Relax! Recent Releases Not Given Their Due Part II
November 10, 2007, 3:07 pm
Filed under: Album Reviews

Panacea – ‘Aim High’ & ‘Square 1′
taken from The Scenic Route (Rawkus, 2007)

It is entirely coincidental that this second installment of recently slept on releases features another one producer/one MC outfit, but it is perhaps indicative of the success that the formula can bring to those who eschew current trends within hip hop. The Scenic Route dropped on Rawkus (not a bad year for the label…) at the beginning of September, and although it garnered a brief fanfare from a couple of disparate corners of the internet around the time, it amazes me that an album of such quality fell victim to the fierce and ruthless momentum of the blog scene. As with Travel At Your Own PaceThe Scenic Route is a work that clearly engages with boom bap aesthetics, but it does so in an exciting and engaging way that feels remarkably original: if you’re sleepin’, consider this a friendly wake up call.

K-Murdock’s production style has developed substantially since the crew’s first release, a well-judged blend of punchy drums and richly textured samples that gradually mutate as each track progresses. His flair is demonstrated by the incredibly spacious quality that his soundscapes possess; the result is a sensation of the beats almost wrapping themselves around you, permeating all of the available space in which you dwell. ‘Square 1′ is one of the tracks in which this quality is most fully realised, a truly beautiful composition that demonstrates K-Murdock’s production style perfectly. The combination of organic sounding samples with electronic touches manages to achieve a satisfying balance, and it provides the beat with a modern twist that feels right at home when punctuated by the aggressive drum track. ‘Aim High’ is another of my favourites, a seriously jazzy number that is propelled forwards by its energetic drum track whilst maintaining a smooth, laid back vibe through astutely chosen samples. Both are fine examples of the delights to be found here, and they demonstrate K-Murdock’s skill at combining a range of sample sources into remarkably coherent end products that still bang.

Raw Poetic’s contribution is also significant. A relaxed, conversational style is the perfect match for K-Murdock’s production, and he is skilled at weaving together a range of images when constructing his narratives that give his rhymes serious depth. He’s also able to switch up his style when the beat demands it, and his lyrical gymnastics on ‘Between Earth And Sky’ prove that he is no one-trick pony. Unfortunately for Raw, I find that really my focus lies in the beats on The Scenic Route, although this is as much a result of my own personal preferences as anything else: his performances on the album are as accomplished as you’re likely to hear this year.

It’s not all perfect though, and there are a couple of missteps. The electronic element to the songs can prove overbearing at times, the most fitting example being ‘Pops Said’, which feels a little flat when compared with the lusher textures to be found elsewhere on the album. Still, there is very little here that could be defined as categorically skippable, and a sense of consistency and variety is successfully maintained throughout.

In a recent review in Hip Hop Connection, Hercules Rockerfella (yea, I wish that was my name too) commented that what is saddening about Panacea’s sophomore outing is that it is unlikely to find a wider audience outside of the hip hop community, as its potential fanbase are still ‘too busy blindly collecting J Dilla paraphernalia’. This is a real shame, because it is exactly this brand of modern hip hop that I would feel proud to be representative of the contemporary culture. The Scenic Route is soulful, beautiful music that deserves to transcend the confines of genre: cop it.

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Showing Lots Of Stamina – The Don
April 21, 2007, 4:28 pm
Filed under: Album Reviews

I picked this up whilst on a random tangent through Discogs, and the fact that there were a couple of Large Pro beats on here sold it to me (and the fact that it was only a cent on Amazon). Unfortunately, this is a prime example of excited anticipation giving way to a perhaps inevitable disappointment: this ain’t great. However, for Large Pro completists and those interested in the more commercial side of hip hop in the very early ’90s, this may be something that you will be interested in hearing.

To be fair, the cover art alone did ring a few alarm bells, featuring The Don in various ‘party’ style poses (his get-up is straight wack), but then you can’t judge a book by its cover. There is very little information out there on this release which doesn’t surprise me as I had never come across it before or even heard of it, and this is perhaps indicative of the fact that this is indeed a lukewarm release at best (and I mean at best). I assume that this may have been attempting to reach a similar audience as releases such as the UMCs’ ‘Fruits Of Nature’, although this record pales in comparison to what is in my opinion one of the strongest pop rap/daisy age records of the era.

The Large Pro contributions are worth hearing, although relatively forgettable. Given that this was released in 1991, I had high hopes of ‘Breaking Atoms’ style beats that would compensate for below par skills on the mic, but this was not to be. ‘On Tour’ bops along pleasantly enough with a funky little guitar loop and a nice variety of interpolations as the song progresses, but it lacks punch and the necessary depth to get you hyped. ‘Step Aside’ is the other Extra P contribution, and its passable, although spoiled by almost two minutes of shouts and ‘heys’ at the beginning of the cut. Once it finally gets into it, the snares are crispy enough to maintain your interest and as with the aforementioned track there is a nice variety of samples that keep the groove moving.

Elsewhere on the album there is some production from Wolf & Epic, but in all honesty, none of the other cuts have drawn my attention and I do not anticipate this being an album that I come back to regularly, if at all. Still, as a relic of a time gone by in hip hop and with the added bonus of the two Large Pro cuts, I guess I can’t complain for a cent plus shipping: let me know what you think.

Marco Polo ft. Masta Ace – Cut Of The Year So Far?

Obviously there is loads of hype surrounding the forthcoming Marco Polo ‘Port Authority’ album that sees a release in mid May on a rejuvenated Rawkus Records. I got put onto this track via WYDU, so you can check in there for the video.
I love this track, and it has got me seriously amped about a release that I am unsure about at this stage: is it going to be as good as the hype suggests? I’ve avoided getting an advance internet download because I want to cop this when it’s released and pass judgement at that stage. For the moment though, ‘Nostalgia’ is in heavy rotation: the big drums, chilled out summery vibe, Ace’s deep verses and fantastic scratch chorus section have plastered a smile to my face for at least the last 48 hours. Definitely my favourite single of 2007 so far, and almost reason enough in itself to get the album when it is officially released.

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Kick ‘Em In The Grill – MC Serch
March 31, 2007, 6:36 pm
Filed under: Album Reviews

‘Return Of The Product’ is one of those albums that has been on my hit list for a long time, and which I finally acquired a couple of months ago. Having read a bit of negative press regarding the album on the net, I wondered if my ‘this is going to be great’ hunch would be wrong, but I am glad to say that although this is by no means a sensational album, it is still a quality release that I would argue should be held in the same regard as his former bandmates’ joint venture ‘Dust To Dust’, which also seems to get largely ignored by even the more educated of hip hop fans (I’m no exception, having slept on these until only recently).

In some ways, you can see how ‘Return Of The Product’ was doomed to failure. With the success of 3rd Bass (both of their full length studio albums went gold) and the critics behind them, it is no surprise that the slightly more hardcore aesthetic on Serch’s first solo outing would be resented by those that had held the group in such high esteem. To be perfectly honest with you, I’m no expert on 3rd Bass and so don’t want to get too heavily into drawing comparisons between Serch’s earlier work as a member of that group and his own solo work: let’s get down to a discussion of the album.

The lead single here was of course the excellent ‘Back To The Grill’ featuring Nas, Chubb Rock and Red Hot Lover Tone which essentially acts as a sequel to the undisputed classic ‘Live at the BBQ’. I remember first hearing the former cut on a J Smoke mixtape around 2001 and was instantly taken by its bangin’ drum track and upbeat party vibe. I also love the album opener ‘Here It Comes’ which features some creative and interesting layers (check the African chants in the verse section and the bell during the chorus… quality) and the funky drum track means that this cut easily gets your head nodding. The remix that appears at the end of the album is also excellent, with an aggressive and seriously upbeat flava. ‘Can You Dig It’ is another favourite, with live drums and a multi-layered chorus hook that works very well. Serch handles co-production on the majority of the tracks, with T-Ray and Wolf & Epic chipping in, and the result is a pretty consistent album that successfully utilises live instrumentation whilst maintaining a relatively gritty vibe.

Match the beats with Serch’s unquestionable skills on the mic and you’ve got a winning formula. I have always liked his flow which feels relaxed and fluid, and his voice has a powerful quality that means he resonates over the music below. The content is also pleasingly varied with comments on society, bragging verses and I think he even kicks a little bit of 5% wisdom at one stage (!) although I can’t remember what track this appears on.
If you’ve been sleepin’ on this album like me then I think you will be pleasantly surprised. Although it is by no means an exceptional album, it deserves far more props than it has ever garnered, slipping off the hip hop map for all but the most dedicated of fans. Right this wrong: hit the link.

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Spreading Like Infection – Xzibit
March 26, 2007, 6:32 pm
Filed under: Album Reviews

Although my sensibilities lie firmly in the east, I’m trying to open my mind a little bit to stuff from the other side of the US in an attempt to expand my hip hop palette. Despite ‘At The Speed Of Life’ being a relatively high profile release, I only got a hold of it the other day and have been so impressed with it that I thought I’d throw it up almost immediately. To be fair, I feel like I’m cheating a little on the ‘broadening my horizons’ front here, as although Xzibit hails from California, there is no denying that this album is musically closer to counterparts from the five boroughs than from the so-called ‘City of Angels’. Still, it’s a step towards branching out a little bit, and I’m happy to be so pleasantly rewarded. Who knows, I may be bumping some low-riding, gun-toting G Funk before the year is out…

As an affiliate of the Likwit Crew with King Tee and The Alkaholiks, the east coast influence found in this album is hardly surprising as both of the aforementioned artists also lean towards a more New York oriented sound. Indeed, it also seems significant that this was released by Loud, who traditionally had always handled the business of those representing those on the Atlantic coastline. Favourite cuts for me at this stage are ‘Eyes May Shine’ which incorporates some sweeping strings with heavy drums to produce a serious banger, and this is followed by ‘Positively Negative’ which continues in the same rugged vein with a verse from King Tee to add to the lyrical side of the track. Diamond D’s contribution ‘Bird’s Eye View’ is also solid and as with ‘Positively Negative’ benefits from guestspots, this time from J-Ro and Tash of The Liks. Although I don’t feel like I know the album inside out yet, the overall impression I am left with is that the production is pretty consistent from start to finish, and I had no problem in giving the album a full listen through straight out the blocks.

I also enjoy Xzibit’s work on the mic, which is characterised by his deep voice and raw delivery. The content of his verses is relatively standard, but there is an intelligence here that means his street narratives work well (perhaps ‘The Foundation’ is one of the best examples where he details the struggles of street life by relaying the information to his son). It seems like ‘Paparazzi’ is often cited as the standout cut, but X’s brutal dismantling of those artists in it for the money feels a little ridiculous now given his current profile in the game: ‘Pimp My Ride’ ain’t exactly street level.

All in, I have been genuinely impressed with this release and I regret sleeping on it due to my irrational prejudices against the west. This is gritty, rugged hip hop that easily stands up against east coast releases of the era, and it goes down as another quality release from the Likwit Crew that is opening my eyes to the west in more depth. If you’re sleeping like I have been then who knows, it may do the same for you.

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Eliminating Lies – Boogiemonsters
March 24, 2007, 6:30 pm
Filed under: Album Reviews

Although the vast scale of hip hop means that the music is inevitably broken down into numerous sub-genres, the category of ‘Christian Hip Hop’ has always filled me with a vague sense of dread. The thought of somebody ramming their religious ideologies down my throat is not exactly desirable, and as such, the tag often has the effect of putting me off a work. The Boogiemonsters do fall into this sub-genre, and the religious aspect is more present on their second release ‘God Sound’ than on their classic debut, but it avoids being overly preachy and although it is not an astonishing album, it is well worth a listen.

The group are perhaps best well known for their single ‘Recognized Thresholds of Negative Stress’ and deservedly so. This is a fine example of mid ’90s hip hop at its best, and although it was the clear album highlight, the rest of the release kept pace with a chilled, summery vibe and well delivered verses.

Their sophomore release is definitely not as strong, losing the sense of fun that categorised the first album in favour of a darker, more monochrome sound, but in places this does work well. ‘The Beginning Of The End’ has some tight rolling drums and brooding samples that make for an effective album opener. ‘Whoever You Are’ has a spacious feel and some atmospheric strings, and ‘Whistles In The Wind’ has a seriously laid back flava with echoing rim hits and, you guessed it, some whistling. These tracks are the highlights for me, and I rarely delve much deeper into the album. The beats lack impact overall and I do not feel that there is enough to keep a listener engaged properly over the album in its entirety.

MCs Vex and Mondo are effective on the mic, with nice flows and intelligent lyrics, but as with some of the beats, there is something lacking here that means my attention is not completely held. Don’t get me wrong, their deliveries are accomplished, but if you asked me to detail their work content-wise, I would struggle to tell you as the verses do not demand that you take notice. There are of course references to their religious beliefs, but thankfully these do not feel overly preachy and avoid detracting from the quality of the album in some places, although as already mentioned, this is rather spasmodic.

If you are expecting something as good as ‘The Underwater Album’ then you will be inevitably disappointed, but there are moments on ‘God Sound’ that warrant a good listen. This is intelligent hip hop that despite its shortcomings will reward you in small doses. Enjoy.

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White Man’s Burden – Miilkbone
March 20, 2007, 6:29 pm
Filed under: Album Reviews

When I was thinking about a name for this blog back in December, I didn’t really labour over the task too heavily. I knew I wanted to reference the first LOTUG album in some way as it holds a special place in my heart, and I also wanted something that sounded good. Whether I achieved the latter or not is down to personal opinion, but I still like it and I enjoy the fact that it hints towards the urban nature of the genre (bricks = buildings, get it?!). What I didn’t really consider was the reference to Jersey (Newark is ‘The Brick City’), and it is only really as a by-product of writing this blog that I have fully realised the significance of ‘Da Bricks’ within the culture as a whole. Redman, Naughty, Artifacts… the list goes on. Of course, I wasn’t unaware of its role in hip hop, but I just hadn’t really thought about it that much and given it the full credit that it deserves.

With this in mind, today’s post focuses on Miilkbone, a Jersey resident whose debut release ‘Da Miilkrate’ seems to get overlooked despite a satisfying combination of beats and rhymes. A Naughty By Nature affiliate, it is no surprise to see Kay Gee popping up on the production credits a number of times, and generally speaking, the beats are solid with a classic mid ’90s flava: big drums and well chosen samples. Mufi is the lead producer on the album, putting together no less than seven of the cuts here, and this surprises me as he is a relatively unknown entity whose only other major production credit is on Queen Latifah’s Grammy winning track ‘U.N.I.T.Y.’. Highlights for me are ‘Keep It Real’ with its jazzy piano sample (the remix is also excellent), ‘Move Wit’ Da Groove’ which has a real ‘party in the summer’ vibe and ‘Check Me Out’ that features some classic sleigh bells and an enjoyably broody soundscape. This is not to say that the production is exceptional as there is some filler here, and I do find myself reaching for the skip button on a number of occasions when listening to the whole album: they’re not awful, but some of the beats lack punch and are easily forgotten.

Miilkbone can handle his business on the mic, with a flow reminiscent of his Naughty By Nature affiliates but without the finesse that make Treach and Vinnie so engaging. The lyrical content essentially falls back on the staple diet of boasts, brags and parties, but he carries the style off well enough over the course of the album. What really grates for me is his relatively consistent reference to the colour of his skin, and many of the skits revolve around the idea of his rejection of the ‘traditional roles of the white male’ as a result of growing up ‘next to the projects… with just flat out hoods’. If Miilk was so keen to prove that the colour of his skin was irrelevant to his music, then why the hell did he choose to bang on about it all the time? The irritatingly simplistic vision that he puts forward with regards to notions of race and identity in hip hop end up coming off as superficial at best, and at their worst, highly ignorant. Perhaps this is overly harsh given that this was released in ’96 when issues of colour in relation to hip hop had not been addressed in the same depth that they have been in more recent times, but there is no doubt that these overly earnest ‘justifications’ of his place within the genre feel heavily played out over the album in its entirety.

However, putting this issue to one side is worthwhile, as ‘Da Miilkrate’ is a solid release that contains enough highlights to keep the majority of heads happy. Don’t expect to be blown away, but in places this will have your head nodding and feet tapping: show Jersey some props and hit the link.

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Here Come The Hicks – Down South
March 9, 2007, 6:18 pm
Filed under: Album Reviews

I’ve said before that there is always a satisfaction in finding early works by artists who have subsequently made a big impression on the genre. ‘Lost In Brooklyn’ is not only a slept on and enjoyable release from ’94, but it is also the album on which we find Shawn J. Period’s first production credits (highlighted in the picture). If you don’t know Shawn J. by name, then you will inevitably know the tracks from the late ’90s that saw him become a major player in the Rawkus boom, providing beats for Mos Def, Blackstar, and a host of other artists at a time when hip hop was still in the wake of the golden era.

Featuring production from Shawn J. himself as well as T-Ray, The Beatnuts and Stretch Armstrong, the beats here are what you would expect: horn loops/stabs, big drums and funky basslines. The album is in fact split between a ‘south’ side (the first six tracks) and the ‘north’ side (the rest of the album) but to be honest this split is rather arbitrary as the sound throughout the album is relatively consistent. Beat-wise, this is clearly oriented in the east, although there are some nice ‘southern’ touches with the odd country and western guitar appearing that provide a little twist on the stock New York sound. Favourite joints for me are ‘Southern Comfort’ (which interestingly features the same sample utilised by Da King & I on the ‘Crak Da Weazel’ chorus hook) which has a nice summery vibe to it and a slightly cheesy chorus vocal; ‘Lost In Brooklyn’ is a straight up banger with infectious horns and tight snares; and I also like the album closer ‘Open Sesame’ which features classic Beatnuts production and verses that revolve around cracking open a brew and indulging in some fine liquor (content that the Beatnuts are no strangers to).

MC Soda Pop does a good job on the mic, although I think it would be fair to say that his verses are nothing sensational. The southern influences in production carry over into the rapping with multiple references to their roots in the lands of ‘tractors, rakes and hoes’, and Soda’s flow is capable enough to be carried by the quality of the production work underneath him. The presence of DJ Myorr is also felt on the record, handling all scratch duties and even scoring himself a DJ only cut, ‘Oh My’. Ultimately, the trio work well together, and any weaknesses in specific areas of the work are easily forgotten by the cohesiveness of the record overall.

‘Lost In Brooklyn’ is unlikely to blow your mind, but it is a solid effort that stands up relatively well amongst the plethora of quality releases that ’94 witnessed. From my Google searching for images and a bit of info, it also seems like this may have gone pretty much unnoticed, as the pickings were slim. This is a shame, as this album deserves to be dusted off and given a little bit more recognition than it seems to have done since its release: give it a listen and help it along its way.

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