Full disclaimer: I have never been a massive fan of hip hop nor have I listened to much of it. Sure, I have heard bits and pieces floating around my local IGA or projected from a car’s window as it speeds down Parramatta Road. But I’ve never been drawn to the musical genre. Perhaps this is purely because my musical inclination — the clarinet — relies on Mozart, Poulenc, or, if lucky, the great jazz of Artie Shaw.
Yet, Gian Santoro’s Reflections on the Waters has changed my perception of hip hop. Perhaps the fact that Gian is a good friend of mine (another disclaimer) propelled me to listen to hip hop in a new way – streaming their album, I had a personal connection to the music, recognising stories that the artist himself had told me, such as purchasing “Cannoli from Papa” (as in Haberfield’s sweetest institution, Pasticceria Papa). Yet, I think it is more than this. Reflections on the Waters is an album that I have listened to over and over again. Every time I play a track, I find another layer of sound, another lyric that I didn’t hear before, another way of thinking about life and loss and triumph and grief. For me, Reflections on the Waters encapsulates what it means to be human.
Gian Santoro dropped Reflections on the Waters in March this year, their first full album after releasing four EPs and ten singles since they started writing hip hop professionally in 2020. The eighteen-minute album has been an immediate success: Reflection’s single and my favourite track off the album, “Five Thousand”, has already reached 1146 streams at the time of writing – not bad for an emerging artist. Yet, when I ask Gian about what these numbers mean to them, they tell me that “they don’t represent everything.”
“The reception I had for the album was the best yet. I had people approaching me at uni and on the street… I would rather have a smaller group of people who really appreciate my craft listen to the album than have millions of people streaming in… My main intention is to connect with people,” they said in conversation.
Gian’s ability to “connect with people” is at the forefront of all of their work, particularly in their latest album. Reflections on the Waters was written across 2022-2023 and captures a plethora of emotions, from grief to triumph to trauma to joy. I didn’t think it was possible to capture this much in ten songs. Indeed, the album dives into hard-hitting emotions and experiences while ultimately projecting a feeling of hope. In Gian’s own words, Reflections aims to “be the most explicit album yet” in terms of portraying their own emotions and story to connect with listeners.
“Reflections on the Waters was the album that I wanted to be the most explicit with… I wanted to make it just incredibly personal and gain recognition for my art. If people are going to know me, I want them to know me deeply from the get-go. The album wrapped up the entire year of 2022 with a lot of 2021. It encapsulated every single emotion I had in this time.”
For me, Gian’s ability to “encapsulate every single emotion” was what made the album so special to listen to. In the song “Taste of Tears”, Gian poetically and poignantly explores their battles with mental health while also yielding a sense of triumph. In “Water Ducts”, the artist movingly delves into their family’s history and the emotions that arise from experiences of family trauma. Moreover, being an English teacher, something that I have always loved about Gian’s work is their ability to effortlessly incorporate allusion and metaphor throughout their music. “Five Thousand”, for example, alludes to the biblical story of Jesus feeding five thousand people, with Gian reinventing this story to a personal one where those “mouths to feed five thousand” are those of the people feeding off of their energy and soul in their craft and contributing to the “ON37OVE movement”. The artist defines ON37OVE as a “philosophy, movement, collective entity and culture” that seeks out an eternal love in a world where such a phenomenon is actively fought.
Overall, the album so perfectly interweaves these allusions with Gian’s emotions and personal and family stories; in the album’s complexity, every listener can pick something out in the music for themselves to replay over and over again. As Gian tells me, there is “not a line in the album that doesn’t have substance, [where a listener] can’t take a whole emotion and whole experience from.”
When listening to Gian Santoro’s Reflections on the Waters, I am reminded of what it means to be human: I am reminded that emotions define us, can create turbulence in our lives, but also give us substance and beauty. In this way, Gian’s album showcases the power of music to embody and make sense of the paradoxes that characterise our lives.
As the artist perfectly encapsulates: “I want to take every opportunity I can. I want to take the risk of going to new places to see what I can experience and see what can be turned into songs. This is what we can live for.“
Gian Santoro’s Reflections on the Waters is available now to stream. The artist plans on releasing new music later in 2023.