‘IDols’ and identity: Eli Arbor’s stunning debut

Jan. 13, 2016, 8:00 a.m.
(RAHIM ULLAH/The Stanford Daily)
Eli Arbor performing at Chi Theta Chi. (RAHIM ULLAH/The Stanford Daily)

Eli Arbor raps as if it’s his last day on earth.

“Shooting star / Here today, but gone tomorrow.”

Arbor, also known as Elliot Williams ‘15, repeats this phrase often in his two-part debut album, “IDols,” which is available now on Soundcloud and Bandcamp. As a founding member of The Outsiders, Arbor is a familiar face in the Stanford music scene. He’s been dropping mixtapes for a few years now, and he frequently appears on other projects with other Stanford musicians, always contributing a solid verse with a heavy dose of introspection.

“IDols” is no different. It’s a culmination of passion and honesty that explodes in the ear. It’s the manifesto of a nerdy black outsider who likes punk rock. It’s a survival guide for those struggling with worlds not built for them. It’s a question, posed both explicitly and implicitly, simply asking: “Who am I?”

The album is split into two discs, each dedicated to an idol who has profoundly shaped Arbor’s personal and artistic identity. The first half is a gritty, confrontational cut channeling the attitude of maverick skateboarder and punk singer Mike Vallely, who made his mark on both the industry and culture of skating by never bending to the status quo. The second half is dedicated to Donald Glover, also known as Childish Gambino, who, aside from being a successful comedian, writer and actor, has helped to carve a place in mainstream hip-hop for the freaks and geeks who don’t fit America’s commercially accepted templates of blackness. Together, the two discs form a fantastic album, meticulously crafted and brilliantly executed from start to finish.

(Courtesy of Eli Arbor)
(Courtesy of Eli Arbor)

The first thing the album does is suck the air out of the room. In the first 15 seconds of “Vallely Intro,” the song’s anthemic C4 (Chance Carpenter IV ‘15) production drops like a brick, and Arbor is off to the races. He spits with fury, welcoming you to the harsh realities of his world: “No gods, no kings, no masters here / If you don’t know what to do, then make a move / Else you ain’t gonna last in here.”

Arbor is at his best when his bars are frenzied and unfiltered, like in “Vallely Intro” and “40 Acres,” when the emotion that animates his creativity is laid bare. Unlike other rappers, he doesn’t seem invested in making it look easy. He puts in work, and he wants you to know it — you can hear the sweat and tears that go into his craft.

He switches flows often, and employs deft changes in inflection to great effect. No two songs really sound the same, which is as much a testament to his writing ability as it is to his talent to expertly adjust the moods and energies flowing through his mic. He’s backed up by truly outstanding production, much of which comes from The Outsiders themselves, including EAGLEBABEL (Tyler Brooks ‘16), faruhdey (Chris Russ ‘15), C4 and MZZZA (Muzz Shittu ‘17).

Still, Arbor stumbles through a few moments that, while lyrically ambitious, ultimately prove awkward. “5 Lines” deals with the fallout from a sexual assault, told from the perspective of a friend of the victim as he outlines visions of anger and retaliation before finally calming down and trying to comfort her. It’s a bold concept and a relatively unexplored subject in hip-hop, and the song’s resolution comes from a genuine place of humility. But the execution feels just a bit clumsy, as the focus stays entirely on Arbor, not the victim. When writing so emotionally about someone else’s tragedy, that distinction proves to be a fatal flaw.

These slight shortcomings are absent, though, from tracks like the excellently crafted “40 Acres,” a frantic indictment of the gentrification of Arbor’s hometown of Rochester, New York, and “GPOY (Glover Intro),” where the focus is a more personal tale of soul-searching. It’s obvious that tremendous thought went into every line and lyric on the album, and for the most part, the results are captivating.

Even when riddled with doubt (“I don’t really know who I want to be / I really don’t know who I want to be with,” from “My Paradise”), Arbor is able to communicate his own story and personality with extreme clarity. Some of the most compelling arcs in the album are written directly in the vein of Glover’s trailblazing work. In “GPOY,” Arbor acknowledges his own struggle to find a place in hip-hop culture, writing, “I went from Bryant Gumble to Wu Tang / Switchin’ the slang to show it ain’t ‘Nuthin’ But a G Thang.’”

After divulging so many personal thoughts and worries, Arbor ends with a surprising resolution. In “The Morning After,” the final track of the album, Jae (Janei Maynard ‘16) holds down the main verse, voicing the concerns of someone who loves and cares for Arbor, someone who has been there for him during his struggles. After her remarks, James Baldwin discusses black resilience in a sample from a 1969 lecture. Appropriately, the final seconds of the album are sampled from an interview with Donald Glover: “We’re all alone in the end, so it’s good. That’s the way it has to be.”

This is how Arbor ends his awe-inspiring debut, with a humble, somewhat nihilistic realization of his place in the world. And it feels rather fitting.

Why? Because “IDols” is an album for outsiders, for the black guy at the punk show, for the middle-class nerd in hip-hop, for the kids who grow up in a world not built for people like them. These are the kids who might never find peace with the world. These are the kids who know that it doesn’t really matter. These are the kids who grow up to be idols.


“IDols” is available for stream and download on the artist’s Soundcloud (soundcloud.com/eliarbor) and Bandcamp (eliarbor.bandcamp.com) pages.

Contact Benjamin Sorensen at bcsoren ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Benjamin Sorensen covers jazz for the Arts & Life section of the Stanford Daily. He is a junior from Stanford, California studying political science with interests in Chinese and music. He enjoys playing guitar, talking about music, and wishing he could sing. Contact him at bcsoren ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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