I first heard fragments of Museum in the summer of 2021. Lounging in his studio sanctum, Rebel Phoenix sat opposite me as producer Adam Shanahan played a few tracks over the booming sound system. 

The rapper had already been releasing music for seven years, and his technical proficiency, emphasis on lyricism and ear for a good beat made me a fan. But Rebel couldn’t have been clearer about his intentions for this album – Museum was going to be the one.

“I just believe in it more than anything else I’ve ever made, and I’ve spent more time on it than I have on anything else,” Rebel told me about his opus-in-progress. “All over the place there are different albums coming out from different people and they’re all such high quality. But I just know that I have something to offer that other people don’t, and it’s the poetic value and the versatility, so I want to just put that into one record.”

It’s over two years later and Museum is finally with us. The reason for the time lag between recording and release is unclear. What is apparent is that it’s an album of aptitude, focus, and not negatively affected by being shifted slightly from the context of its creation. Rebel’s vision for Museum is for each song to represent a room, as though he and the listener are wandering through the Library of Alexandria. Across 11 songs, the Dubliner shifts between narratives, social commentary, and life lessons learned navigating the city.

Assisting is one of the finest front to back production jobs on an Irish rap album in recent memory. As you might expect from a piece so long in development, Museum sounds preened and deliberate. This isn’t always a good thing – music can often benefit from a sense of rawness and urgency, the rush of unfiltered creativity. But on Museum, that care has led to a sophisticated, contemporary sounding record. 

Opener “Kaleidoscope” has spacy keys and head-noddin’ drums that form a piece of twilight atmosphere and intensity. “From a fair city where there’s bare knuckle scraps/ Seen it all from the streets to the stairs of the flats,” raps Rebel to open the album, placing this saga firmly in Dublin.

From there, Rebel uses “Kaleidoscope” to condemn the “corruption” that “floods the Dáil” and declares, “A revolution is in order I’ll provide the smoke/ The mind of a Rebel cannot be caged, not the slightest hope.” Much of Museum was recorded in the wake of the 2020 election, when Sinn Féin became the first political party not called Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael to win the popular vote, and political change felt in motion. After contemptible recent scenes at Leinster House, lyrics calling out politicians may make people bristle. Rebel Phoenix offers a timely reminder that anti-establishment sentiment is not the exclusive realm of the far right.

Museum contains elements of emo rap (the out-of-tune guitar on “Rose in the Rain”), Southern rap (the screwed down vocal loop of “Cult Classic”), quiet storm (“Portraits” is mellow and romantic), jazz (the mournful horn of “Planet X”), even classical (a pretty piano loop centres “All or Nothing”). Still, with Shanahan credited as mixing and recording every track, there’s a feeling of connectivity throughout the album, a unifying purpose.

Rebel boasts some of the same proclivities of fellow Dublin rappers Mango and Nealo (a pair he’s previously worked with), as well as Kojaque, rolling these elements like Play-Doh into a swaggering concoction. His lived experience is of a man in Dublin negotiating some of the issues that have affected young men in the city in recent years.

Rebel will punch out imaginative bars, but his writing is mostly relatable. The heavily personal “Never Too Soon” reveals the support of his family, and sleepless nights with his demons. To that end, Museum provides a natural in-point of Dublin rap inventiveness that ripples up and down the M50.

Museum perhaps lacks a legitimate ending. It suddenly punches out after the sneering “Pretty Ugly”, which takes aim at the history of British oppression on this island while referencing Roy Keane and Mario Kart. But this is a minor quibble. Pull the lens back and you’ll see that the house party of Dublin rap doesn’t feel quite as crowded as it did a couple of years ago. Rebel Phoenix waited, witnessed the coverage and acclaim afforded to the work of his contemporaries, and plotted his entry into the canon. Now, the long-awaited Museum feels right on time, offering the scene a potent shot of adrenalin.

Dean Van Nguyen is a cultural critic and music journalist for The Irish Times, The Guardian, Pitchfork, Bandcamp Daily and Wax Poetics, among others. As well as pop culture, he writes about identity, youth,...

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