Roc Marciano – Rosebudd’s Revenge

Peter Rosenberg (of Hot 97) recently shared his so-called “Best Emcee Points Based System” which highlighted an inherent flaw with any discussion surrounding who is the GOAT (Greatest of All Time). Some prefer that GOATs should be technically advanced first and popular second; others feel it should be the other way round. Personally, I feel that you can quickly determine whether an emcee is GOAT material by looking at their body of work. More specifically, have they dropped THREE great albums. Plenty of rappers have dropped one great record, many have dropped two, but three time’s the charm. Three is the magic number. Three great records proves that an emcee is not just consistent with their art, but have often achieved GOAT status over a prolonged period of time.

Insisting GOATs craft three great records ensures that the candidate list immediately eliminates divisive candidates such as Big L, Big Pun and Notorious BIG. It also helps often overlooked emcees like Elzhi, Redman and a certain Roc Marciano – all emcees who SHOULD be part of GOAT discussions. And anyone who claims sales numbers are important can go listen to their Coolio CDs. You see, Roc Marciano delivered a super-slept-on gem in 2004: The UN’s “U N Or U Out” is a classic example of gritty New York Hip-Hop, unfortunately released during the heights of Dipset fever. Granted, it was a joint effort alongside Dino Brave, Laku and Mic Raw, but it aged a hell of a lot better than most rap records from 2004.

In 2010 “Marcberg” took a less-is-more approach, showcasing Roc’s production skills and laying down a marker for all artists wanting to emulate the 90s sound but ultimately failing to bring anything new to the table. “Marcberg” is great but 2012’s “Reloaded” is his magnum opus; grander, more cinematic and boasting memorable singles in “76” and “Emeralds”, it remains his best work. A year later saw the release of “Marci Beaucoup” with the focus less on Roc’s lyricism and more on collaborations with underground favourites over his beats. In my opinion, this was a step down (it was still a good project) and then it went quiet for a few years. The odd killer guest appearance here and there whetted fans’ appetites for Roc Marciano’s third solo LP, which in 2017  has a lot to live up to in a world with Westside Gunn, Conway and Your Old Droog.

“Rosebudd’s Revenge”, much like 2013’s “Marci Beaucoup”, leans more towards the soulful, less jarring production with reduced emphasis on the intricate rhyme-style that had you hanging on every word of “Reloaded”. That’s not to say that the eloquently delivered, advanced rhyme schemes aren’t as relentless as ever, because they are, but the mix on the vocals is noticeably quieter and less impactful.

Opening with “Move Dope”, Marciano pulls no punches displaying witty lines such as “two biscuits like it’s time for tea, I’m like Ice-T times three”. In fact this single bar sums up the exagerrated tales of crime and how calm and cool “Rosebudd’s Revenge” is. The first half sees the better production, largely from Arch Druids who lace the standout song “Gunsense” which is full of typically sharp lines:

“Sink your boat
Your body wash up somewhere in Glen Cove
I was always told to push the envelope
It had blow in it though
Look what the wind blew in, in Kenneth Coles
Quick, pull a lick like a pick n’ roll
The give and go, some nights alone, run the iso
I’m not a racist, dipped Jesus face in white gold
I know I know
That’s not the Messiah’s nose, he had wide nostrils”

What a lot of the songs succeed in doing is generating an immersive atmosphere that’s just as well done as it is on “Reloaded”. The problem lies in the weaker beats that close out the album as well as the aforementioned vocal issues. “Killing Time” utilises a Lou Courtney sample that interferes with the vocals – there’s a reason why Dipset had such short bars. “Pray 4 Me” is similarly overbearing and not your traditional Marciano production, but is still a satisfying, more experimental addition which even sees Roc try his (pimp) hand at singing.

Compared to last year’s “FLYGOD” from Conway, “Rosebudd’s Revenge” sounds more cinematic yet less enjoyable. It’s easily his hardest project to appreciate on the first few listens, showing its best bits after it’s been in the deck for a while. It’s taken me over twenty listens to appreciate what Roc is doing here, but as a huge fan of his earlier work, it ultimately falls short. The mellow instrumentals ensure a sleepier listening experience more in line with work from frequent collaborator Ka, who is frequently acclaimed but definitely more an acquired taste. Put a playlist together of “Marcberg”, “Reloaded” and “Rosebudd’s Revenge” and it’s immediately apparent that Roc’s vocals lack the razor sharp potency he had on earlier projects. The over-the-top hyper-lyrical Roc Marciano is here and well, but his AR-15 isn’t as finely aimed.

So is he a GOAT contender? He’s in the discussion – “U N Or U Out”, “Marcberg” and “Reloaded” means he has the three outstanding records in the bag, but his recent work hasn’t quite reached those heady heights of uber-braggodocio.

7/10

Planet Asia – Velour Portraits EP

In 2017, Planet Asia is a legendary emcee. Two decades deep, countless mixtapes, EPs and LPs haven’t dampened the LA native’s desire to deliver great music. If anything, he’s hungrier than ever, “Velour Portraits” acting as an appetiser for Planet’s next LP.

The start lifts the Golden Harvest company jingle that started many an Asian movie – Riki Oh being the one that sprung to mind for me (a film I owned on DVD during my teenage years). It’s an appropriate “Intro” given the savagery that follows and is a continual nod to the martial arts references that we’ve seen before from Planet Asia on “Black Belt Theatre”.

Stripped back, this is four and half songs clocking in at 15 minutes. Seasoned hip hop listeners will have heard the samples used here flipped in songs elsewhere and while there’s nothing approaching greatness here, you’re getting a solid slice of street rap that reminds us all to keep an eye on the man claiming PA Medallions. Priced similarly to full-lengths, it’s a hard sell minus the crazy first verse on “Silk Road Merchant”:

The effortlessly delivered “Got Money” is hard verse-wise, weak hook-wise. The same can be said of “Made It” which features Hus Kingpin and Rozewood. Given previous releases have been collaborative projects, often with DJs, there’s definitely a feeling of incompleteness meaning I can’t recommend this EP outright.

When you see popular rap media discussing underrated rappers, Planet Asia should be one of the first names on the list. Yet, he never is, and that’s a God damn shame. Immediately recognisable with a unique west coast Wu-Tang vibe going on, Planet Asia has been killing it for years with his codified slang and precise flow. Lacking the uppercut-through-a-jaw moment it needs (watch Story of Ricky), “Velour Portraits” is still worth checking out. It’s a tiny snippet of his work, but if you enjoy this, check out his discography – you won’t be disappointed.

6/10

My Favourite Hip-Hop Albums from 2016

2016 was a strange year.

Looking back at my Top 100 records of 2015 is a reminder that there simply weren’t as many excellent releases this year. With Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly”, Lupe Fiasco’s “Tetsuo & Youth”, Joey Bada$$’s “B4Da$$’ and Oddisee’s “The Good Fight”, you had a varied, very complete picture of modern Hip-Hop, but 2016 never really saw that. Amidst the arguments between traditionalists and the new generation of so-called mumble rappers, there was an increasing divide between the heavyweight rappers. Just look at the numbers Drake did on his album “Views” (over 1 million in the first week). That’s 42% of the Top 10 first week sales data (2,470,000). When you look at 2015 (which Drake topped again with “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late”), Drake’s slice drops to 21%. In 2016, the Canadian crooner doubled his first week sales’ dominance with J Cole doing almost half that, and then Kendrick’s “untitled” did half of what “To Pimp a Butterfly” did, with 178,000 in the first week. These numbers are skewed by including streams, but it highlights how big Drake’s star is, and how fans just aren’t buying first week like they used to. If any predictions are to be made on 2017, it’s that the gap between the commercial, radio-friendly label artists and the more traditional emcees (“who got bars” as Funkmaster Flex puts it) is going to get bigger and bigger given how streams and YouTube hits are becoming more important than ‘buys’. That’s not necessarily a bad thing given how much money independent artists such as Nipsey Hussle and the aforementioned Oddisee are earning.

While 2016 hasn’t been the most memorable musically, I’ve enjoyed what it has offered. This is the first year I’ve properly delved in to Grime, spending countless hours on YouTube channels such as JDZMedia and GRMDaily. There’s a wealth of raw talent all across the UK and it’s often those not from London who sound a little different, that I’ve taken a shine to. Leicester’s Kamakaze, Nottingham’s J Dot, Northampton’s Izzie Gibbs – these guys are pushing the genre forward in exciting ways. There weren’t too many albums that stood out due to the nature of Grime’s sound – polished studio-recorded LPs just aren’t as common as they are in Hip-Hop. Nonetheless, I played a lot of Bugzy Malone’s “Facing Time” and Frisco’s “System Killer”. Izzie Gibbs’ “Jutsu EP” delivered some brilliant singles that didn’t garner as much attention as they perhaps should have. Skepta released his third LP “Konnichiwa” which was essentially a selection of older singles combined with Americanised (or should that be Americanized) production that went down well with a lot of critics but was underwhelming to some.

But as far as Hip-Hop goes, I’m not going to drop a Top 100 this time around as it was hugely time-consuming and the first half consists of decent-to-good entries anyway. So I’ll list some records I enjoyed this year, ignore the ones I was disappointed in, and then share my 10 favourite records from the past twelve months.

Let’s go!

10 Records I enjoyed (honorable mentions)

 

vinniepazVinnie Paz delivered his best solo material yet with “Cornerstone of the Corner Store”. It’s harsh, it’s politically incorrect at points, and it’s not going to convert those that aren’t in to Vinnie or his Jedi Mind Tricks work, but if you’ve taken a break from Vinnie’s music or want something more aggressive than 99% of what’s out there, this record will scratch that itch. If “The Void”, “Philo: Metatron Wisdom” and “Herringbone” don’t move you, I’m not sure what will.

 

 

havoc-silentpartner

Perhaps the most slept on record this year is Havoc and Alchemist’s “Silent Partner”, an album that took me by surprise given Havoc full-lengths tend to have a few bangers (“Be There” on “The Kush” for instance) and then a bunch of mediocrity. Every beat here knocks, clearly an Alchemist influence rubbing off on the Mobb Deep producer, having come off of a good run of Gangrene records with Oh No. Songs like “Seize Power” and “Throw in the Towel” have that classic Havoc morbidness, and I would be all for hearing a new Mobb Deep record on that vibe.

 

 

wegotitfromhereA Tribe Called Quest’s “We Got It From Here, Thank You For Your Service“ was a refreshing blast from the
past, reminding us all how much rap music misses the group dynamic, particularly the mic-passing chemistry that these guys have. Tip and Phife (RIP) sound as if they enjoy their craft more than ever, something you can’t say for many emcees nowadays. Given the sad circumstances surrounding this record, it’s full of fun moments – Busta Rhymes sounds like he’s grown back the dreadlocks and rolled back the years with his wild guest spots while heavyweight guests ranging from Talib Kweli, Elton John and Kendrick Lamar all contribute in a more effective manner than how guests did on De La Soul’s album.

torae-EntitledTorae’s “Entitled” was another strong addition to the Brooklyn emcee’s discography highlighting he’s more than the stereotypical New York boom bap rapper. Even the predictable DJ Premier feature on “Saturday Night” is a funny tale of how ordering a Chinese takeaway quickly turns sweet then, err, sour. Track after track knocks hard, whether it’s “Clap Sh*t Up”, “Get Down” or “Crown” featuring the nasty 3d Na’tee (one to watch). Let’s just ignore the 11 minute “Shoutro” because it’s only worth one listen.

 

 

marqspekt-keepplayinMarq Spekt (along with Has-Lo) is another unsung underground emcee who keeps putting out great music, “Keep Playin'” being his second collaborative LP with Blockhead. When you start off with the lines “I took a long walk off a short pier, just to get my thoughts clear”, you know it’s going to be full of gems, and Marq’s vicious delivery is massively refreshing in a genre that so often sees emcees rhyming half-asleep. There was another Marq Spekt album released this year with Mobonix called “Bionic Jazz” that’s more soulful, but I’m a sucker for those block-rocking Blockhead head-knockers (stick that on your album cover, lads).

 

yuna-chapters

It’s been a great year for R&B so I’m going to throw Yuna’s “Chapters” in to the mix, especially with Big Sean & Jhene Aiko’s “TWENTY88” project largely disappointing. Yuna is a Malaysian vocalist and her latest record is similar to Jhene Aiko’s work (but without the sleepier songs). Usher lends star credence to the single “Crush”, DJ Premier’s “Places To Go” is something you used to hear Guru dropping verses to (RIP) and then “Used To Love You” features the goddess herself. It’s an impressive, smooth listening experience that is up there with the likes of Solange, Alicia Keys and Fantasia.

 

 

wholefood

Gensu Dean and Denmark Vessey’s “Whole Food” is just that, complete, digestible and incredibly moreish. When I said that every beat on the Havoc and Alchemist record is good, it’s because “Whole Food” is on another level – two overlooked Hip-Hop artists that have crafted greatness. The first six tracks’ are set back a bit by the underwhelming “Gun Emoji” but it quickly picks up again. I’ve not enjoyed as much of Mello Music Group’s output this year as I did in 2015 but this one is definitely a must-listen.

 

 

conway

Westside Gunn’s “FLYGOD” is guaranteed to grab your ears (as well as your eyes judging by the memorable artwork), with the likes of “Shower Shoe Lords” and “Chine Gun” capturing that dusty alleyway rap of yesteryear without the faintest hint of forced nostalgia. Drawing on New York influences (Gunn is vocally somewhere between Action Bronson and Shyheim, yet stylistically closer to Hus Kingpin and Roc Marciano) Westside Gunn’s youthful sound adds extra menace to his imposing block tales, with Daringer’s atmospheric backdrops outshining bigger names such Alchemist, Statik Selektah and Apollo Brown.

 

 
youroldroog-nicest

Your Old Droog seems to have shaken off the Nas comparisons and he’s all the better for it; “The Nicest” showing he’s clearly a more ruthless persona, immediately noting he “doesn’t make music for mass consumption” on the opener “We Don’t Know You”. At six songs long, this EP flies by with Droog sounding like an angry veteran, proudly reeling off 90s wrestling references on “Listen” and belittling rappers jumping on hot trends to remain relevant with “Wave Rider”.

 

 
izziegibbs

Izzie Gibbs’ “Jutsu EP” is a potent, often aggressive piece of polished Grime that I really enjoyed. Dominated by “Mandem” and “My Life” it nonetheless remains a high-point for the genre in a year that saw numerous strong releases. One to watch in 2017.

 

 

 

 

My 10 Favorite Records of 2016

 

10. Aesop Rock’s “The Impossible Kid”

the_impossible_kid_album_cover

I’m the last person to like an Aesop Rock record, having struggled with everything he’s released outside of the single “None Shall Pass”. His rhymes are often impenetrable, his beats are largely unconventional – and yet “The Impossible Kid” boasts neither of those complaints. Granted, it’s still a lyrically complex record, but Aesop’s opted for a more accessible set of instrumentals that slap and slam harder than I ever thought they would. “Lotta Years”, “Dorks”, “Rings” – all of these tracks are fire, especially if you like the Run the Jewels records.

9. YG’s “Still Brazy”

ygbrazy

YG’s “Still Brazy” is further proof that the Compton rapper has overtaken Game as the West Coast’s gangsta rap figurehead, making a record that’s a whole heap of fun to listen to (although somebody needs to do a drive-by on them skits). He boldly claims to “be the only one to make it out the West without Dre” which may not be completely accurate, but it’s a statement of intent – the current West Coast gangsta rap scene isn’t reliant on Dr. Dre any more. It’s also got “FDT”, an unabashed response to the Donald Trump insanity going on in the States, which many emcees haven’t really talked about on record. “Still Brazy” may suffer from some contradictions (pleas for racial equality while the record is full of homophobic and sexist messages – “She Wish She Was” especially) but the uncensored nature of YG’s raps lend the party-friendly, wistful production a darker sense of reality.

8. Classified’s “Greatful”

classified

Probably the most accessible record on this list, “Greatful” is Classified’s best album and it’s a shame that it was largely overlooked this year. The guy had Snoop Dogg and DJ Premier on the first two tracks for God’s sake, but it’s the thematic approach to rap that had me hooked. Some may not be keen on the variety of production here, but Classified has always toyed with a more mainstream sound whilst maintaining his authenticity. “Having Kids Is Easy” is full of funny on-the-money moments, as is “Work Away”, while “Heavy Head” mentions how the industry wanted to force him to work with pop groups like Simple Plan. There’s an amicability to Classified’s rhymes that many can relate to– especially any fathers with young children. Responsibility isn’t the most fashionable thing for an emcee to talk about, but it’s as real as it gets, and Classified’s digestible, often humorous delivery is executed to perfection throughout much of “Greatful”.

7. Ugly Heroes’ “Everything in Between”

uglyheroes-eib

Red Pill and Verbal Kent, otherwise known as Ugly Heroes (alongside producer Apollo Brown), managed to recreate the chemistry and range of emotions they captured so perfectly on their self-titled work from 2013. It doesn’t quite have the scathing impact of their earlier work, but three years later it means Red Pill has sharpened his teeth, quickly developing in to one of the nicest emcees on the microphone. If you found his solo effort “Instinctive Drinking” a bit too depressive and morose (which unfortunately I did), “Everything in Between” is the perfect alternative.

6. Skyzoo’s “The Easy Truth”

skyzoo-easy

Skyzoo’s latest may as well have been called “The Easy Choice” because year after year, he’s banging out great albums. Having Apollo Brown on production ensures consistency throughout, yet these beats aren’t your traditional Apollo sounds. There’s melancholy, there’s head-slammers, there’s infectious horns, violins, pianos, you name it! I don’t think people realise how diverse Apollo Brown’s skills are behind the boards, but “The Easy Truth” showcases this. Skyzoo sounds at home over these instrumentals too, holding the torch for New York with songs like “Jordans & a Gold Chain”, the solemn Joell Ortiz collaboration “A Couple Dollars” and “The Flyest Essence” even makes reference to the Nas & AZ collaborations from the Big Apple’s heyday. There’s certainly a renaissance going on in New York right now, and Skyzoo is at the forefront of it.

5. Kano’s “Made in the Manor”

kano-madeinthemanor

It’s a shame that Skepta’s “Konnichiwa” won the Mercury Music Prize over Kano’s “Made in the Manor”. There I said it. Kano’s “Made in the Manor” is a rare example of modern British rap music done right. It feels British without pandering to the sentimentality that British Hip-Hop often suffers from, in turn feeling earthier and grimier. This should come as no surprise to regular listeners of Kano, but “Made in the Manor” is his most complete record, showcasing an emcee who can successfully bridge the Grime/Hip-Hop divide. The fact he does it so effortlessly confirms that British rappers can hold down a decade-long career without “doing a Dizzee”, and Kano’s legacy could well become one of the greatest in Britain. The flawless flow on “New Banger” and bonus track “GarageSkankFreestyle”, the warts-and-all honesty running throughout “Endz” and “Little Sis”, the sheer variety of the production reaching outside of the realms of just beats and rhymes. It’s got the lot – check out Matt Jost’s excellent review if you don’t believe me.

4. Lecrae’s “Church Clothes 3”

lecrae-church

It’s often easier to pick records that were released earlier in the year, because they’ve had a chance to be played more. Well, you know what, I listened to this mixtape a lot this year because it was released in January and was open to regular plays working both as a piece you’d play in the background, or something you could listen to more carefully. Lecrae’s often overlooked and I really don’t know why. He’s an animal on the mic, his beats are fire, and he isn’t cursing every other bar. Production comes mostly from frequent collaborator S1 and a lot of these beats have etched themselves in to my brain – “Deja Vu” and the haunting “Forever” are hard to resist. I know it’s customary to mention Lecrae’s heritage as a Christian rapper but you wouldn’t know it if you were new to his music. It’s just nice to hear someone rapping about aspiration without mentioning materialistic excess – only in Hip-Hop is lateral thinking considered a criticism. Anyway, I’m getting sidetracked – go buy “Church Clothes 3”!

3. Rapsody’s “Crown”

rapsody-crown

A lot of pressure has fallen on Rapsody’s shoulders this year. I always feel odd comparing female rappers but in such a male-dominant genre, it’s hard not to. But hey, I’m not going to! The fact remains, few men, women or extra terrestial are touching Rapsody when she’s in full flow. “Crown” is so confidently executed (even busting out some notes on “Tina Turner”) that it feels Rapsody is on the cusp of dropping a classic LP. “Crown” isn’t quite that moment, but its gems are plentiful. “Take It Slow” encourages young women to not jump in to bed with men and has the lady treating the man on a date. This womanliness is crucial and is a middle-finger to the YGs spewing their misogyny. “Through With Him” again makes men claiming to be ‘players’ sound like children reliant on their mother, further reminding us men that we are nothing without our women. If “Crown” tells us anything it’s that Rapsody is the Queen of Rap right now.

2. Anderson .Paak’s “Malibu”

andersonpaak-malibu

Purists may scoff at the genre-stretching nature of Anderson .Paak’s “Malibu” not being a rap album, but it may as well be. It’s got more soul and flow than 90% of rap music released this year and to me, it felt like the album Dr. Dre should have made with “Compton”. It sounds so God-damned gangsta, effortlessly so, reminding me of a young Bilal. With names like Madlib, Hi-Tek and DJ Khalil involved, it’s no surprise that we’re looking at a sonically supreme experience, but its Anderson .Paak who steals the show with his distinct mix of harmony and rap. .

1. Elzhi’s “Lead Poison”

elzhi-leadpoison

HipHopDX recently compared J Cole to Nas, but the true heir to Queensbridge’s finest is Detroit’s own Elzhi. His clarity, flow, wordplay, concepts and choice of production are all top-tier – arguably better than Nas’ have been. He even re-did “Illmatic” putting his own spin on it with live instrumentation – can you imagine having the audacity to re-do “It Takes A Nation” or “”Ready to Die”? Now, some aren’t too keen on “Lead Poison”’s beats but they purposefully complement Elzhi’s rhymes – the opposite to how many rap albums work. The undertones of drear showcase Elzhi’s depressive mind state and as the album title suggests, this record can be heavy. There’s a desolate mood throughout “Lead Poison” that adds to the loneliness – as if you are a guest in Elzhi’s head (because hey, there are no guests). The insane depth to the lyrics rewards repeated listens, with some songs pushing the very boundaries of song writing – “Egocentric” is a classic example.

It’s my favourite album from the 2010s – a masterful performance that cements Elzhi’s status as one of the best lyricists.

Vinnie Paz – The Cornerstone of the Corner Store

Given how miserable 2016 has been, there’s a noticeable lack of angry rap music. Thankfully, we can always rely on Vinnie Paz to provide that brutal, ruthless aggression and “Cornerstone of the Corner Store” is a return to form, as good as, if not better than his debut solo work “Season of the Assassin”. One of the primary reasons for this is the more calculated selection of instrumentals, favouring gritty minimalist melodies over heavier, cinematic sounds, as well as being the most experimental I’ve heard Vinnie in years.

The passion remains in Vinnie’s voice but some of the energy has drained, which isn’t surprising given the length of time that he’s been rapping so viciously. What I like about this LP, particularly the first half, is the grimy, barebones production on songs like “Philo: Metatron: Wisdom” and the Buckwild-laced “The Void”. “There’s a preciseness to Vinnie’s flow too, showcased on the thumping collaboration “Limb From Limb” alongside the underrated Ransom. If anyone ever questions whether Vinnie Paz is all bark and no bite (you’d be mad to do so quite frankly) – play this track. I wouldn’t mind hearing Vinnie Paz do a collaborative album with Ransom as they have a good chemistry– akin to how Esoteric added an extra dimension to his 7L collaborations by bringing in Inspectah Deck. Speaking of Wu-Tang members, Ghostface Killah joins Vinnie on “Herringbone”, a stellar reminder why Ghostface’s unique choice of words and that trademark tone sound so damn good over energetic production (which his latest albums have lacked).

An infatuation with weaponry remains ever-present, although there’s a welcome return of the ludicrous historical references usually reserved for Jedi Mind projects. They don’t exactly lighten the mood, but bring a bit of excess and fantasy to prevent the violence and intimidation from getting too serious. “Gospel of the Worm” has arguably the most vicious verse, delivered with a passionate, scathing intensity that completely usurps Ras Kass’ guest feature (no mean feat given his lyrical reputation). With thirteen guests, it’s a busy record but does take an interesting diversion, with Vinnie dangerously treading the grounds of “singing” on “Yev Kassem”. “Ninety Ninety Three” is a nice 90s throwback moment, with Vinnie rapping a more laid back, cipher-like style rarely heard before. “Writings on Disobedience and Democracy” is a common technique that Vinnie Paz uses on his solo material – after all the hyper-violent war cries that make up the majority of the album, there’s a closing song taking a more thoughtful analysis of wars and society’s injustices. It may be hypocritical to many, but I like to view it as a sense of consequence and the dawning of realisation – as if Vinnie is looking down at all the emcees he’s just savagely butchered, questioning how we got to this situation in the first place. And hey, he’s not actually punching holes in people’s chests, Story of Ricky style. Right?

The tracks I’m not particularly keen on are ones that lack a sharpness musically. “Alcapurrias” and “Hakim” both utilise electronic bleeps, as if Vinnie put an emcee’s head through a Space Invaders cabinet and sampled the resultant noises. It’s more tolerable on “Blood Addiction” as it feeds in to the conceptual, horror-ised theme of murder, but there’s definitely an element of ineffect on those songs.

Perhaps it sounds better because consistently good, hardcore rap albums are few and far between these days. Either way, “Cornerstone of the Corner Store” remains a strong example of intense, chest-puffing material ideal for blasting loudly to gee up you and your boys (or girls). It’s harsh, it’s politically incorrect at points, and it’s not going to convert those that aren’t in to Vinnie or his Jedi Mind Tricks work, but if you’ve taken a break from Vinnie’s music or want something more aggressive than 99% of what’s out there, this record will scratch that itch, for sure.

A-F-R-O & Marco Polo – A-F-R-O P-O-L-O EP

 

Let’s take a sec to think back. If you remember renowned freestyle rapper Supernatural’s 2003 record “The Lost Freestyle Files” (because who could forget…), or battle rapper Iron Solomon’s failed transformation in to a recording artist, you’ll be cautious of a freestyle rapper releasing music, and rightfully so. A-F-R-O is a 17 year old emcee who seems to be a favourite within hip hop circles because of his ability to spit off the dome using objects around him. I saw him perform with RA the Rugged Man, Locksmith and Eamon at a Pharoahe Monch show and while the novelty of freestyle rap is impressive in a live setting, it’s difficult to replicate that spur-of-the-moment feeling on record, as highlighted by the examples above.

A-F-R-O’s age is the best and worst part of underground Hip-Hop: on the one hand it’s refreshing to hear a teenager who clearly admires legendary emcees such as Pharoahe Monch (who features on “Swarm”), but on the other, it means there’s a lot of talk about his dick. Sounding like a cross between C-Rayz Walz and King T, his voice is enjoyable when paced slower, and also means his lyrics tend to make some sort of sense. When attempting the lyrical gymnastics that his mentor RA the Rugged Man is renowned for (and arguably the master of), he resorts to incoherent filler without the reward of a punchline.

The Halloween-themed “Nightmare on Fro Street” sees A-F-R-O excel lyrically, as it forces him to focus his writing abilities. Rhyming “hiding in the shed” with “night of the living dead” and “spider in the web” is where A-F-R-O puts his talents to best use. There’s also a glimpse at the teenager’s more thoughtful side on “Use These Blues”, with a markedly different delivery too. Each track tries something different, so while Marco Polo is as consistent as ever, the rhymes veer from horror stories (“Lair of the Black Worm”) to over-the-top misogyny (“Sunshine and Flowers”) to outlandish science fiction (“Fro Armstrong”).

A-F-R-O has tried his hand at various different topics on “”A-F-R-O P-O-L-O” but it remains unclear what his identity will develop in to, With more focus on future projects coupled with inevitable maturation, A-F-R-O could be a special emcee in 5-10 years time, but for now, his raw talent is only partially tapped in to on these Marco Polo beats.

 

Izzie Gibbs – Jutsu EP

Northampton Grime emcee Izzie Gibbs is currently setting the scene alight with his release “Jutsu EP”, boasting two of the year’s most potent singles in “Mandem” and “My Life”. Admittedly, these songs dominate the six-track EP, yet Izzie Gibbs’ delivers a constant stream of heavy bangers. As a snapshot of aggressive rapping over surprisingly accessible instrumentals, “Jutsu EP” is the perfect gateway record for the Gri-curious (shut up).

If “Bars” doesn’t have you bouncing off the walls, I’m not sure what will. It reminded me of Fat Joe’s thunderous single “300 Brolic”, barking included, yet Izzie (who helpfully refers to himself as I-double-Zee for any American listeners) tears the beat a new asshole/arsehole without dropping any “dope” bars. His intensity elevates “Bars” so much that it may as well be known as “BAAARRRZZ” instead. That’s not to say Izzie Gibbs is a lesser emcee – but it’s the way he delivers said bars, not the bars’ content.

One of my most played tracks of 2016 is “Mandem”, an insanely catchy single that should come with a health warning. Repetitive and ultimately hollow thematically (it’s further talk about having bars), it’s hard not to enjoy – if we were in 2004, this would be the year’s biggest ring tone. Something that Izzie is clearly talented at crafting – Grime that’s filthy, yet incredibly welcoming. I’d love to hear him team with Ghetts someday, it’d be like the UK’s M.O.P..

Speaking of veterans, Izzie lands a strong Big Narstie feature on the single “My Life”. Produced by the brilliantly named Spookzville, “My Life” represents the lone Hip-Hop effort here, bolstered by a quality Prynce MINI hook. Izzie’s swiftly dispatched flow is less effective than earlier tracks but Narstie’s slower, more calculated lines ensure he dominates proceedings. It’s a massive song that puts a big fat full stop on the EP, despite being the “least Izzie” track here.

“Jutsu EP” is short and sharp, and comes highly recommended to anybody approaching Grime for the first time, especially if you’re a seasoned Hip-Hop listener.

 

 

Bugzy Malone – Facing Time

Bugzy Malone had a buzz around him for a few years, known for being one of the fiercest Grime emcees outside of London (hailing from Manchester). To call a YouTube clip a “breakthrough” moment is reflective of how heavily Grime relies on social media these days, but in 2014 Bugzy delivered this:

Mostly known nowadays for when he sent for Chip (fka Chipmunk), Bugzy is now a heavyweight presence in a scene that relishes authentic characters. “Facing Time” is his recent EP and it’s less a Grime record and more an honest example of Road Rap (here we go again with the sub-genres). Bugzy surprised me with this album, as it’s not often a tough emcee puts all his cards on the table and tells you what is on his mind. His imposing delivery coupled with the normality of his content is often refreshing, as demonstrated on “We Don’t Care”, especially given Bugzy’s knack for a catchy hook. The track “Moving” best demonstrates this relatability, with talk of his mother’s debt and how impressed he was at his uncle’s flash car.

There’s a certain, somber tone to the production Bugzy uses on songs like “Beauty and the Beast” and “Moving” that add potency to his rhymes. The song “Facing Time” is another strong effort, one that raises the conflict of interests as Bugzy loses interest in money the more that he makes, or wanting to avoid the music industry despite it being an inevitable result of his success. While the production is decent for what it is, the beats here aren’t as strong as the likes of Krept and Konan. However, with new song “MAD” doing strong numbers already (and being better than anything on this EP), I wouldn’t be surprised to see Mr. Malone “facing time” on the charts in 2017.

 

 

Triple Darkness – Darker Than Black

Triple Darkness are a London posse  (not that one) of twelve emcees who are clearly influenced by Wu-Tang Clan and their various affiliate groups such as Sunz of Man and Gravediggaz. It’s an acquired taste, but one that is surprisingly rare in 2016, given how the Wu themselves don’t really make that classic Wu-Tang style of music any more. The only member that does is Ghostface Killah, although his recent albums have been driven by narrative rather than the potent intensity his earlier work possessed (such as “Supreme Clientele”). Tony Stark has definitely calmed as he’s matured. Ironically, the problem with Triple Darkness’ latest offering is their lack of a Ghostface Killah. There’s plenty of talented emcees here, but they aren’t distinctive or charismatic enough to be as memorable as the Wu. Of course, comparing any crew to the Wu is harsh, but how many rap crews roll a dozen deep?

As a fan of Wu affiliates such as GP Wu and Black Market Militia, I’m in tune to the atmospheric world of dusty beats and overblown use of adjectives; it has a certain poetic charm hearing such eloquent vocabulary paired with brutal kicks and snares. Triple Darkness nail this formula when their production is hard, such as on “Delta On Venus” and the filthy “Solid Armour” (the latter benefitting from some killer flicks of a harp). It’s when the instrumentals are too repetitive that Triple Darkness’ lyrical swords start bluntening and unfortunately most of the production is too understated for my liking.

The decision to leave off their three tracks that had fans hyped for the album is baffling too, particularly as “Knuckle Dust”, “Sword Dust” and “Reanimation” are some of their better work. All three came accompanied with videos helping communicate the ominous feel to London’s underbelly, so it’s odd that they aren’t present given how difficult logistically these large crew records can be to complete. Fair play to each member though, “Darker Than Black” still clocks in at sixteen tracks and is chockful of heavy lyricism. If you’re not a fan of abstract verbiage and historical references then you’d best steer clear – these guys could teach Killah Priest a thing or two about obscure astrological metaphors. In a way, it’s apt that the home of Shakespeare and the English language should take the templates laid down by Raekwon and Ghostface, and turn the vocabulary up to excessive levels. It’s unlikely you’ll hear penises be compared to obelisks anywhere else.

Triple Darkness in 2016 are very different from their original line-up that dropped “Anathema” in 2007. Back then they were Nasheron, Melanin 9 and Cyrus Malachi and they were three distinct emcees with their own styles – hence Triple Darkness. My main criticism of “Darker Than Black” is that those unique styles are harder to distinguish, with those three retaining their characteristics, and the addition of Tesla’s Ghost and Ray Vendetta is definitely welcome (hoping they deliver solo material soon). The other seven emcees however are similar – all competent on the microphone and certainly know their way around a pen and pad – but give the album its bloated, excessive feel.

 

Ras Kass – Intellectual Property: SOI2

Approaching a 26-track Ras Kass album isn’t the most mouth-watering prospect for a part-time writer with minimal free time and a hundred records to listen to. But I continue to keep up to date with ol’ Razzy Kazzy, because he’s recently found some solid production to complement his lyrical delivery. After the Apollo Brown collaboration (“Blasphemy”) and the Semi Hendrix project last year (“Breakfast at Banksy’s”), Ras Kass has decided to mark the 20th anniversary of his overlooked debut “Soul on Ice” – a record that’s known more nowadays for being one of the most expensive CDs (and vinyl) in hip-hop – with a semi-sequel. Unfortunately, “Intellectual Property: SOI2” should in no way be compared to the original.

Ras Kass’ latest record feels too much like the mediocre projects he released in the late 2000s – the likes of “A.D.I.D.A.S.” and the more recent “Barmageddon”. A mediocre Ras Kass record is still not to be sniffed at, but after two good Ras Kass records, it’s inevitably a disappointment, particularly with that Soul On Ice 2 in the title.

“Intellectual Property” starts off well, with “And Then” being a five minute summary of Ras’ career post-“Soul On Ice”, drawing some light on the era where his shelved record “Van Gogh” didn’t see, well, light. KRS-One delivers a good verse on “Bardom” but it’s difficult to take anything he says too seriously given his stance on the allegations surrounding Afrika Bambataa. The dude was my favourite emcee for many a year, but it hurts to hear him drop something decent with that cloud above his head. I imagine this track was recorded before KRS’ responses. There’s definitely a reliance on guests from the 1990s, with O.C., Bumpy Knuckles, Onyx and RZA all providing a nice throwback for fans. Well, the RZA contribution is a waste of his talents in all honesty, being nothing more than an extended shoutout to Ras Kass.

While the overall cohesion of “Intellectual Property” is bumpier than Freddie Foxxx’s knuckles, it’s not as if Ras hasn’t tried. The collaborations are remarkably entertaining in fact, with an interesting Sean Price feature on “Paypal the Feature” that uses an 8-bar verse as the hook. It feels like a nice dedication to Sean, a year after his death. “Kanye Moment” is completely different, with Ras Kass poking fun at Kanye by having a bit of fun with a C Dash beat that is nothing like you’d expect him to rap over. The best thing about it is some of Ras’ lines are his most potent – calling out “slavery rap, it makes me ashamed to be black”. Ras goes at stutter rap on “Downward Spiral”, an insane collaboration with Bumpy Knuckles and Onyx. Sticky Fingaz delivers a typically charismatic 8-bar verse (each line is hilarious):

Some of my favourite Ras Kass verses are from Xzibit’s first two albums, and the tracks that feature guest emcees do see Ras on cruise control. Outdone by O.C. on “Reverse Engineering”, who even brings the “Time’s Up…” beat back at one point during his verse, Ras Kass’ latest record may feel like a bloated mixtape at times, but the good ends up outweighing the bad. Therefore, “Intellectual Property: SOI2” is a better piece of Hip-Hop than the likes of “Barmageddon 2.0” and “Institutionalized 2”, it’s just a shame that it is about ten tracks too many.

Andy Cooper – Room to Breathe: The Free LP

Many years ago, when a young Grant was fudging his way through a college diploma, lunch breaks would be spent browsing the local HMV record store. Flicking through the rap CDs whilst simultaneously wolfing down a greasy bag of chips, I’d always notice the presence of an Ugly Duckling CD. At the time (mid-2000s), I didn’t really know much about them other than they had some sweet artwork and were infatuated with food, but years later I’d come to discover Ugly Duckling after finding their “Journey to Anywhere” CD in a bargain bin (CEX to be precise). It was a breath of fresh air and while the obvious comparison is Jurassic 5, Ugly Duckling’s combination of Andy Cooper and Dizzy Dustin (along with DJ Young Einstein) possessed a goofier style  and were clearly successful in the 2000s, but I don’t recall them garnering crossover success like Chali 2na and co.

Ugly Duckling are a group that have always been on the periphery of the wider Hip-Hop audience, yet their music has been used in countless advertisements and TV shows, particularly in the UK. It’s easy to see why, as the playful, throwback style has always been popular here. Chrome & Illinspired last year delivered “The All C In I”, a record that was very much influenced by Ugly Duckling and was a breath of fresh air. I know it’s cliche to say that these records simply aren’t made any more, but they genuniely aren’t. It’s very much a different entity to the typical throwback Hip-Hop that populates the underground scene – it’s a lot more upbeat for a start.

 

As refreshing as some of the songs are, there is a hollowness to many of the rhymes. Flow takes precedence as Andy makes use of drum breaks that are closer to Eric B. & Rakim’s “Follow The Leader” album than anything current, and that’s where the record inevitably wears thin. The production is solid, but Andy isn’t exactly Rakim.Competent yet devoid of charisma, Andy’s method of “Rappity-rap” works on Ugly Duckling records thanks to two emcees passing the microphone back and forth to keep things fresh. And while a whole album of Andy Cooper is a fun listen initially, it wears thin quickly. Maybe I’ve heard too many advanced rhyme patterns at this point, but “Number One” just doesn’t impress. By the time “Ashes to Ashes” pairs Andy’s tongue-twisting style with another underwhelming self-produced number, I’m yearning for another emcee to jump on the mic.

There are some nice tracks however, the single “Room to Breathe” and “Unlikely Assassin” are irrefutably enjoyable, the sort of music you’d hear B-boys breakdancing to. “Blind Faith” is another, highlighting how Andy’s rhymes can be more effective when delivered at a more digestible speed. The irony of it all is that if more songs gave Andy “Room to Breathe”, there’d have been a really good LP here, but it ultimately feels like a missed opportunity given how many people I know that love this Jurassic 5 type of rap music.