while moving on to better things.

While it starts with an iconic Bob Jones sample, he last minute of the track blindsides us with a tough beat switch. While the rest of the album is lush and light, this is a brief sample both of how Sky could have turned out and how he can spit on anything – even a hard, borderline NY drill beat – before fading out.

And bet I did all the above to a soliloquy

Made trappers go nuts to Donuts

The makings of a sacrificial lamb with the backings of a band

Trumpets wrapped around me rapping ’bout Saran

And all the superheroes that would pack ’em in sedans

Culture-Ish

This is the track were Skyzoo really digs deep into themes of cultural erasure. The instrumentation is lush but subdued, almost sounding like live recordings throughout the project and with a Karriem Riggins assist; Mournful horns and coffee shop taps give Sky room to reflect. He focuses on the disrespectful, diminutive habit of others to either dismiss or imitate black culture without ever understanding or enduring the context behind it (often rich and full of hardships).

He lambasts white reviewers who critique hiphop but have never lived it; Graffiti is more than vandalism, but a pillar of the genre; Fashion trends are shamelessly and poorly adopted; A Whole Foods stands where Malcolm X once orated. The song almost feels like a eulogy for what Sky grew up on, with so much distance between the real Brooklyn and what we see today. Through numerous small scale examples, he drives home the point that we need to love black people as much as we love black culture.

And they just wanna be positioned where you been
Sorta like how they turned Living Single into Friends, right?
Collage that for you to comprehend it… They said it’s corner store calligraphy on how I pen it
And sneak a round of Henny in if I got time to finish, for real

Bed-Stuy is Burning

Where Brooklyn at! Sharing a name with the Brian Platzer novel, “Bed-Stuy is Burning” is perhaps the album’s greatest highlight. Over grand, live instrumentation courtesy of the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble (he always makes a point to put on for the art), we are effectively transported to Skyzoo’s home.

There is also tragically vivid imagery which places you in the shoes of a displaced person, Not only does he paint a vivid image of NY culture – referencing the markets and apartments, the homies and the icons – but it also functions as a warning for other cities. As he pleads in the hook to every big city in America, Sky hopes that black culture can prevail elsewhere, despite it fading before his very eyes in his own home. The video is an essential watch, really taking us on a tour of the neighborhood (no pun intended) and shows how the people fit within it.

They gave you a curb and kept you back on the stoop

And now what they

prefer is to help pack when you move…

The smoke all clear and they just wanting the remains.

Funny, ain’t it? The bottom of the bag is what you make it,

Told us tag a dotted line if you care to survive,

My neighborhood gives you life, but was you here when it died?

Soft Eyes

The closer to All the Brilliant Things is arguably its most personal; “Soft Eyes” sees Skyzoo dissecting his position in the game and in society as he contemplates retirement. Mentioning his own inspiration Phonte, Sky documents the internal struggle he felt between frustration with the industry and what he felt was an obligation to make this art.

As he puts it, rap is “justice to poetically speak on whatever matters”. In addition to his new status as a father, he realizes that he is an influential figure in conscious hiphop and that he communicates something important through music. Despite all the bullshit in the industry, the come up, and society at large, Skyzoo will always be here to guide us through it


They telling you pick a corner, you in and out of a circle
Advice from Candace Owens and fifty dollars from Virgil
The lights be Off-White, so you thinking how could they burn you, right?
Same as the hole in your pocket left to confirm you
But validation ain’t never make me no difference
Bet that I’m more persuaded off wearing these Good Intentions


Check out our 2021 R&B album of the list here

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