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Releasing music in relative obscurity can engender insecurity, the self-doubt mounting with every year critical acclaim and peer recognition doesn’t arrive. Brian Ennals was intimately familiar with that disheartening reality for a decade. Throughout the 2010s, the Baltimore rapper’s sporadic solo projects gained little traction, and songs with short-lived groups either languished on hard drives or were quietly buried on the back pages of small blogs. Following the release of King Cobra (Phantom Limb), his second album of brilliant tragicomic nihilism produced by fellow Baltimorean Infinity Knives, Ennals’ career narrative is slowly changing.
“It was always weird to tell people that I was an amateur rapper, even when I was younger,” the 39-year-old says over the phone, fresh from a weekend at the beach with his two-year-old son. “I always wanted to be able to say, ‘Not only am I a rapper, not only am I a good rapper, but I’m also a successful one.’ That’s just happening now.”
Ennals and Infinity Knives briefly toured Europe this past spring, received an “Album of the Day” nod from Bandcamp in June, and both appeared on ascendant rap podcast Dad Bod Rap Pod and graced the cover of Baltimore alt-weekly Baltimore Beat in August. None of it happens without King Cobra, which expands on the sound and subject matter of 2020’s Rhino XXL.
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Produced, mixed, and mastered by Infinity Knives, the songs fuse organic and electronic sounds while contorting ’80s and contemporary hip-hop. They are unique departures from the dystopian, Vangelis-meets-Bomb Squad instrumentals of early El-P with occasional nods to ’80s boogie and R&B. Ever adaptable, Ennals offers pistol-grip insurrection, self-aware gallows humor, and vivid song-length narratives written in white lines. He affirms killing landlords, ending homelessness, and eating pussy with the same fervor, raging against the ills of late-stage capitalism while fuming over the Baltimore Orioles’ dismal playoff prospects. No politician is safe, no institution is sacred, and repentance may or may not begin after the next eight ball.
“The album is very nihilistic,” Ennals explains. “Me and Tariq [Infinity Knives] are very cynical guys. If Rhino XXL was Star Wars, [King Cobra] is Empire Strikes Back. We’re trying to go for a little more hopefulness on the next record. Like Return of the Jedi, but no Ewoks and shit.”
King Cobra warrants far wider acclaim before the next sequel. Together, Ennals and Infinity Knives sit somewhere between Dead Prez and Danny Brown. You could also make the case that they’re a hybrid of The Coup and Too $hort for fans of Cannibal Ox. If you’re after contemporary analog, think of them as the more approachable and intentionally puerile Armand Hammer, the pointed sociopolitical commentary competing with Ennals’ unchecked horniness.
“Every time I write something kind of profound, my goal is to write something disgusting right after,” Ennals says.
Born in Annapolis, Ennals and his older brother were raised in Severn, a census-designated place (CDP) roughly 16 miles south of Baltimore. Now a burgeoning suburb, Severn was once a rural, no-sidewalk town with a mix of trailer parks, Section 8 housing, and single-family homes. The Ennals family fell into the latter camp. His dad worked as a public school principal in Baltimore, and the boys’ mother oversaw equipment training at various phone companies. While his parents worked, Ennals unconsciously fell in love with performing, obsessively watching Motown concerts on VHS at home and singing in the grade school choir.
Though his older brother played radio-ripped tapes of Baltimore club tracks, Ennals eventually discovered rap, reading The Source and buying albums from the Fugees and Crucial Conflict. High school lunchroom ciphers led the formation of his first group, Special Ops. With no industry connections and music journalism’s blog era in its infancy, Special Ops fizzled out after Ennals graduated from Howard University and navigated the grim job market in the wake of the 2008 recession.
The next decade was a blur of empty liquor bottles, blunt smoke, and powder-filled plastic bags. Ennals dropped two solo records — 2010’s Untitled and 2013’s Candy Cigarettes — that drew local acclaim from the Baltimore Sun but little beyond that. Between his day job and the odd recording session, he spent much time battling substance abuse issues.
“I’m pretty sober now,” Ennals says, “but for a large part of my adult life I was a hedonist but very depressed in a lot of ways and wanted something to numb that.”
Infinity Knives initially contacted Ennals after reading about him in the Baltimore Sun, but the two didn’t begin recording until Knives solicited Ennals for his 2020 album Dear, Sudan. In the six-year interim, Ennals briefly bounced to New Jersey while Knives became a fixture in the Baltimore indie rap scene that sprang up around Baltimore’s Bell Foundry and spawned JPEGMAFIA. After working on Knives’ Dear, Sudan, Ennals knew they needed to record their eventual debut, Rhino XXL.
“[Working with Infinity Knives] is the first time that I feel I’ve been produced. It’s not just a guy sending me a beat and asking me to record over it. It’s him saying, like, ‘Hey, maybe you should take this approach or this flow. Maybe take this line out or switch it around.’ He’s a big boxing fan, so he likes to describe as Cus D’Amato and [Mike] Tyson. It’s very much him coaching me and making me a better fighter.”
Like the best coaches, Infinity Knives knows his fighter’s strengths.
“[One] reason I’m so drawn to [Brian] is because of how malleable his style is. He definitely has his comfort zone, but the more he goes, the more I can tell him to do weird shit,” Infinity Knives says. “I’ve just seen him get better and better. He can rap with a triplet flow or rap on a beat in 10/4. And he’s a scholar of the arts.”
They carried the momentum of Rhino XXL into King Cobra, spending the next year and a half of the pandemic politely butting heads and pushing one another past their creative comfort zones. King Cobra received some promotion from Phantom Limb, but the publicist they hired bailed. Fortunately, thanks to a network of supportive peers and growing journalistic support, word of the duo’s collective brilliance continues to spread.
“The whole thing has been word of mouth. We knew a lot of people who knew a lot of people. It’s a real grassroots type of thing. I’m glad it’s not hitting everybody at once,” Ennals says. “The way everybody’s attention spans are set up, if everybody heard it the first weekend it dropped, we wouldn’t be talking about it three months later.”