If you take a glancing look at rapper Amir Richardson (aka The Bul Bey) and musician/producer Corey Bernhard’s Instagram pages, you get glimpses of the art of collaboration in the midst of a pandemic. Bey, Bernhard, and the musicians they work with are captured in-studio sessions rocking masks and laying down sounds at a safe distance. It’s refreshing to see this musical undertaking being done in a way that reflects our new reality.

Since March 2020, the music industry in this country and the culture that supports it has suffered mightily. Gigs have been canceled, venues closed, countless calendar alerts for band practices silenced. While many musicians have found quarantine to be incredibly productive, with live streams and taking our collaborative processes to be facilitated online, music is inherently social. Whether it’s rock n’ roll and four kids playing in a garage, hip-hop as one MC and a DJ, or gospel with two or three (or more!) gathered in the name of the Lord, music is meant to be created and experienced with others. And with The Bul Bey and Corey Bernhard and their new project, SWTS we experience the sound of two inspired musicians bouncing ideas off one another. Speaking with The Key, Bey explains the duo’s open approach to making music: “All Corey and I knew going into this project was that we wanted to make music together and put it out eventually. With that said, there was a lot of freedom to explore. We made sure we explored any creative thoughts we had.”

With its catchy hooks, insightful wordplay and rich, and inventive production, SWTS is the fruit of the meeting of two very distinct musical worlds. As a musician and producer, Bernhard is the cofounder of soul / jazz / hip-hop hybrid ensemble, Killiam Shakespeare and in the past has performed with everyone from Ed Sheeran and Ariana Grande, to Pusha T, Bootsy Collins, and BIlal. Throughout SWTS, Bernhard’s skill as a musician is on full display as he crafts gorgeous soundscapes for Bey to play in.

Bey, a Southwest Philly native and one of the city’s finest MCs, serves as the voice and narrator of SWTS. With his lyrics full of slick lines and detailed imagery, Bey’s subjects range from growing up poor as a child, trying to salvage relationships as an adult, and wrestling with the ever-present drive of a young creative trying to make it in this world. The album opens with “Well Rested” (featuring vocals from Great Time’s Jill Ryan). The song’s piano progression and sweeping strings set a dramatic and somber mood while Bey enters with a graphic opening verse spun around the twin dynamics of violence and survival.

“Your best bet is not to front about it. I seen niggas buy a Louis belt just to pull a gun up out it…you know…coordination. Bullets on my way when I was 7 or 8 but it grazed him. So grateful. I been scratching, clawing, grinding, crying, fighting….”

By the second verse, the scope of Bey’s words expands, connecting his personal trials and perspective to the greater human struggle for liberation and social justice.

“I come from a long lineage of resistance and people tapping in and staying committed. / I been obsessive about my ancestors talking and say the names of all the dead homies./  Never got a drop of truth. This is a watershed moment.”

Great Time’s Jill Ryan records vocals for SWTS | photo by Luke O’Brien

As Bey delivers this final line against a triumphant backdrop of strings, the metaphorical door into SWTS has been opened and the tone has been set. “Blueface” is as playful as it is insightful and cutting. Reflecting on a love that is either going or has already gone sour, Bey goes in over Bernhard’s strings and booming, half-time drums. And a sweetly sung chorus about a lover who’d “rather throw a fit than throw a bouquet”. Another clear standout on the project, “Cloud Hoppin’” (again, with Ryan contributing vocals) finds Bey in self-improvement mode, taking note of his own strides and personal wins. Whether it’s getting more sleep, drinking more water, or creating a dream journal, Bey’s words reflect all of our desires to live a fuller and healthier life. Bernhard’s contributions to “Cloud Hoppin’” are gorgeous as the beat is built around a dreamy, soul-filling synth progression.

A brief but well-crafted work of art, SWTS puts Bey and Bernhard’s unique musical chemistry on full display. The music is well-made and it feels like it was crafted with deep care and understanding. Speaking on the duo’s creative process and putting together the record under less-than-ideal circumstances, Bey explains that he and Bernhard worked well together despite the uncertainty of the times.

“The beautiful part was that we didn’t stop or get in the way of each other’s ideas. It was a free flow of creative energy. When the pandemic hit, we realized so much of our future was up in the air (so to speak). So we made sure we finished and released before the world got any nuttier. Too late I guess.”

The Bul Bey and Corey Bernhard’s SWTS project is available for download at Bandcamp.