Sha Stimuli :: Lazarus

Sha Stimuli is the type of emcee you shout from the roof about when you discover his music. An emcee’s emcee cut from a similar cloth to Crooked I and Elzhi, “Lazarus” inevitably landed undetected and I’m left wondering the hell why.

Lyricism is often dismissed in favor of minimalism, melodies and crime porn, so I’m going to deliver this review primarily in rhyme-form. When great emcess are discussed, I diss, cuss in disgust and spit stuff. The best-at-it rhyme schemes are often overlooked like dead rapper crime scenes. While Eminem, Kool G Rap and Big Pun are idolised, rivals find idle eyes blindly pass on their mindful rhymes and byzantine lines. Sha Stimuli paints pictures and blasts you with quotes, meaning much like elderly cats and dogs, his catalog is suffering from masterful strokes. Sitting somewhere between Saigon and Papoose vocally, Sha’s bars are equally advanced but he surpasses them both emotionally. Straight from the outset, Sha sets it out:

“When I was seventeen, I wanted to be the best rapper the world had ever seen
But it wasn’t realistic, I was simplistic, I had no clever schemes
So I just played ball
Since I got tall
That was a better dream
Just let that breathe, I’ma take y’all back hold up
I wasn’t like them other kids, when I was young
My teacher asked me what I wanted to be by the time I was twenty-one
I said I want to see twenty-one, start my own business, stack funds and live life until my breathing is done
My teacher was stunned, I really was dumb, I hung with dudes that believed when you leave the house, you should always leave with a gun
And I ain’t want to go to college, if you see where I’m from, it’s really all about a dollar when you’re eating up crumbs”

There are some deeply personal tracks on “Lazarus”, and each verse is packed with passionate raps highlighting that these streets aren’t glamourous, but hazardous traps. “Remember Me” is Sha’s message to his absent father, even suggesting that he often feels he’d rather not have existed than grown up with no daddy. Pain is a part of his bars like it is to an absinthe farmer, but he keeps high spirits with lyrics not suited to clubs like a broke caddy.

“Jail University” is a blunt observation that a trip to the penetentiary is inevitably more impressive than any attempt to better yourself mentally. It empathises with budding rappers who may as well aim for prison to remain driven. It’s an interesting concept, showing that doing the morally ‘right’ thing by going to college to improve his knowledge, doesn’t promise coffers in the pockets.

“Bad Day” has Sha playing the role of a domestic abuser who has only experienced violence in the relationships he’s seen first-hand, so he’s learnt that to be the best person he needs to be the worst man. Then there’s the responsibility for the state of the USA playing on Sha’s mind with “Escape the Lies”, feeling that he could be doing more to rectify hate crimes and the racial divide. No matter how positive he tries to be every day, racists simply can’t engage thoughtful discussion and Sha ends up being killed anyway. It’s easy to see how so many young men suffer depression, particularly as not everyone can open up to confession. “Lazarus” has a therapeutic feel, and while better music still never lets his skills elevate the bills, there’s more to think about here than seeing Eminem on several Benadryl pills smelling Heather Mills severed leg, dressed in leather heels tethered to Penn & Teller’s medical bills.

The monstrous 8-minute “The Edge Pt. 1 & 2” is an excessive, modern retelling of Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message”. It’s the antithesis of what modern rap listeners leanings is, because unless they spend evenings annotating Genius, many stay gravitating to convenience. Admittedly, the production holds up just under par like Tiger Woods in a Wonderbra. The bounce of “ToGetHer” stands out like a sore thumb thanks to producer Redd Lettaz and Sha’s passionate message flows naturally (like bed wetters).

While not exactly heaven-sent, “Lazarus” is better than many records that set out to tell a message from robbing hoods to becoming merry men. It’s all about the everyday struggle and the dismissiveness of academics, yet Sha’s style is full-on rapping clinic but never comes across snobbish, pompous or schizophrenic. Nerds will say wordplay deserves pay, but the adjectives and verbs displayed confirm this stance has no chance in the worst way. Destined to remain hugely underrated, Sha’s latest under-pavement release is under-appreciated, and that’s an understatement. He’s been killing it with mixtapes since 2006-straight and remains sharper than a quick shave with a switchblade dipped in a citrus cake. I’m glad Sha has continued to rap as his pen game is top-tier, far better than this writer’s excuse for a rap review, so I’ll stop here.

On a serious note – check this one out.

8/10

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Stormzy :: Gang Signs & Prayer

Stormzy is the #1 rapper in the UK right now. I’m not talking about skills, discographies or how much money he’s got in the bank – Stormzy is a household name who simply has that crossover appeal so few British emcees manage to attain. He uses Twitter correctly for his thoughts on politics or racial injustice, but also for chatting about his favourite television shows. He’ll pop up in Love Island or as a guest judge on X-Factor, without losing that respect he’s earnt from the grime scene. Given how long the likes of Skepta have been around, Stormzy is a product of a viral hit (“Shut Up”) yet hasn’t relied on a straightforward formula to try and replicate that success, instead crafting his brand carefully and delivering one of the best grime albums to date. Stormzy’s debut album “Gang Signs & Prayer” is the first grime record to reach #1 in the UK charts. Grime isn’t exactly new, but this record represents a pivotal switch – bear in mind that previous chart-toppers such as Tinie Tempah and Dizzee Rascal never accomplished this, despite garnering a large pop following. The seminal “Boy In Da Corner” peaked at #23, proving sales aren’t the be-all and end-all. So how does “Gang Signs & Prayer” stand up to the few grime classics in a genre dominated by singles and mixtapes?

Firstly, I want to commend Stormzy for not propping up his album with popular singles from years ago, a la Skepta’s “Konnichiwa”. 2015’s “Standard” and “Know Me From” remain big grime tracks and could have bolstered the tracklisting, yet they don’t represent 2017 Stormzy. In an era of streaming and easy access to artists’ discographies, there’s no real need to throw years-old singles on to your new album. Straight from the outset there’s a bigger budget feel: “First Things First” demonstrates the mature head on young shoulders, sharing his struggle with depression, “blackballing” and the different treatment he now receives given he’s famous. Being the ‘local lad done good’ is something Stormzy is very aware of, noting he “just went to the park with my friends and I charted”.

Stormzy even sings on “Blinded By Your Grace Pt. 1”, a time-out moment separating the two aggressive songs “Bad Boys” and “Big For Your Boots”. The former features a typically vicious verse from Ghetts but is offset by J Hus’ alt-Caribbean hook, but the latter is everything Stormzy represents in one song:

Admitting he attended an Adele gig and sang his heart out to it, and to showing no interest in designer brand clothing are confessions not usually associated with a hugely popular emcee. I found this not only refreshing in an era where emcees (or more commonly, the fans) still insist enjoying anything popular or emotional is a knock on your masculinity, but the reiterative stance that nobody is too big for anything is appreciated. Acting like you’re too gangsta to enjoy Adele is funny, especially when you know the hardest of hard rappers don’t tend to think that way (see M.O.P’s Lil’ Fame spitting to Sade). Part of Stormzy’s appeal certainly feels a bit Mike Skinner – a regular guy whose talent unravelled and captured a generation.

A lot of rap albums struggle to find that balance between in-your-face attitude and mature storytelling, and Stormzy approaches this issue by unashamedly flitting between the two without ever detrimenting the flow of the record. Thumping two-step “Return of the Rucksack” to laid back crooning with Wretch 32 on “21 Gun Salute”. Taking the listener on a 6 minute trek with Lily Allen and Kehlani, then smacking them in the face with the collosal banger “Mr. Skeng” (aka freestyle beat of the year). On paper it sounds all over the place, but it somehow works. There is method to this madness and “Gang Signs & Prayer” owes much to how serious Stormzy considers the album format in 2017. Grime LPs are few and far between

Hearing “Shut Up” towards the end of the album is a wise decision, showing just how far Stormzy has grown as an artist but also reminding all the so-called haters who doubted that his success could be sustained,  to simply shut up. Stormzy’s here to stay.

8/10

Milano Constantine :: The Way We Were

Who said New York hip hop was dead? It’s harder than ever.

The shift from traditional rhyme-machines such as Papoose and Lloyd Banks towards slang-heavy storytellers has brought a Wu-Tang feel not even the Wu can deliver themselves. There are so many artists in this field now: Action Bronson, Roc Marciano, KA, Planet Asia, Freddie Gibbs, Your Old Droog, Hus Kingpin, Ghostface Killah, Meyhem Lauren and Eminem’s recent signings Westside Gunn and Conway the Machine. Granted, they are all unique and utilise different production styles (and of course, these aren’t just New York artists), but other than perhaps Planet Asia’s earlier work, they aren’t exactly getting busy over traditional 90-BPM boom bap beats. This does mean some projects need the listener to be in a certain mood to fully appreciate; the primary reason why I wasn’t enjoying “Rosebudd’s Revenge” as much as previous Roc records. Thankfully, Milano Constantine’s down with D.I.T.C. and comes equipped with more traditional fare.

As an unofficial member of the Diggin’ In The Crates crew, Milano has gone under the radar in recent years but has returned with a quintessentially NYC slice of rap governed by the reliable hands of Marco Polo and DJ Skizz.

There’s little to fault on “The Way We Were” – it is what it is. Nothing quite matches the classic 2008 single “In A Zone” (produced by P Brothers) but there’s plenty to enjoy. The yearning for an earlier era is frequently talked about in underground rap and Milano shares his memories on “The Way We Were”, trying to bring back “That Feeling” associated with classic Biggie. Any doubts over his spitting ability are laid to rest on “Cocaina” as he gets busy over a faster DJ Skizz instrumental. Lil Fame pops by for “10-4”, but the standout guest is Conway who murders “Rasclat” as you’d expect given his recent run:

You a bum, almost fifty and you still snatchin’ purses?
Sneak diss and you’s just askin’ for verses
Nigga you don’t want trouble, you just want to work
Lay you under the dirt, face in front of your shirt
I don’t shoot fair ones, I’m tryin’ ta air suttin’
I’m from east side Buffalo, fuck where their from
Catch me at Red Sticks havin’ lunch, faggot jump
My savage blast a pump, have you slump[ed]
Wounds so big we can see through your body, back to front
Is that what you want?”

When hip hop heads say they wish Nas would pick better beats – they are talking about this kind of production. Skizz and Polo keep it simple but ensure the D.I.T.C. legacy is maintained and deliver one of the better traditional NYC records of recent times.

7.5/10

Krept and Konan :: 7 Days

Marketed as a double-LP, Krept and Konan’s second major release is actually two mixtapes: “7 Days” & “7 Nights”. This isn’t exactly groundbreaking in its concept but it certainly benefits from the structural shift from their previous record “A Long Way Home”. For the uninitiated, Krept and Konan are two lyrical cats from London who blend clever wordplay, British slang and thumping “American-ized” production to popular effect. Their breakthrough mixtape “Young Kingz” was particularly noteworthy for cracking the Top 20 Albums Chart in the UK, while their debut major label release “A Long Way Home” (2015) is the highest-charting British rap album ever (#2) – until Stormzy’s “Gang Signs and Prayers” this year which became the first #1 British grime album. It’s worth noting that these facts are distinguished by the terms rap and grime (read more here), despite “7 Days” featuring both Skepta and Stormzy.

“7 Days” is the record for the streets and the clubs, whereas “7 Nights” is aimed at “the ladies”. As archaic as that generalisation is, it mirrors the prerequisites of many a chart-topping rap album: songs for the streets, songs for the clubs and songs with accessible hooks or an R&B flavour. The decision to double their streaming revenue by splitting the 21 tracks in to two albums/mixtapes is a wise one, but it’s nothing new. E-40 released three mixtapes in one day, Nelly did something similar with “Sweat/Suit” in 2004 and even in the UK we’ve had unique releases such as Brotherman’s “The Dark and the Light” utilising the Ying/Yang theme. You could even look at Outkast’s “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” for an album that included two different genres.

Production is heavily influenced by American artists, particularly the work of Future and French Montana. To some this is a criticism, but Krept and Konan are dropping bars over this clubby sound, which not many emcees are doing. They throw in strong wordplay that, while not toppling a Chino XL, really lends their rhymes an extra dimension. These tend to be delivered in one-liners like “I got your #WCW holding my belt” or “You wanna take shots like Barca but don’t wanna say me name, argh!”.

The Stormzy-assisted “Ask Flipz” is a perfect example of this:

Braggodocio is emphasised from the outset – “Champions League”, “Told You” and even “Wo, Wo, Wo” all equivalate to rubbing your nose in to their success. Not until “Khalas” do the rhymes suddenly take off to the levels “Young Kingz‘‘ had us raving about them. The rhymes are that intense that the beat is constantly stopped, almost as if the beat has given up on the emcees.

“Last Night in LA” is the solo Konan track and if you didn’t think he’s one the best in the UK, this is strong evidence:

“Now everybody thinks they’re Escobar
Looked at my DJ like nah, Cos
They’re taking this ting too far, Cos
They want the throne but it’s ours, Cos
If they want, we can swing it out
Just know I’ve got the ting parked off
You’re talking tough but you need to stop
You don’t put in work, you need a job
Look, I ain’t even been on Breakfast Club
But they envy when they see the god”

(Krept & Konan’s tour DJ is nicknamed Cos). Not to be outdone, Krept shares the socio-political issues on his mind with “Cold Summer”:

“They still follow us around on the shop floor
For the same job got to do a lot more
I know it ain’t equal
So I’m tryna own shit and employ my people
I wish it weren’t quite true
They don’t see the same as a white dude
And to my white folks thinkin’ “But I do”
Man trust me not everybody’s like you
They see me in a hoodie thinkin’ how you driving that
They think why do blacks love buyin’ ice and that
Bruh they went Africa and took our diamonds from us
Now we just want our diamonds back”

Skepta drops by for “On My Life” and delivers a typically nostalgia-heavy verse referring to his penis as “that Jake the Snake” while promptly mocking younger cats for playing the old Nokia game Snake. Maybe it’s my age, but them nods to 90s culture always raise a wry smile. The J Hus assisted “Clartin'” is full of energy but less satisfying, a shame given the strengths of both artists should mean guaranteed gold.

I’m not going to touch upon “7 Nights” as it’s less interesting and largely derivative modern U.S. R&B, featuring the likes of Jhene Aiko and Tory Lanez. It would be unfair to judge the two as one record as they are separate mixtapes with very different purposes. “7 Days” is certainly the record to go for if you want that core Krept & Konan experience, and with strong showings from the three big names in UK rap (Stormzy, J Hus and Skepta) – it’s definitely worth checking out.

7/10

Lady Leshurr :: Mode

Social media platforms have created so many avenues for rap artists that it’s hard to keep count of them all. Lady Leshurr’s a key figure within British rap music thanks to her wildly popular one-take videos released on YouTube; known as the “Queen’s Speech” series, each episode sees Lady Leshurr (pronounced Lee-Shur) poking fun at a range of targets while walking in odd locations:

Episode 4 is the most popular and conveniently, the best one. Anybody who turns a song instructing you to brush your teeth in to a catchy, viral hit, clearly has something special about them. And it didn’t just remind some youths to break out the Colgate, but landed Leshurr’s mother a mortgage in the process. Dental hygeine is a common theme amongst Leshurr’s rhymes, as is putting down other females and particularly thirsty males. Songs like “Y R U Lyin’?” and “Trust Nobody” highlight a level of professionalism you’d not normally expect from a YouTube sensation, but the levels of confidence and vocal authority on display are executed convincingly. “Glucose” ends the 6-track EP on a high, showcasing Lady Leshurr’s versatility over a punchy party-rocking production with more than an element of early Dizzee about it.

Inevitable comparisons with Nicki Minaj and Missy Elliott can’t be seen as detrimental, particularly when Nicki recently followed Lady Leshurr on Twitter. Amongst all the tomfoolery and topical references, there’s a vicious emcee showing remarkable growth over a short period of time.  2017’s “Mode” is an EP possessing all the traits from the Queen’s Speech tracks but because the videos are so entertaining, part of Leshurr’s charm is lost in audio-only format. More personal moments (“F My Ex”) demonstrate some purpose to the juvenile insults, but the addictive hooks are what make “Mode” worthy of your attention.

The future looks bright for Leshurr, having already collaborated with Godfather of Grime, Wiley. The family-friendly approach is brave but one that needs to be catered to and Lady Leshurr manages to deliver a lyrical performance without sacrificing any credibility in the process. “Mode” is catchy, fun and a necessary antidote to a lot of grime music coming out in 2017, but it won’t be to everybody’s taste. Regardless, you can’t deny how good the latest “Queen’s Speech 7” is:

7.5/10

Swifty McVay :: Grey Blood

It’s easy to overlook Eminem’s group D12 as a fun side project that ended up feeling the brunt of both Eminem’s semi-retirement and Proof’s death in 2006. Their low-point came in 2010 when Canibus made a bitch move (much like LL did a decade earlier) by putting D12 on a track that was actually a diss to Eminem. It was a terrible song with some really corny lines, particulary from Soundclick netcee DZK, but the rhymes from D12 were shoddy too. The group are very quiet these days, although Swifty has been releasing mixtapes regularly over the last few years.

For the uninitiated, Swifty has always been the solid, overlooked member who was often overshadowed by Em’s intense rhyme patterns, Bizarre’s shocking statements or Proof’s effortless ability to ride a beat. His solo career has never really hit the heady heights that being affiliated with Marshall Mathers should warrant, but it’s good to see Detroit brethren Slum Village and Guilty Simpson on the tracklisting holding Swifty down. What’s clear from “Grey Blood” is how much Swifty excels and benefits from being in a group. Storytelling isn’t his strong point, with the likes of “Over Protective” lacking the right tone or emotiveness needed for an empathetic tale about defending vulnerable women.

The production is largely unremarkable too, with a legitimate top-tier lyricist in Crooked I (or KXNG Crooked as he’s now known) wasted on “You Ain’t Real”. Evidently, Swifty’s returned to his underground roots whereby the themes of songs can lean towards generic. “Grey Blood” isn’t completely redundant though, with the best tracks conveniently sounding like old D12 records. “Hands Up” is playful, snappy and Swifty’s flow has enough punch to carry the loose concept of partying two days on the trot. As does “Dysfunctional Family”‘s second-rate Dr. Dre beat, and the tough verbal attack “You Aint Ah Threat” which is where Swifty nails what he does best. Aggressive verses coupled with a catchy hook is exactly what this project needed more, particularly with that imposing cover art.

Flashbacks to the tomfoolery of “Devil’s Night” appear in drips and drabs: “Hands Up” is as D12 as any song released this year, just lacking the likes of Kuniva, Kon Artist and Bizarre. All three actually show up on “Pimps & Hoes”, a decent if played out concept that sees Bizarre deliver an oddly sane verse. The reunion minus Em and Proof (R.I.P.) doesn’t exactly have me rushing to Twitter and harassing Em for another D12 album – they had their time and their style is very much of that early 2000s era. With a bit more humor and some sharper rhymes, Swifty could still offer something for long-time fans but with Detroit alone such a competitive scene, it will take something spectacular to put Swifty McVay back on the map.

5/10

Fat Joe & Remy Ma :: Plata O Plomo

Fair play to Fat Joe. No matter how many purists knock his career post-Pun for leaning towards club-rap in the vein of French Montana, it’s helped him remain relevant in a sea of jaded New York emcees struggling to transition through the ringtone era in to the South’s dominance and the mumble rap era we have now. Ten years ago, I was the type of fan Joey Crack called out on Twitter recently that wished he would just do tracks with D.I.T.C. and DJ Premier, seeing as that is often where his classic material has stemmed from. Joe’s done well to ride the waves and deliver popular party tracks every few years to keep the pockets full, and with “All The Way Up”, momentum increased in 2016 just as Remy was lining up her attack on Nicki Minaj.

“Plata O Plomo” was better than I expected. A lot better. Remy Ma is vicious throughout the record, reminding us all why she has the reputation as a fire-spitter. Ever since I heard her on the “Ante Up (Remix)” by M.O.P. I was never keen on her delivery – it cut right through me much like the awful Roc-A-Fella alumna Amil. Thankfully, Remy has developed a mildly deeper, more precise delivery since then and it’s made her rhymes much more impactful. The viciousness that her Nicki Minaj diss showcased is here (if used sparingly) and is often the best part of this record. Lines like “if I liked your man’s face I would’ve sat on it” hark back to the heyday of Kim and Foxy when the ladies could embarass any man with their putdowns. There are further jabs at Nicki on the nod to Pun, “Spaghetti”:

“Y’all bitches got fat while we starved
Shots in your ass, pads in your bras
Y’all some liars it ain’t no facts in your songs
And yeah that crown is coming back to the Bronx
Take away they stylist, they don’t know what style is
I’ve been fly since junior high, bitch
You the biggest bird on Sesame Street
And I’ma scramble ya egg, keep running your beak”

Fat Joe albums have always been reliable, particularly for those pounding street anthems. “My Lifestyle”, “Take A Look At My Life”, even his 1993 single “Flow Joe” that had snares to wake the dead; they all showcased Joe’s strengths. Direct, aggressive, and a wry sense of humor (the bluntness of the name ‘Fat Joe’ still makes me smile), there’s no denying Joe is underrated as far as emcees that have been around for 25 years. He held his own on “Twinz (Deep Cover ’98)” against one of the most talented lyricists to grace this planet, and he holds down a similar role on “Plata O Plomo”, with Remy often stealing the show.

Just like the club these tracks are designed for, guests are spilling out of the door. Sevyn Streeter kills the hook on “Go Crazy”, Kat Dahlia does her best Rihanna impression on opener “Warning”, but the (literal) unsung hero is Kent Jones with his butchered Autotune vocals. “Swear To God”, “Spaghetti” and “How Can I Forget” all utilise the hench, typical Fat Joe kinda beat, and when the duo stray from this style, the album returns to the blander New York rap we’re used to hearing from Khaled and co. Given the lyrical content is bordering on corny, Joe does a good job of maintaining his respect despite, like Ja Rule’s autobiography, his attempts to steer away from 50.

With the recent support for Puerto Rico and his work alongside Jay-Z in getting aid to the island in the wake of the devastating hurricane Maria, it would be good to hear some more introspection and shed some light on what is now a legendary hip-hop career. For now though, keeping New York in the ears of the masses whilst his partner in rhyme drops some rabid bars, is more than welcome and “Plata O Plomo” ends up being one of the better Terror Squad releases in recent memory.

7/10

Doppelgangaz – Dopp Hopp

 

There is a select group of artists who have a knack for saying the weirdest things – Action Bronson is certainly one, but The Doppelgangaz are masters. Casual listeners may not be able to decipher a single line of any of the tracks on “Dopp Hopp”, but experienced ears will enjoy picking apart obscure references and the creepy humor tying it all together. Even the first track, reciting the letters D-O-P-P H-O-P-P sounds like D-O-P-P Ate-Yo-Pee-Pee. Or maybe I’ve been listening to this record too much late at night?

The lines go darker than that, particularly on the standout single “E.W.W.”. Matter Ov Fact and EP love an acronym, and “Every Which Way” is peak ‘Gangaz:

The costumes and jokey content are packed with descriptive vocabulary and terms deeply entrenched in American culture.

[Matter Ov Fact]

“Still Dumpster diving and digging through them trash mounds agh
Former miss Orange County up in the ash crown Vic
Said she only fornicates wearing the sash gown, sick
I come through in the Petrovic
With no dental coverage, just chewing on some Dentastix
Living like some kids, yo fuck a bunch of saloons
All I need is a bagged lunch from mom dukes and a Bunch O Balloons
Agh some Cap’n Crunch and a spoon
See I’m a simple man hunched over watching toons
Or chilling with Mandy, off the path of the meadow trail
While I’m getting a handy with some clip on stiletto nails”

The childish tomfoolery could be construed as corny, yet it never feels that way. “F*** a bunch of saloons” covers both the lifestyle of hanging out in bars and purchasing luxury cars – and dude’s turning them BOTH down for his mom’s packed lunch. Then only a few bars later Matter is catching a hand shandy in the countryside – something that also lends the duo a unique visual appeal (the countryside, not handjobs). Hip-hop as grimy as this is often associated with concrete backdrops and dusty alleyways, but the rural locations and decision to use cloaks as their get-up only adds to the idea of being a ‘Ganga. “Roll Flee” is their spin on the west coast hip-hop sound (accompanied by a Troutman-esque vocoder effect) that bangs nicely, sacrificing some of the lyrical impact found elsewhere on the album. It’s no surprise to hear it’s a single too:

The duo have released instrumental projects in the past and they continue to be underappreciated as some of the finest beatsmiths in the business. “I’ve Been” is a smoother jam, yet the harder songs are rock solid. “Bubblin'” is nasty, “Beak Wet” is on some Havoc in ’96 steelo, hell, the more accessible closer “Die 4 It” even goes hard.

Bumping Hammer’s “Too Legit 2 Quit”, going for girls with “Strong Ankles” – Matter Ov Fact and EP are clearly not your typical emcees judging by their influences. We’ve covered Doppelgangaz albums in the past and they tend to have a few certified speaker splitters balanced with more laid back tracks. What makes “Dopp Hopp” more memorable is not just the consistency of the production but the potency of the rhymes. Lines like “shorties who want their hinies spanked, she said ‘f*** a shower just hit me with the grimy shank'” are outright hilarious, and this dirty aesthetic somehow meshes perfectly with the crisp, heavy kicks and booming bass.

It’s a formula they’ve been using for nearly a decade now and it’s never sounded so good.

8/10

 

Oddisee – The Iceberg

I’ve thought long and hard about why Oddisee named his latest record “The Iceberg”. There’s very much a colder sound to this than his last LP, 2015’s “The Good Fight”, but it also has hidden depths that reveal themselves over time. The global warming effect on icebergs is another angle – the white man (a.k.a. the USA) has overlooked and often ignored the impact of melting icecaps despite contributing 14% of the world’s pollution with only 4.5% of the world’s population. The record industry has similarly overlooked Oddisee (or at least his style of hip-hop) for many years now, and years later, when society has been flooded by water (or in this case, music) people will reflect and realise that this album is special and should have been treated as such at the time. Then there is the movement that is Mello Music Group, the record label that Oddisee helped start back in 2009, his album “Oddisee 101” being the first full-length to be released under the MMG moniker. They have become a force in the underground, and unless you submerge yourself in to the genre fully, you won’t realise just how deep their catalog is (and how great it is!).

What’s scary about “The Iceberg” is how Oddisee keeps improving with each passing year. When year-end lists are compiled, there is always the same name that pops up each time. Sure, Kendrick is there every year, but not for a decade straight. Whether it’s an instrumental project, an EP of leftovers, a group effort, producing another artist’s album, or one of his own solo offerings, the quality is often unmatched.

In true RapReviews fashion (let’s say we’re ‘fashionably late’), this review is telling most people what they already know or have read elsewhere. The album is dope, but it’s the depth of lyricism that continues to impress, months after release. An impressive flow is often part of Oddisee’s skillset that doesn’t get the credit it deserves and “Things” is an uptempo number with a sleight, funky house influence running through it. The way the words weave between the kicks almost negates the content of the rhymes – he could just be rapping about random ‘things’ and it’d still sound dope.

Learning from television, “Built By Pictures” talks about the underlying mistruths some view proof of wealth. Debt and the need to show others how well you’re doing when your priorities are backwards is something Jay-Z mentioned on his latest album, but the lines “Why do my people spend more and have less than
No seat to eat the meal that I’m responsible for cheffing” and “A race with the have nots, Broke but the moat’s where the Jag’s parked” are particularly relevant to a generation that frequently lives in debt. Pay is also covered on “Hold It Back”, a thumping, organ-driven look at gender equality where Oddisee shares some themes that have been bugging him but can no longer “hold it back”:

“May I never meet the people I’m inspired by,
and find out that they’re really, really fake or they just kind of lied
Kind of surprised I was able to keep my mouth shut
This long, but
On this song, I’ma tell how I feel being quiet is a crime
Not enough fake G’s doing time
I’m not the only one to notice that”

Brother Ali’s “Dear Black Son” remains a standout moment in Hip-Hop this year, but “You Grew Up” runs it close. Telling the story of a young black boy’s friendship with a white boy, it not only highlights the innocence of youth but the sheer ignorance and miseducation of a generation that didn’t grow up with people of other races. The story of the boy’s father being fine with his son having a “black friend”, and then banning the son from seeing him after losing his job is not just a perfect example of miseducation, but also the generational divide and how racism is learnt. Oddisee articulates how growing up doesn’t necessarily make you more mature or necessarily informed, but can highlight how a disdain for anyone different is taught (directly or indirectly). Barack Obama’s recent tweet (that became the most “liked” tweet in history) is an example of how racism is learnt, and “You Grew Up” shows (just as Ali’s “Dear Black Son” does) how dumb this mindset really is.

On a more positive note, if you ever get to see Oddisee perform live, look out for the bass solo at the end of this track as it is much better than the recorded version.

Never afraid to try something different, “NNGE (Never Not Getting Enough)” sees Oddisee embracing his local music history by spitting to a Go-Go style instrumental. DTMD’s Toine delivers the lone guest verse and holds his own:

“I used to do it for the fist bumps and applauses
But caring about respect started making me nauseous
You walk into a room, and bammas speak to you cautious
Like employees trying to figure out who the boss is
So now I just kick it for, the most divine
Working overtime
Sitting with an open bottle, looking for an open mind
Trying not to be aggressively jaded
Because I find myself just getting faded
And I know that ain’t quite me
I step up for whatever it might be
And RSVP when inspiration invite me
Because who else gonna look out for those who look like me
Another disenfranchised boy in a white tee”

2015’s “The Good Fight” certainly had more of a positive, toe-tapping vibe than “The Iceberg”, and with “Want To Be” Oddisee delivers a snappy, feel-good number to add some balance to the album. No matter how oppressed he may feel in the United States; no matter how difficult things get in Trump’s vision of America; when it all boils down to the life of Oddisee, he just wants to be happy. That sentiment echoes throughout the album, which could have proven drearier and altogether less fun, yet Oddisee tackles such serious messages with a jazzy, almost live-feeling selection of beats. The drums are crisp and loud throughout, the finger-snaps on opener “Digging Deep” are crystal clear – this is definitely a record best experienced with a good pair of headphones. “Like Really” also highlights this, which when performed live is typically throwback in its crowd-interactivity, yet carries plenty of potent messaging aimed towards a certain Mr. Trump. The way in which Oddisee goes off on the second verse is reminiscent of an Esoteric or Big Pun in full flow – it’s a beautiful thing.

Oddisee takes the latter part of the album towards more tender tales of behaving like a gentleman for the lady in his life. Before you reach for the sick bag, it’s all done without an ounce of soppiness and makes clever use of the tried-and-tested metaphor of hip-hop being a woman (ie. Common’s “I Used To Love H.E.R.”). Many have tried to update the classic Common Sense track, and Oddisee takes it in interesting directions:

“I got a lover but it’s complicated
We’ve been off and on, trying to keep the fire warm
But a brother jaded
I’ve even moved up to Brooklyn so that we could bond
Feel like I see her even less then when I lived away and
Suffocated by the city she ain’t ever home
She in LA or any other place that ain’t my arms
Can’t say she cheating because she was never mine alone
I just think I’m better for her than the drug dealers and the lie tellers
Yeah am I wise but I could be wrong”

You’re not wrong, Oddisee. As Masta Killa once said, “the dumb are mostly intrigued by the drum”, and yet Kendrick’s numbers don’t lie. J Cole’s number don’t lie. Continuing to fight the good fight, the lack of any curses only adds to the appeal for a wider audience. Back in 2001, former RapReviews writer Noixe cited The High & Mighty’s “Home Field Advantage” as the album to recommend to someone who is new to hip-hop music. As good as that album is, in 2017, Oddisee’s “The Iceberg” is that album, particularly if you’re an adult.

10/10

Raekwon – The Wild

In my review of Wu-Tang Clan’s disappointing “A Better Tomorrow” I talked about Raekwon and RZA’s differences and how much better that record could have been if Raekwon’s vision was realised, rather than RZA’s. With “The Wild”, Raekwon’s eighth solo LP, we have proof why Raekwon should be leading the Wu-Tang Clan’s next record, especially from a production standpoint. You see, “The Wild” is a consistent little record, confirming how the Wu needs Rae but also reminds us why Rae needs the Wu too.

Minus the appearances of Lil Wayne and G-Eazy, there’s a noticeable lack of backup which Rae’s best work has benefited from. Partnering with Ghostface on “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…” and then half the industry on its sequel, there’s a disparate feel to “The Wild”, particularly with the less energetic delivery as Rae approaches his fifties. It’s a good thing then that the production is largely solid throughout – despite the album title there’s a clear decision to craft a mature, smooth sounding record. Storytelling remains the Chef’s speciality; “Marvin” is a snapshot narration of the eventful parts of Marvin Gaye’s life with Cee-Lo Green tying it together with one of his smoother warblings.

The best tracks just so happen to feel the most Wu-Tang: “Nothing”, “Crown of Thorns” and even the Weezy collaboration “My Corner” doesn’t disappoint. The problem with the album lies in the decision to use dated beats. “Visiting Hour” is like a throwaway from the “Recovery”-era Eminem, built around Raekwon’s message to those considering a life of crime and how he risked that 25-to-life lifestyle (conveniently, a song from Eminem’s “Recovery”). “The Reign” and “M&N” feel like something Saigon spat over ten years ago on a mixtape. Again, solid tracks but nothing particularly memorable.

Generally, the Wu have fared well in recent times, with Ghostface’s storytelling style meshing well with Adrian Younge’s moody backdrops, Inspectah Deck’s second life with the CZARFACE records reminding us how dope his flow is, and even Cappadonna had that “Eyrth, Wynd and Fyre” double-disc project (don’t sleep)! Granted, Method Man’s “The Meth Lab” was a pile of arse, but that’s largely down to there not being enough Meth. “The Wild” is decent, but also frustrating for that exact reason – it’s just decent. Yet, decent Raekwon is still worth listening to. I have to give Rae credit for how he has put out an album with tracks like “This Is What It Comes Too” as lead singles. Much of “The Wild” is standard album track fare with Rae in his comfort zone, but it’s delivered with aplomb and will satisfy most fans. Those expecting something a bit more Wu-Tang or a full record of classic Chef rhymes will be disappointed, as will anyone asking for beats of the standard both “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…” albums had. I enjoyed it but found it all a bit underwhelming, and while it’s better than “A Better Tomorrow”, that’s not really the praise a Raekwon album deserves in 2017.

6.5/10