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Will McClean - Album Review: Don't Forget to Breathe

28 Jul 2023 // A review by Steve Shyu
Out of the underground hip-hop scene of Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington comes Will McClean, who over the past handful of years has garnered accolades on his recorded music and performances. Having shared stages with Kiwi icons Troy Kingi, Che Fu and Diggy Dupé, Will seems determined to keep the momentum and create new releases.

With July 2023 comes his latest record, titled Don’t Forget to Breathe. Never judge a book by its cover, they say, and neither should you judge an album by its artwork or title. Still, when this eight-track popped up in my tray of new releases it’s hard to tell what to expect looking at the cover image. The bold font tells me it’s a pop album, but the photo of this young man sitting with a knee up and one hand in his hair tells me it’s probably rap.

No matter. This record promises to “showcase his introspective lyrics and evocative melodies”, which is ultimately sounds like my domain, even if reviewing hip-hop isn’t always. Regardless, it’s headphones time.

Sounds of tui and native birds announce at the outset that this music is unmistakably made in, and influenced by, Aotearoa. Then enters mellow, simple keyboard notes and light saxophones.

As though whispering directly in your ear, Will’s poetic verses emerge direct into the microphone. His voice quivers as he introduces the opening tune, pointing to his experiences with grief, personal hardships, and thanking his mother for her support.

Suddenly, the song’s tension spikes, Will’s voice is raised, and saxophones begin to wail louder in the mix, then at last, the drums enter.

Interestingly, as I discovered later, this dichotomy of soft-spoken lyrics, countered with youthful energy is further represented throughout the rest of Don't Forget to Breathe.

Speaking of youthful, the party piece Vibe is easily the most upbeat and bouncy on the record. Acting as an introduction to Will McClean himself, a Saturday morning kids TV-esque voice invites the listener along on a musical journey. There’s no attitude within the verses, just our main character outlining his childhood and all the positive aspects of his upbringing. With plenty of lines dedicated to swimming at the beach, walking among trees, and watching the sun rise, rap music rarely gets as wholesome as this.

And there’s no way the catchy little chorus chant won’t be stuck in your head even after just one listening. Resistance is futile!

The production is crisp and clear, and while the instrumentation isn’t overly complicated, the masterful layering of sounds brings everything together very nicely.

Predominantly, the songs are backed by chilled lounge-jazz, backed by Nikau Te Huki’s drum beats that vary from urban and lightly-grooved, like on Seem Alright, to a simple mid-tempo stroll, as heard on Man on a Mission Feat. Casual Healing. There’s something very organic about the tone of Jason Rapana’s bass and Ashton Cane’s saxophone parts that I can’t put my finger on.

Perhaps it’s because plenty of modern self-recorded hip-hop and rap tends to be synthesised entirely on a computer and slapped together. So maybe, by comparison, the use of actual instruments makes for a welcome change.

This record’s primary heft lies in Will’s words. One could almost argue this is more a collection of introspective, coming-of-age poems than a rap or hip-hop record. There’s lots of deep self-reflections, musings about life and death, gratitude for his friends' and whanau' love and care and finding peace in a busy universe.

The song Yesterday begins with an audio recording of presumably Will’s grandfather talking about his diagnosis of an unnamed illness, followed by an audibly emotional Will elaborating on this experience, and how they’ve shaped who he is today. On Seem Alright, our writer points to everyday stresses of life in the modern day, but assures listeners to be conscious and find peace whenever and wherever possible.

Any exuberant chest-puffing typically associated with rap or hip-hop is completely non-existent on this record. These are lyrics and words of a conscious young male finding his way through life; he’s got nothing to hide, and he’s got nothing to prove.

As a way of rounding off a deeply personal record, Will saved A Lonely Moment / House on the Hill for last. Employing one more superbly crafted audio sample, the track opens with sounds of seagulls, and a recording of our writer’s late father bantering with him as a toddler, perfectly evoking an atmosphere of longing and heartbreak. With the track divided into two acts, Will again recalls his past and struggles in moody and mournful tones for the former half. For the latter, keyboards shift down several gears into long, drawn-out chords, as Will’s mother recites a poem, presumably self-penned. Interestingly, she addresses her son in both first, second and third person, acknowledging his strengths, offering loving words of encouragement.

This is some powerful stuff; I admit, my eyes got more misty-eyed at this part with every repeat listen of the album.

Finally, and fittingly, given the name of the record, everything concludes with a deep exhale.

I’m glad this album landed in my tray of reviews; Don't Forget to Breathe is by far and away the most heartfelt and personal Kiwi hip-hop record I’ve ever heard, and I challenge anyone to find a more moving listening experience to have come out of Aotearoa in recent years.

Listen to Will McClean's Don't Forget to Breathe on Soundcloud, Spotify, Apple Music, or purchase it from Bandcamp.


About Will McClean

Will McClean is a Hip-Hop artist from Wellington, New Zealand.

Will McClean’s insightful lyricism is mellow but hard hitting; taking time to say what matters; and by taking a look through his discography you’ll find a blend of vulnerable raps with uplifting aspirations, set against smooth sample-based instrumentals; mixed in with the occasional heavier hip-hop track.

“Insightful lyricism and electric live performances.” - Sniffers.

Visit the muzic.net.nz Profile for Will McClean


Don't Forget To Breathe
Year: 2023
Type: Album
Live At The Surgery
Year: 2021
Type: EP
Can't Sleep, I'm Dreaming
Year: 2020
Type: Album
The Calm Before The Now
Year: 2020
Type: EP

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