Russian rapper Noize MC dropped the second part of his new album “Exit to the City” (“Vykhod v gorod”) on December 17, adding another ten tracks to the first ten released last month. Exit to the City is the 36-year-old musician’s tenth album — and it’s his most serious and tragic record to date. Since the very beginning of his career, Noize MC (whose real name is Ivan Alexeyev) has been actively involved in public life, showing support for political prisoners and speaking out on current affairs — and paying for it in concert cancellations and threats of criminal prosecution. In a review for Meduza, the rapper’s contemporary and long-time acquaintance, journalist Alexander Gorbachev, interprets Exit to the City as an honest look at the fate of the generation that grew up in Russia in the 1990s — and an attempt to find some value in this experience.
Please note. This article has been edited and abridged for length and clarity. You can read the full review in Russia here.
One evening, probably in the fall of 2005, I found an unfriendly, unshaven guy sitting in front of the shared computer in my dorm room. I knew who he was, of course — my neighbor was the drummer in his band and he told me how every weekend they played music on Arbat Street and at recreation centers in the Moscow region, and that soon they’d play shows all over the country. I didn’t attach much importance to these predictions (everyone knows that geniuses must have acquaintances, but who would believe that their acquaintance is a genius?). I didn’t go to their concerts, and they didn’t invite me out for drinks — we knew each other, but we didn’t shake hands. The guy sitting at the computer went by Vanya, but he had already chosen the stage name Noize MC — he needed a computer to upload his track for a rap battle. That’s how we met.
Since then, over the past 15 years, I’ve written about Noize MC’s albums, interviewed him, and put him on magazine covers. I really liked some of his songs. Some of them evoked a sense of understanding, others — bewilderment, but somehow I felt removed from his music, like an observer. Then, in 2021, Ivan Alexeyev recorded an album that was literally about me — about that common experience of having an epiphany about life, and about what comes from it and comes after it. Moreover, it seemed that this album is not just about me, but also about “us.” These songs are often spoken from the first person plural, from the point of view of some kind of community — perhaps simply because together, things are at least a little easier.
Exit to the City has 20 tracks, grouped by their author into four semantic blocks. Roughly speaking, the first one is about what becomes of the hopes and dreams of one’s youth; the second is about a motherland that devours its children and fights its brothers; the third is about surveillance capitalism and its specific Russian version with Roskomnadzor and abuse on social networks; and the fourth is about the fact that life is short, full of suffering, and ends in death. The extent to which this conceptual framework gets across is an open question. Either way, as can be seen even in this short description, this is a sad and to some extent even a desperate record — but it’s therapeutic, too.
From the point of view of the ordinary listener, Exit to the City, in a sense, sums things up — it’s Noize MC’s tenth album, after all. Here, his main sound techniques — rapping under dirty guitar, jungle and drum & bass in the service of lyrics, semi-acoustic minstrel revelations, bass electronica — are densely concentrated. As are his main themes. The search for freedom in manifestly unfree circumstances; wicked political satire; anti-war pamphleteering; trying to talk to those who demand silence; illness as a metaphor — he’s already touched on all of this, in one way or another. And even the cultural giants with whom Alexeyev speaks on equal terms (or perhaps more precisely, speaks for) — Yesenin, Mandelstam, Letov, — loomed in his other lyrics and songs. However, in Exit to the City, all of these subjects somehow come together in a new way. And they make us look at their author in a new way.
Noize MC is in fact a strange figure for the Russian music scene. He’s seemingly a rapper, but one with a guitar — and with more of the air of a truth-telling rocker. He’s seemingly already one of the greats, but he’s not trying to play the patriarch. Though seemingly the first star in the history of the genre to emerge from rap battles, Noize MC completely missed the heyday of battle rap, and his Versus appearance was a complete failure. Indeed, just a few years ago it seemed as though Alexeyev would remain a figure from the late 2000s, when hip-hop was fighting for its right to a legitimate place in Russian pop culture, and rappers were earnestly accused of being bad singers.
In the new era, where the genre that he himself paved the way for beat out all the rest, Noize MC didn’t seem to fit in. He didn’t switch to making trap music or make friends with the new school (on the contrary, he grumbled about it like someone’s grandpa); he also didn’t start a label or launch a YouTube show. In this context, his 2018 rap opera, Hiphopera: Orpheus & Eurydice, looked like an attempt to spin this non-participation in his favor: while you’re fighting for status, I’m making great art. But this statement wasn’t necessarily taken seriously by anyone.
Will Exit to the City be taken seriously? I don’t know. Before us are very vulnerable songs. In this vulnerability, you can see their weakness and hear their strength. Alexeyev — whose favorite creative weapons have always been total irony and an unscrupulous, punk-like boldness — uncharacteristically sings quite sincerely a lot, almost uncontrollably. And, needless to say, often lays himself open.
A typical example is the track “Selma Lagerlöf.” Like a cool reporter, Noize MC borrows precisely captured details. Both here and in other songs on the album, there are many such details that let you experience the fate of a fictional character as your own. Evoking this kind of empathy is atypical for hip-hop. And (in the past) Noize MC himself laughed mockingly at cops, skinheads, communists, loyalists, conformists — just about anyone. Similar characters appear in abundance on Exit to the City — but they’re portrayed in a different way.
You can even hear it in the sound — it’s pathetic, sentimental, in some place even tearful. “Selma Lagerlöf” is a great tragedy about a metropolitan prostitute who wants to escape the indifferent city that’s sucked her in. In the title track, “Exit to the City,” the main characters are birds who live in the subway and don’t let their chicks go outside. The entire song is the bitter monolog of parents who, in taking care of their children, deprive them of freedom. The track “Voodoo” is a song about brotherly discord, sung in Ukrainian (a very brave gesture in these times).
Finally, there’s a literal inversion of the 2017 hit “Smoke Bamboo,” which, back in the day, landed Ivan Alexeyev in a Volgograd pre-trial detention center. In the second verse of “Everything’s As It Should Be,” Noize MC actually gets inside the head of a mounted police officer, only to find a person very similar to himself. In my opinion, these 12 lines are among the most delicate and accurate things that have been written about the normalization of violence, literally showing how it takes root in everyday life and becomes banal.
Where does this sympathy for others come from, for people who are not only nothing like the author but are sometimes openly hostile towards him? I suppose it mainly comes from sympathy for oneself. Exit to the City is an album devoid of both bragging and insolence. Essentially, there’s no hope for the best and no faith in oneself. It’s an openly defeatist record (and in this sense it’s similar to another key Russian album that came out this year, Melancholium by Mujuice).
All of Exit to the City is tied to the theme of parenting, of family, which is simultaneously a salvation from external hopelessness and a restraining factor for resisting it; a hope for eternity and a source of the very worst fears. Of course, there’s also a bitter irony in this: Exit to the City is an album about people who don’t want to go out into the city at all.
I think Exit to the City has an effect on me because I hear in it the experience of my generation brought into focus (there’s six months between Alexeyev and I). The aforementioned “we” is a generation deprived of a historical chance.
We were born when the Soviet Union began to collapse: we managed to remember the shortages, poverty, queues, and dullness, but we didn’t have time to consider the complexity of the Soviet project. After the end, in the 1990s, we watched from below as our parents, brothers, and sisters tried to grab their chance; most, of course, didn’t catch it, but we thought when the time comes we wouldn’t miss ours. When it came, it turned out that everything that could’ve been ours was already someone else’s. The noughties, the time of our romantic youth, now seems like a lost decade for Russian politics and culture; the former was simply technically destroyed, taking advantage of the fatigue of the 1990s, while the latter lived a quiet, consumer life and didn’t form a notable, generational identity. In 2011, it seemed that our time had finally come, but it was a bust — and from then on we were somehow reluctantly present, by inertia.
Today, we’re approaching 40 — logically this is the age at which a generation receives the levers of control over reality. It’s quite obvious that nobody will give people like “us” these levers. And there’s a lingering suspicion that those who have integrated into the system aren’t much better off. All these technocratic officials heading up the regions, and children of their fathers at the head of corporations — is it really fun for them to live in a world where people a couple of decades older decide their fate? The final battle will clearly be between those who are sitting on the pipes and those who are younger and meaner than us — and we’re excited and scared that the latter will be our daughters and sons. We’re the children of parents who were afraid to let us go outside. And we’re the parents of children whom we’re afraid to let go outside. The album Exit to the City exists in this vicious cycle.
Abridged Translation by Eilish Hart