I was put on to this album by a glowing review from fellow RapReviews.com writer and general Internet hip hop legend, Steve ‘Flash’ Juon. Qwel and Maker are two artists I’ve seen pop up regularly when browsing for records, but never really given the time of day. What a mistake this was. “Beautiful Raw” is undoubtedly one of 2013’s best hip hop records. But who are these two artists with admittedly silly names? Qwel is one half of the group Typical Cats (alongside Qwazaar who guests on the album), an underground duo from Chicago. Maker is a traditional, “hard drums” producer who has worked with Qwel on three albums previous to this effort, all well-received yet under-appreciated. “Beautiful Raw” is an intense listen but not in the same way an MOP or Vinnie Paz record is. If you listen to this album without your full attention, you’ll miss the rhymes because despite not coming at the listener at a rapid rate, they are still quick and have multiple layers. Usually when a rapper is on that advanced level of lyricism, the production suffers or doesn’t quite complement the rhymes. Fortunately Maker has developed a relationship with Qwel and their styles work perfectly together.
To understand how creative these guys are, just watch the video for lead single “Long Walkers”. It can be hard to decipher the verses from Qwel, who proudly name-drops Fibonacci among other less fashionable figures of history, but with additional listens you can pick up lines you didn’t hear, or didn’t process. Of course, this wouldn’t happen if the music was sub-par, but Maker excels with combinations of synth, bass and drums that are crisp yet tough. “En Garde” is more of a swinging, soulful production from Maker that could have backed a blaxpoitation revenge flick, with Qwel and Qwazaar demonstrating their ability to disperse energetic rhymes. “Wreck Room” sees Qwel stretching his vocal capabilities, being careful not to lisp. Common is perhaps is the easiest comparison, at least in terms of what his voice sounds like. Perhaps the catchiest offering on “Beautiful Raw” is”Pilfer”, a real snare-fest of a track that benefits from a snappy vocal loop – plus the hook from Qwel is further proof of his ability to craft a snappy phrase that despite being simply “you know they got a pill for that” it could equally be “you know they gotta pilfer that”. It’s this level of thought and combination of strong music and technically gifted lines that lift the album to that extra level.
“On One” is a thumping production with bits of Pete Rock, Nick Wiz and ?uestlove in Maker’s sound, but the album itself sees Maker provide a cohesive selection with plenty of variation. The song “Beautiful Raw” is a snappy horn-centric track that feels like a purer form of Jus Blaze, while “Keep It Movin'” revisits Black Milk’s “Shut It Down” but throws harder drums and sharp scratches over it. Ultimately, despite the numerous comparisons I’m using to try and summarise Maker’s production, he has put his own stamp on each track. There is detail everywhere, like the record was produced by a team of guys at the top of their game. Pretty much every great rap album has been raw yet beautiful in its own way, and this record is no different. The rawness isn’t in the gruff delivery of Qwel or the gritty sounds from Maker, it is in the purity. There’s a real naturalness to the production, there’s no singing on the hooks or false sense of superiority in the rapping. There’s rarely, if any swearing and enough light-hearted moments (“Abracadabra”, “Beautiful Raw”) to just nod your head to if you so wish.
“Lake Effect” is actually strong enough to work in instrumental form alone (and it does for the first minute), but it is the descriptive narration by Qwel that raises the track to greatness. Some of the lyrics are bordering on poetry, manipulating metaphor and vivid imagery to fine effect, but when coupled with the refined flow and delivery of a seasoned emcee, it makes for essential listening. Qwel shows how technically gifted he is on “Broken Pendulum”, stating that he is “smarter than your average rapper you listen to”. It’s true, and “Beautiful Raw” is smart rap that may well need to be studied to fully appreciate. Personally I love that, because it adds longevity to each track, but the lack of accessibility may put off some. The fact that Maker has provided some great, atmospheric backdrops for Qwel only adds to the overall package. “Beautiful Raw” is just that, but it’s also intelligent, rewarding and an example of two artists at the peak of their powers. For the time being at least.