Uncompromising, heartfelt and unique are just some of the words used to describe the work of Limerick artist Strange Boy. Thankfully, these are also words that are fitting of Strange Boy’s debut album, ‘Holy / Unholy’, an album that combines heartbreaking verses with the organic sounds and instrumentation of Irish traditional music. For the first time, the music of youth meets the callings of Ireland’s musical past in a way that is not only convincing but powerful beyond measure.
Strange Boy, in his own words, is a 1000-year-old poet channelling through the body of a young man from Limerick. Combining hip-hop and Irish traditional music, the Limerick artist first came to the fore through appearances on projects by members of the PX crew and Limerick’s biggest artists, including Murli and Hazey Haze. Following a number of guest verses, Strange Boy was signed to Berlin-based label Welcome to the New World in 2019, and ever since has been working with producer Enda Gallery ( FKA Delush) to complete what has become ‘Holy / Unholy’
The album is awash with influences, opening with the mesmeric voice of Grammy-winning singer Moya Brennan. Over her haunting refrains, Strange Boy sets the scene of a man lost in his own thoughts, uncertain of where to turn for help and unsure of whether help is what he truly wants. The track ends with Brennan singing of hope for a new day, “where will I start” she sings as her vocals begin to give way to silence. For Strange Boy, it’s an invitation. He’s made it clear that this isn’t a tale of hope and happiness; it’s one of loss and pain.
‘Holy / Unholy’ touches on themes of mental health, feelings of loss and danger, alcoholism, and the fear of leaving home weighted against a fear of staying put and amounting to nothing. These thoughts are set to acoustic guitar, banjo and whistle, with occasional glimpses of the spoons, harp and accordion.
The album features guest appearances from Strange Boy’s brother Seán McNally Kelly and fellow Limerick rapper Hazey Haze; one of the first to recognise his brilliance all those years ago. Both appear towards the start of the album, perhaps indicting that though Strange Boy realises he needs help he has to take the final steps on his own. And on tracks such as Blood and Waiting, the ferocity and honesty of Strange Boy’s delivery is captivating.
The album touches on the theme of suicide in a frank and compassionate manner. For far too long, such stories have been viewed through the prism of bureaucrats, unwilling to connect the dots that point to structural failings within the public mental health system. At a time of high unemployment rates, rising house prices, falling opportunities and the inability to escape to far-off lands, hope is quickly fading for many of the most vulnerable in our community. Strange Boy is no stranger to such issues, and handles them all with passion and venom throughout the album.
All in all, ‘Holy / Unholy’ is not only noteworthy for its lyrical content and diverse instrumentation within the genre of hip-hop; but for its strength in purpose and character. Strange Boy’s personality and depth of experience comes to the fore, as he struggles to find a sense of self, a reason to fight, a reason to hope, and a reason to believe things can get better. ‘Holy / Unholy’ is an album that deserves to be heard, cherished and dissected.