Ask E.P Da Hellcat and Olskool Ice-Gre what got their duo Abstract Mindstate back together 16 years after they split—after a vertigo-inducing burst of success that ended in frustration, after creating a masterpiece album only to see it shelved, after falling out of touch and finding success in other fields—and they will tell you two words: Kanye West.
Olskool got the call before dawn on a Tuesday morning in 2018: Ye wanted Abstract Mindstate back together. He wanted an album on Yeezy Sound, and he wanted to produce it. And he wanted E.P—who’d found a rewarding career as a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst—on a plane that day. It took until the weekend for her to get out to Calabasas, and to Kanye’s multidisciplinary creative space the Energy Center, where he and Olskool—Ye’s close friend and creative partner since his transition from producer to artist, and A&R for GOOD Music—were working together on GOOD’s marathon early-summer run of almost-real-time EPs.
“Who’s Abstract Mindstate?” was what a lot of rap fans were wondering after Kanye included their name on the proposed roster in the tweet he used to announce Yeezy Sound a few weeks later. The answer is the greatest rap duo you’ve never heard of. Formed in Mississippi at the turn of the millennium, when Olskool (from Chicago’s South Side) and E.P (a West Sider) met at Jackson State University, the duo returned home in time to join a blossoming conscious rap scene that included Common and Kanye, who started making beats for them on their 2001 debut LP We Paid Let Us In!. With their hyper-lyrical style, compellingly confrontational attitude, and rare male-female-rap-duo lineup, they were poised for a breakthrough with their flawless sophomore LP, Still Paying (featuring two Kanye beats), but fate and the shady side of the music business conspired to keep it from being released.
“Why Abstract Mindstate?” is another good question. Maybe it’s Kanye trying to balance a minor but meaningful cosmic injustice. Maybe it’s because hip-hop needs a new Abstract album—E.P and Olskool’s verbal dynamics give us the complexity that today’s one-note rappers leave us hungry for, offering a return to Golden Age fundamentals for the grown rap fans who’ve been tuning into Verzuz battles in droves. (Call it Adult Contemporary Hip-Hop.)
Or maybe it’s just that he, like so many of Abstract Mindstate’s fans the first time around, saw that Olskool and E.P possess a talent that time and bad luck and loss can’t keep down. Culled from 25 songs recorded over three years, Dreams Still Inspire is the album the pair were born to make. They don’t sound as good as they did 20 years ago—they sound better. They’re still running parkour lines over the beat, deploying multi-dimensional wordplay like artillery, but the performances are more confident, the message deepened by hard-won wisdom. This is conscious rap on a new level of consciousness. This is Abstract Mindstate at their peak. “Real life, no acting, no camera,” as they say. “Real skill, no glam, all stamina.”