Saturday, January 29, 2011

Album Review: "In The Ruff" - Diamond District (2009)

INTRODUCTION

I figured that since I mentioned Diamond District's In The Ruff in my review of The Left's Gas Mask, I would go ahead and make it my next project, and if you liked Gas Mask, then there is a very sizeable chance that you will also enjoy In The Ruff.

Diamond District is a trio from Washington D.C. comprised of producer/rapper Oddisee and rappers yU (who dropped a damn good album of his own, Before Taxes, in 2010) and X.O. The group certainly adopts a boom bap theme for In The Ruff (its debut album), as Oddisee displays staunch similarities to The Left's Apollo Brown (the main difference is that Oddisee also raps). Also, much like Journalist 103 (of The Left), yU, X.O., and Oddisee drop very complex and thought-provoking rhymes.

As with Gas Mask, In The Ruff received incredible reviews from bloggers and Internet hip-hop heads, many deeming it among the top albums released in 2009. I am certainly inclined to agree, as I not only think it was one of the best projects put out during that year, but one of the best of the 2000s overall.

The best part about In The Ruff is how well it all comes together as a whole, which you will soon see in the review.

Because I don't really have much more background information to give on Diamond District or In The Ruff, I will just jump right into things.

TRACK-BY-TRACK

1. Intro

The album kicks off with an intro from Oddisee, who introduces himself, yU, and X.O. over a very smooth beat driven by piano hits and some banging kicks.

2. Streets Won't Let Me Chill
As nice as this cut sounds, this is just okay in comparison to the high points of the album. That little "criticism" should give you a little taste as to how good In The Ruff actually is as a whole. Anyway, the song is about how you have to be vigilant and on guard no matter what because, well, the streets won't let you chill.

3. Who I Be
It's funny, because In The Ruff really didn't get off to too great of a start, as "Streets Won't Let Me Chill" and "Who I Be" are two of the album's more meh tracks. Oddisee utilizes an Ol' Dirty Bastard vocal sample on the beat, which is pretty mediocre.

4. Back 2 Basics
Ahh. This is when things start to pick up. Oddisee's instrumental, made up of a crazy-good piano loop containing some booming kicks and hats, is sick, and all three Diamond District members tear it to shreds. Also, the beat that takes over at the 3:15 mark and plays out for the remainder of the four-minute, thirty-eight second song with Oddissee rapping over it also sounds great.

5. I Mean Business
This cut bangs. Oddisee works in a sample of Gang Starr's hit "Mass Appeal" and does it flawlessly, as it accompanies the knocker of an instrumental (those are some of the best drums I've ever heard) perfectly. Oddisee, yU, and X.O. go in on this, ripping the incredible beat to pieces and sounding as comfortable as ever in doing so.

6. Get In Line
The hook on this record is pretty good, but the rest of the song pales in comparison to the preceding two tracks. That doesn't mean this is bad, however, as Oddisee's production is solid, and all of the Diamond District members hold their own on it, especially yU, who kills this.

7. In The Ruff
The title track is the best song on In The Ruff. Oddisee's beat will throw you into another dimension, as it possesses an unbelievably soulful and nostalgic quality to it. This is the perfect cut to bump when you're driving around at night. All three rappers are right at home on the production, and the hook on this is also great.

8. The Shining
"The Shining" is the first of three songs on In The Ruff that weren't produced by Oddisee, as Dunc gets the production credit here. Nonetheless, this still sounds really good, as Dunc's beat is effectively choppy and meshes well with the rest of the album. That said, I don't understand why the group would choose to bring in the same beat change at the end of the track as it did on "Back 2 Basics." yU raps over it this time instead of Oddisee, but still...

9. The District
This is the "jazziest" beat on the album, but I wasn't overly impressed with the overall product. It's decent, but not nearly as good as some of In The Ruff's best tracks. On a side note, did I seriously hear a Young Jeezy vocal sample on this?

10. Make It Clear
This is just ill. Oddisee comes through with another jazz-twanged instrumental, and it has a very upbeat vibe to it.
The beat that takes over at the 3:02 mark and plays out for the remainder of the cut also sounds damn good (Pete Rock, anyone?). I don't have much else to say other than the fact that I really, really dig this.

11. First Time
Oddisee's beat is incredibly smooth, and the song's subject matter is probably not what you're thinking. It isn't about the first time the Diamond District members, um, did a certain something (I'll just leave it at that), but rather the first time they did/witnessed a whole bunch of things. "First Time" also marks the first (heh) of two guest appearances on the album, as R&B singer Steve Smith does the hook.

12. Let Me Explain
My second favorite song on the album. Oddisee's production couldn't possibly be any more chill, and yU's "I might as well just look at life like a pornstar, say fuck it, I'm goin' hard" line is just great (it's pretty clear to me by now that yU is the best rapper of the group).

13. Off The Late Night
Whatever you were most likely expecting in "First Time" actually takes place here, as "Off The Late Night" represents In The Ruff's sex rap. This song just seems too sleazy for Diamond District's own good, though, despite the fact that Slimkat 78's beat (yes; Oddisee did not produce this) is pretty solid. Once again, though, for the third friggin time on the album, the same breakbeat that was present on "Back 2 Basics" and "The Shining" makes an appearance at the end of this cut. Wanna take a guess who raps over it this time? Yup; you guessed it: X.O.

14. Something For Y'all
The third and final record on the album that wasn't produced by Oddisee. Kev Brown, one of my favorite beatmakers, is on the boards on "Something For Y'all" and also does some rapping (albeit only on the hook) on the joint. The song is extremely laid-back and just sounds very good overall.

15. Hologram
Love this. Oddisee's beat is fantastic, and my God does yU kill it. Outstanding way to close out In The Ruff.

FINAL THOUGHTS

In The Ruff is sick; there really is no other way to put it. From beginning-to-end, the album is full of great tracks, almost every one having definite replay value. Oddisee is both an outstanding producer and a very good rapper, and both yU and X.O. (particularly yU) round out the phenomenal trio that is Diamond District.

In The Ruff is very, very consistent, as each song meshes very well with the next, and the three Diamond District members sound equally great on every single one of them. Oddisee, yU, and X.O. are all very good lyricists and each have great deliveries that mix extraordinarily well.

This is certainly one of the best boom bap albums I've heard, and this is coming from a huge 9th Wonder and Khrysis fan. I'm not saying Oddisee is as good as either of those two producers (he isn't), but he certainly has the ability to hold his own and, clearly, produce a terrific full-length project.

In my mind, In The Ruff is undoubtedly one of the best albums of the 2000s. It represents an exceedingly steady, enjoyable listen, and its "low" points are better than most albums' highs.

TOP FIVE TRACKS

1. In The Ruff
2. Let Me Explain
3. Back 2 Basics
4. I Mean Business
5. Make It Clear

SKIPPABLE TRACKS

None.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Album Review: "Gas Mask" - The Left (2010)

INTRODUCTION

For the past couple of months, it seemed like every hip-hop blog I would venture to would be pimping The Left's Gas Mask as the greatest thing since sliced bread, and Internet heads unanimously ranked it as one of their top albums of 2010. Well, obviously, I just had to see what all of the fuss was about and if Gas Mask was actually worth all of the attention it was getting. After listening, I have come to the conclusion that it was. For sure.

The Left is a trio composed of rapper Journalist 103, producer Apollo Brown, and DJ Soko. The group's style is certainly familiar, as the rap game has seen many similar collectives recently (like Diamond District, for example). Apollo Brown somewhat parallels 9th Wonder, as he specializes in boom-bap production by using soul samples and throwing some hard-hitting kicks and snares over them, and such instrumentals suit Journalist 103 perfectly.

Gas Mask is a relatively long album, spanning 17 tracks, most of them being full-length (there are no skits on this project; thank God). A fairly consistent vibe is maintained throughout, and, judging from the extraordinarily creepy album cover, it is not the type of vibe you would expect.

I've gotta be honest with you: when I first saw the album artwork, I immediately thought that this would be an extremely dark and depressing record full of twisted and demented lyrics (I could have just said that I anticipated a horrorcore album, but whatever; more text makes the blog look nicer). Fortunately (as I am not a fan of that brand of hip-hop), Gas Mask is nothing like that at all.

TRACK-BY-TRACK

1. Change

This is technically an album intro, but Apollo Brown's beat (that only lasts for a short while) is so phenomenal that I just had to point it out. This sets a great tone for the rest of Gas Mask.

2. Gas Mask
Apollo Brown throws on some banging kick drums over a soul sample full of blaring horns and an almost eerie vocal sample. Throughout the track, Journalist 103 expresses his displeasure with the current state of the rap game and how he is different from the rest of the, um, sell-outs, I guess? While an unknown underground rapper knocking the industry may seem cliché, Journalist does it very, very well. Nice cut.

3. Frozen
You wouldn't think a group as obscure as The Left would be able to snag a guest artist like Kool G Rap, but, nevertheless, the trio was able to do so. Funny thing is, I discovered that Journalist sounds an awful lot like Kool G from listening to this song. As far as the track itself goes, it's solid, as Apollo Brown's instrumental is pretty standard and fits both rappers well.

4. Battle Axe
And here I thought the drums on "Gas Mask" knocked; Apollo Brown takes banging drums to another level on "Battle Axe." Journalist 103 pulls his best Chino XL impression over the sick beat, spitting about how dangerous he is on the mic and how you simply do not want to challenge him. A guest artist named Mu drops a verse, as well, and I found his "you just witnessed your own funeral" line to be particularly ill. This track is crazy good all-around.

5. Binoculars
Apollo's production is slightly awkward, but in a good way. The instrumental contains a lot of different sounds, but they all blend in nicely so the beat does not come across as too "busy." The kick drums are fairly subtle compared to the first three tracks (although that snare bangs), and some more blaring horns and vocal samples make up the rest of the cut. Overall, "Binoculars" is actually really smooth, and yes; I realize I just contradicted my first sentence.

6. How We Live
This bangs. Everything about Apollo's beat is sick, and even though Journalist severely outshines guest artist Hassaan Mackey, Mackey is still able to hold his own and put forth a solid performance. Also, at this point of Gas Mask, I am beginning to realize why I like Journalist 103 so much: because he sounds a bit like Sean Price, both in terms of his voice and his delivery.

7. Chokehold
Will the bangers ever end? "Chokehold" adds to the ever-growing list of ill cuts on Gas Mask, as Apollo Brown drops some more heat, consisting of yet more deliberate drums (I particularly like how Apollo uses two different snares, something you don't see very often), loud horns, and a pronounced vocal sample, for Journalist. Guest artist Paradime also pitches in, and he rips it.

8. The Funeral
By now, I feel like calling a song a "banger" is getting too repetitive, so I'll just say that "The Funeral" is damn good by all accounts. Apollo's crawling beat provides an intimidating backdrop for Journalist 103 to drop his braggadocio rhymes over. The hook on this cut is sick, too. Oh, and remember that Sean Price comparison I made earlier? Tell me this beat isn't tailor-made for P.

9. Statistics
This is the first song on Gas Mask that I wasn't too fond of. Journalist sounds great, but Apollo Brown's beat is pretty meh, and that vocal sample on the hook is just annoying. Plus, I wasn't too crazy about female rapper Invincible's contribution. Oh well. No such thing as a perfect album, right?

10. Real Detroit
I didn't mention that The Left is from Detroit earlier, but now you know. Anyway, this sounds fantastic, as Apollo brings some more booming drums and an ominous vocal sample to complement Journalist's grimy style. A guest artist by the name of MarvWon drops a verse, and it sounds like he's trying to do his best Joell Ortiz impression. He adds a nice touch to the song, which is one of the album's best (and that's a pretty significant commendation).

11. The Melody
This is the best song on Gas Mask; period. I have always been a sucker for love raps, and "The Melody" is no exception. As a matter of fact, it might be one of my favorite love raps ever. Apollo Brown's beat, which possesses an unbelievably soulful vibe, is phenomenal, and he makes excellent use of the vocal sample. I also dig how Journalist lets the vocal sample finish his sentences on the hook (even though I realize that that is a relatively common thing to do in rap). Great, great song; one of the best of 2010.

12. Reporting Live
"Reporting Live" features the second-highest-profile guest on the album: Guilty Simpson, and, if you've heard Guilty Simpson before, you would already know that his style would mix with Journalist 103's like peanut butter and jelly, and that is what happens here. Unfortunately for Journalist, though, Guilty Simpson steals the show on this cut (which features some outstanding production by Apollo, by the way). That's not to say Journalist doesn't shred this, though, because he does.

13. Fooled For Thought
This is the shortest song on the album, and that's extremely unfortunate, because "Fooled For Thought" features some of Apollo Brown's best production work on Gas Mask, and, based on my review so far, that's obviously saying a mouthful.

14. Desperation
One thing really stood out to me about this track, and it isn't good: the audio quality of the vocal sample on the hook is awful, as it just sounds piercing and very unpleasant to the ears. However, Apollo's beat is solid overall, and Journalist spits some great lines.

15. Caged Birds
Unfortunately, Apollo's vocal sample almost drowns out Journalist 103 and guest artist Finale throughout the duration of this record, and after a while, the vocal sample just becomes irritating in and of itself. On top of that, one of the snare drum hits during the loop is very off-beat, and while I understand that was intentional, it just doesn't work. As a result, "Caged Birds" turned out to be one of the weaker tracks on Gas Mask.

16. Homage
The Left composes a track to honor those whom we've lost, and it sounds great, even though I hate it when people (like guest artist Frank West on the hook) pronounce the "h" in the word "homage," even though it is technically one of two correct ways that you can say it (I've obviously always preferred the silent "h" version). Anyway, Apollo's instrumental is appropriately somber, and Journalist delivers some touching rhymes about lost loved ones.

17. Get In Where You Fit In
It's not very often where you can say an album remained consistently dope throughout and did not tail off or suffer any noticeable lulls at any point, but that is the case with Gas Mask, as Apollo Brown lays down another terrific beat on "Get In Where You Fit In" for Journalist 103, who obliges with some exceptional rhymes, some of his best on the album. Great way to end one of the best albums of 2010.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Well, the blogs were right: Gas Mask is a work of art and was certainly one of the best albums to grace the hip-hop genre in the year 2010. In 17 tracks, Apollo Brown stamped his name among my favorite producers, and Journalist 103 displayed that he is an outstanding talent behind the mic and that he is someone to watch out for in the years to come.

Everything about Gas Mask is flawless. The production, save maybe on two tracks (and even the beats on those tracks weren't that bad), never suffers a dull moment, and Journalist's rhymes are on point for each and every cut. The guest artists, for the most part, also come through with outstanding performances, and the fact that The Left was able to enlist Kool G Rap and Guilty Simpson should tell you something about the respect they already have in the hip-hop world.

Generally, when an album is this lengthy, there tends to be numerous throwaway tracks and some instances where the listener questions what exactly the artist(s) was thinking when they decided to include a particular song (or more) on the record. However, this type of query does not arise on Gas Mask (not for me, at least), as just about every record complements one another impeccably.

TOP FIVE TRACKS

1. The Melody
2. Chokehold
3. How We Live
4. Real Detroit
5. Reporting Live

SKIPPABLE TRACKS

None.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Album Review: "Gutter Rainbows" - Talib Kweli (2011)

INTRODUCTION

Talib Kweli has had an illustrious career. It all began back in 1998 when he teamed up with Mos Def to form the group Black Star, and the duo then proceeded to release the classic Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star. Two years later, Talib joined forces with producer Hi-Tek to form Reflection Eternal, dropping yet another classic record in Train Of Thought.

In 2002, Kweli went off on his own for the first time in his career, releasing Quality, an album that many feel is his best solo work. Since then, he has put out three more solo LPs (including the one I am about to review) to go along with countless mixtapes and collaboration albums (including Reflection Eternal's bust of a second project, Revolutions Per Minute [released in '10], which I am sure I will get around to reviewing at some point), building an extraordinarily impressive (if not legendary) resumé that few other artists can match.

Most importantly, outside of his hiccup with Hi-Tek on Revolutions Per Minute, Talib Kweli has never put out a whack product (although some, myself not included, find his sophomore solo album, The Beautiful Struggle, to be somewhat on the "whack" side); the dude is extremely consistent. He is an outstanding lyricist, both creative and relative to the common man, and, generally, has a great ear for beats.

So, eight months after he and Hi-Tek put out Reflection Eternal's second album, Talib returns with Gutter Rainbows, a project that, at the very least, should be a candidate for having the best album artwork of the year. The question is, though, will it be in contention for being the actual album of the year? Let's find out.

TRACK-BY-TRACK

1. After The Rain

A pretty stupid album intro.

2. Gutter Rainbows
You rarely see an album's title track so early in an album's sequencing, but, nevertheless, here is "Gutter Rainbows." M-Phazes' beat possesses an upbeat feel, but it's nothing more than average overall. Like usual, Talib's flow is on point, but I came away with this song with a "meh" reaction.

3. So Low
The first thing I noticed about Shuko's beat is that the kick drums bang. Unfortunately, that was pretty much the only thing I noticed about this track. It isn't bad; it just isn't very memorable.

4. Palookas
I love Kweli's "you can't stop me like the bullets that's inside of 50" line, and Marco Polo's beat is pretty damn sick. However, the best part about this track is Sean Price, who drops a guest verse. It's certainly not one of his better performances, but it's not very often you hear Sean P nowadays, so when you get the opportunity, you have to soak it in. This is the best song on Gutter Rainbows, and it isn't even up for debate.

5. Mr. International
Call me crazy, but I actually like this a lot. Even though S1's bouncy beat sounds like it belongs on Revolutions Per Minute (and no; that is not a good thing), Talib manages to make it work, and Nigel Hall does a great job on the hook.

6. I'm On One
My man Khrysis is on the boards here, and while he does not come with any Monkey Barz-type heat, his beat is still solid, and Kweli sounds decent over it. I don't really have much else to add.

7. Wait For You
Who would have thought some guy named S1 would produce the most records on this album? After laying down a solid instrumental for Talib on "Mr. International," he returns with a mediocre beat on "Wait For You." I do like the jazzy, laid-back atmosphere, but overall, this song is pretty boring.

8. Ain't Waiting
6th Sense laces a beat fairly similar to S1's production on "Mr. International," except it's quite a bit busier. It definitely brings a significant amount of energy, but the fact that Talib doesn't actually start rapping until the 1:22 mark takes some of that momentum away. Also, Outasight's hook is incredibly lame, and it surfaces
far too much. The thing is, Kweli sounds really good over this, but it feels like he only raps three bars (even though he obviously raps a lot more than that). This cut could have been so much better.

9. Cold Rain
Ski Beatz, an underground legend and the producer of Camp Lo's highly-regarded Uptown Saturday Night, puts down a very underwhelming beat for Talib on this. Booooring...

10. Friends & Family
I like this. E. Jones produces a solid beat that contains a nostalgic feel, and Talib sounds right at home over it. However, the uncredited singer on the hook sounds incredibly corny, both in terms of his voice and his lyrics. "Nothing else matters more than friends and family"? Seriously? Whatever. Compared to the rest of Gutter Rainbows (which is turning out to be a pretty big disappointment), this track is a breath of fresh air.

11. Tater Tot
Nick Speed's beat is decent, although the choppy vocal sample in the background is just annoying. Talib comes through with an impressive performance, though, and the song's ending is pretty interesting, as Kweli's girl ends up shooting him. That said, there is nothing ground-breaking here.

12. How You Love Me
This is one of the best tracks on the album; easily. Blaq Toven both produces the beat and does the hook, and he does an admirable job on both accounts. The drums knock, and Talib Kweli spends the record talking about...you guessed it; love, a topic Talib always manages to cover very effectively.

13. Uh Oh
Madlib's brother, Oh No, produces a beat that is unquestionably one of Gutter Rainbows' best on "Uh Oh," and female guest rapper Jean Grae adopts Talib's flow and imitates it very well. Of course, the real thing is always better, as Kweli puts forth a masterful performance. Really nice cut.

14. Self Savior
Okay; I wanna know who the hell Chace Infinite is and why he hasn't gotten more burn, because he rips this track and severely outshines Talib. Maurice Brown's beat is incredibly boring, but, thankfully, Chace's performance helps relieve the overall blandness of it...a little. This might sound weird, but the dude sounds like a combination of Jay-Z and Cappadonna...and maybe some Brother Ali, too. Anyway, as far as the song itself goes? Mehhhh.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I hate to say it because Talib Kweli is one of my favorite artists, but Gutter Rainbows isn't very good; at all. It's just one giant pile of mediocrity. The production is, for the most part, very bland, and Talib doesn't do anything spectacular that makes you say, "damn." He still sounds good and proves he can still rip tracks, but it just sounds like more of the same to me.

A very significant part of the problem on Gutter Rainbows is Kweli's choice of producers. I mean, I don't see how him of all people can go through an entire 14-track project without having at least one song produced by Hi-Tek. Instead, he decides to enlist a lot of no-namers who drop some insipid beats that don't even scratch the surface of interesting.

There was only one song that really, really stood out on this album: "Palookas." That's it. There were some other nice cuts, but they pale in comparison to Talib's best work, giving Gutter Rainbows very little (if any) replay value. Believe me; you will find yourself skipping a good majority of the records on here (although I'll be kind in the "skippable tracks" portion of the review) if you, for some inexplicable reason, decide to give this album a second listen.

Now it's time to bump Train Of Thought to erase the horrible aftertaste (yeah; I don't know) of Gutter Rainbows.

Oh, and remember when I said that Talib Kweli has never put out a whack product? Well, ta-da!

TOP FIVE TRACKS

1. Palookas
2. How You Love Me
3. Uh Oh
4. Mr. International
5. Friends & Family

SKIPPABLE TRACKS

Cold Rain

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Album Review: "Fantastic, Vol. 2" - Slum Village (2000)

INTRODUCTION

J Dilla (R.I.P.) is considered by some to be the greatest hip-hop producer of all-time, and those who don't have him in their top spot generally place him somewhere in the top five or top 10. He has worked extensively with artists and groups like A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, Common, and De La Soul, making unbelievable use of soul samples to create some of the most mesmerizing beats imaginable. However, his most renowned work may very well have come when he was a part of the group Slum Village.

Although Slum Village changes group members as much as George Steinbrenner (R.I.P.) changed managers, it has always managed to put out quality material, even when the group's sound drastically changed when Jay Dee (J Dilla, for those of you who may be a bit out of the loop) left the collective in 2002 to pursue a solo career. Still, Slum Village's best work clearly came when J Dilla was laying down the heat on the boards.

Slum Village first gained notoriety in 1997 when it released Fan-Tas-Tic (Vol. 1), a very short "album" that contained the group's demo material. The group consisted of T3 (the only original group member currently remaining), Baatin (who died in 2009), and Dilla (who would pass on in 2006). At this point, Jay Dee was still on the come-up and was not yet well-known in hip-hop circles. However, the production on Fan-Tas-Tic (Vol. 1) quickly changed that, as rap aficionados everywhere were salivating over the prospect of a full-length release from Slum Village.

Fans got their wish in 2000 when Slum Village dropped Fantastic, Vol. 2, nearly entirely produced by J Dilla (he had help from D'Angelo on one track and Pete Rock on another). Although the album was criticized by some for its lack of pure lyricism and its misogynistic tendencies,
it is regarded as one of the most well-produced projects in hip-hop history.

Now, Slum Village consists of two official members: T3 and Elzhi, the latter of whom is clearly the most talented emcee that has ever been a member of the group. Up until its most recent (and what looks like its final) album, Villa Manifesto, Slum Village has garnered production mainly from Black Milk and his camp since J Dilla's departure in '02, putting out two solid albums in Detroit Deli (A Taste Of Detroit) in '04 and Slum Village the following year. That said, as nice as those projects were, they pale in comparison to the group's earlier works, namely Fantastic, Vol. 2.

TRACK-BY-TRACK

1. Intro

I usually don't write about album intros, but J Dilla's beat on this is too phenomenal to ignore. It just sets an outstanding tone for the rest of the project and certainly leaves the listener wanting more...much more.

2. Conant Gardens
The first official song on Fantastic, Vol. 2 is a great one, featuring some deep guitar strums, banging kicks and snares, and prominent hats. You will notice that while none of the three group members are ground-breaking lyricists, they all complement each other extremely well and possess perfect voices and flows for Dilla's smooth, relaxing instrumentals.

3. I Don't Know
I love this. Jay Dee takes samples of three different James Brown songs and mashes them into one incredible beat on "I Don't Know," Fantastic, Vol. 2.'s second single. I do think the persistent gaps in the instrumental so the rappers could emphasize certain words and phrases took away from the overall product a bit, but not enough to bring this track down from ill status. DJ Jazzy Jeff does some guest-scratching toward the end for good measure.

4. Jealousy
This one was just okay. I don't really have much else to add.

5. Climax
Remember when I said some people criticized Slum Village for being too misogynistic on this album? Well, consider this exhibit A, which I'm sure you can infer from the song's title alone. That doesn't mean this cut isn't good, though, as Dilla's beat will put you in a trance, particularly on the hook. This was the album's third single.

6. Hold Tight
Q-Tip makes a guest appearance on this drum-heavy beat which just sounds outstanding, and he sounds damn good over it. It's fairly appropriate that Q-Tip is featured on this album, too, as Slum Village was dubbed the next A Tribe Called Quest back in that day.

7. Tell Me
This is the best song on the album, and the funny part is that J Dilla was not the primary producer on it. He did co-produce the beat, but D'Angelo was the main man on the boards for this incredible, incredible production. He drops some guest vocals to add a very nice element to the record, too. The whole misogynistic theme goes right out the window on "Tell Me," as this is a very classy love rap. Nice job, SV.

8. What It's All About
On what is probably the most upbeat number on Fantastic, Vol. 2, Busta Rhymes stops by and does Dilla's production justice, flowing over an instrumental that fits him like a glove. Really nice record.

9. Forth and Back
In what may seem like a very odd and unexpected collaboration, Kurupt makes an appearance on "Forth and Back," and, interestingly enough, he fits in seamlessly. The only problem I have with this track is that J Dilla's beat seems far, far too similar to that of "What It's All About," and given the fact that the two songs are sequenced back-to-back, they don't mesh well. I definitely think they should have been placed further apart, but whatever; "Forth and Back" is still solid.

10. Untitled/Fantastic
The backslash in the song's title is there for a reason; this track is two songs in one. Well, almost. The "Untitled" portion takes up three minutes and five seconds of the three-minute, fifty-four second song, and it's a shame, because the instrumental for the "Fantastic" half that begins at the :49 mark is far superior to its predecessor.

11. Fall N Love
That brings us to "Fall N Love," arguably the most well-known Slum Village song of all-time. Fans everywhere have unrelentingly praised Jay Dee's ridiculously smooth beat plus the simple work he does on the hook, and rightfully so; this is a great record. Dilla's reverberating snare is something of another world, as is the way he flips the sample he uses. Oddly enough, though, this was not a single.

12. Get Dis Money
Single number one, which is easily understandable (just look at the track's title). Dilla's beat is solid, the rapping is good enough, and the end result is a nice cut.

13. Raise It Up
The fourth and final single and, like "Get Dis Money," it's transparent as to why that is. Dilla's production is extremely unorthodox, as it seriously sounds like he sampled a video game off of Atari (even though he didn't). Believe me; you will love this record for the simple fact that it just sounds hilarious.

14. Once Upon a Time
This is the other beat that wasn't solely produced by Jay Dee, as Pete Rock gets the main production credit here while Dilla is listed as the co-producer. PR drops a verse, too, and while he sounds alright and puts forth a decent effort on the boards, this is just a meh track.

15. Players
"Players" is a short cut, spanning two minutes and twenty-seven seconds, but Dilla's beat is hypnotizing, containing some pronounced kicks and smooth claps to complement the subtle vocal sample in the background. Good song.

16. Eyes Up
I really dig this. Like "Raise It Up," the production has a video game-like feel, but, for the first time on the album, you may find yourself paying just as much attention to the actual rapping as you do the beat (which is sick, by the way). There are no fantastic (no pun intended) lines or anything, but the voices and the deliveries of the three members just sounds terrific.

17. 2U 4U
This is probably the smoothest beat on the album, and that's saying a lot. The sample Dilla uses sounds phenomenal, and along with the outstanding drums he throws on on top of that, "2U 4U" will make you nod your head endlessly. T3, Baatin, and Jay Dee also do a great job with their deliveries, once again.

18. CB4
Another sick beat by Dilla; what a shock. However, as great as the instrumental is (and it's one of the best on the album), the "fellatio interference, promiscuous homosapiens" line that is repeated several times on the hook just sounds stupid. The production is good enough to make this a top five song on Fantastic, Vol. 2, though, regardless of how poor some of the lyrics may be. That's how good Jay Dee's instrumental is.

19. Go Ladies
It's smooth, but meh.

20. Who Are We
"Who Are We" is one of two bonus tracks that appeared on Fantastic, Vol. 2's re-release, but what the heck; I'll throw it and the following one in, anyway. The kicks on this knock, and the overall feel of the song has single material written all over it. Nevertheless, this wasn't a single for obvious reasons (like, it wasn't even on the original album). Oh well.

21. Thelonious
Bonus track number two. This cut also appeared on Common's album, Like Water For Chocolate, which was released in the same year. Obviously, Common is featured on this cut, but he sounds a bit out of his element, as this beat is clearly geared more toward Slum Village. Because of that, "Thelonious" sounds much better on Fantastic, Vol. 2 than it did on Common's project.

FINAL THOUGHTS

By all means, you need to listen to Fantastic, Vol. 2 as soon as possible if you haven't already done so. J Dilla's production is as close to perfect as you can possibly get, and while he, T3, and Baatin are not the greatest rappers in the world, they sound great over the beats. Most importantly, each song has its place on the album; there is no "filler" material.

You have to wonder what kind of discography this group could have put together if numerous circumstances, some of them extenuating, did not force them to break up. Clearly, T3 and Baatin were exceedingly comfortable rhyming over Jay Dee's instrumentals, regardless of how elementary their raps may have been. Asking for a repeat of Fantastic, Vol. 2 may have been a bit much, but I certainly don't think expecting similar projects would have been unrealistic.

Although Fantastic, Vol. 2 was the last Slum Village album where Dilla was present on every cut, he did lay down three beats on the group's next project, Trinity (Past, Present and Future). However, due to the fact that the majority of the album was produced by other beatmakers (including T3 himself), it was not received well at all, and many felt that that was the end for Slum Village.

Fortunately, SV was able to nab Black Milk for its next two albums, and while said albums were not nearly as highly acclaimed as Fantastic, Vol. 2, still put the group back on the map and established it as a consistent force in the rap game. Villa Manifesto, released in 2010, was also solid, adding yet another notch to Slum Village's legacy.

So, in conclusion, if you are new to J Dilla and are not familiar with any of his work, Fantastic, Vol. 2 is a great place to start.

TOP FIVE TRACKS

1. Tell Me
2. Fall N Love
3. CB4
4. 2U 4U
5. Eyes Up

SKIPPABLE TRACKS

None.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Album Review: "Dare Iz a Darkside" - Redman (1994)

INTRODUCTION

Dare Iz a Darkside was the second among a trio of albums Redman released during a five-year period between 1992 and 1996, the other two being his debut,
Whut? Thee Album ('92), and Muddy Waters ('96). Those three projects cemented Redman's legacy as being one of the greatest rappers to ever do it, as few artists can match up with his incredible discography.

Redman, known for his comical raps and witty punchlines, is the type of rapper that you simply cannot hate. Outside of his most recent work, he has always put out quality material throughout the duration of his illustrious career, both in terms of his solo projects and his popular albums with Method Man, those albums being Blackout! and Blackout! 2.
Of course, Redman is also part of the group Def Squad, a trio that also includes Keith Murray and Erick Sermon. The group released one album, El Niño, to both commercial and critical acclaim in 1998, adding yet another notch to Red's belt.

It says a lot about an artist (in a good way) when the masses cannot seem to come to an agreement on which album is their best work, and that is the case with Redman. Although I have noticed that the majority tends to lean toward Muddy Waters (Sean Price has labeled it as his favorite album of all-time, as a matter of fact), plenty of his fans swear by either his debut or Dare Iz a Darkside. Count me in as favoring Dare Iz a Darkside, as I have always felt that it is his most complete and consistent piece of work, although you cannot go wrong with any of this first three releases.

It should also be said that Redman produces a significant amount of his songs, making him one of hip-hop's few Renaissance men.

So, without further ado, I give you the review for Dare Iz a Darkside.

TRACK-BY-TRACK

1. Bobyahed2dis

Rockwilder utilizes a sample of George Clinton's famous song "Atomic Dog" (which is actually sampled multiple times on this album) on Dare Iz a Darkside's opening cut, and he makes a banger out of it. The actual rapping by Redman doesn't start until about the 1:20 mark, but, nevertheless, "Bobyahed2dis" has already built momentum for the rest of the album.

2. Journey Throo Da Darkside
And here I thought Boot Camp Clik was the worst at intentionally butchering its song titles. Anyway, I was never all that crazy about this track, as it really isn't anything more than ordinary, although I found Red's "Did I mention my lyrical format gets more ahs than a dentist?" line to be particularly amusing. This cut was co-produced by Redman and Erick Sermon.

3. Da Journee
Although it may not feel like it given the length is only two minutes and twelve seconds and Redman doesn't start rapping until a minute in, this is an actual song, and it's one that I dig, mainly because of Redman's head-nodder of a beat.

4. A Million and 1 Buddah Spots
This Erick Sermon/Redman-laced production sounds like something Smif-N-Wessun would rhyme over, and that is a damn good thing. While I have never been a big fan of smoking songs (as I have always felt they're, well, stupid), no one does them better than Red. The snare drum in this bangs.

5. Noorotic
Redman's beat and rhymes fit perfectly with one another on this track. That's all I've got.

6. Cosmic Slop
Redman's Def Squad buddies join him on this relatively short cut, as both Keith Murray and Erick Sermon (the latter of whom co-produced this record with Red) drop guest verses. Keith Murray steals the show, rapping:
"With amazing manifestations, I'll dictate to nations, more Cosmic Funk innovations in my creation." Rockwilder's instrumental does leave something to be desired, though.

7. Rockafella
Even the casual listener will immediately recognize "Rockafella" (produced by Red himself) as containing the same sample as Dr. Dre's famous track "Nuthin' But a G Thang," making it rather hard to listen to this cut without thinking you're listening to The Chronic. However, Redman, who sounds great over this, is obviously a superior rapper to Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, so you'll promptly learn to treat the two songs as separate entities. This is one of the best records on the album, the annoying, high-pitched chipmunk voices that surface over the final minute-and-change notwithstanding. It was also Dare Iz a Darkside's first single.

8. Green Island
Redman's production on this is extremely simple and laid-back, but it works. The snare is sick, and Red kills the track. However, "Green Island" runs a bit too long for its own good (five minutes and forty-two seconds), as the beat, as nice as it is, does grow tiresome after a while.

9. Basically
A very short song, spanning two minutes and three seconds, but it knocks, as Redman lays down an instrumental that contains some banging drums. Also, you've gotta love the part where Red says "woooord" at the end of every line for a span of four bars.

10. Can't Wait
This was the album's second single, and what a choice it was, as "Can't Wait" is, without a doubt, the best song on Dare Iz a Darkside. The track is co-produced by Erick Sermon and Red, and they use two great samples: Bob James' "Caribbean Nights" (hey, would you look at that; a Bob James-sampled song that isn't "Nautilus"!) and the Mary Jane Girls' "All Night Long." Also, I'm not one to get into music videos, but the video for this cut is grimy as hell, as it features Redman rapping outside in freezing temperatures, as evident by the steam coming out of his mouth. This is probably my favorite Redman track, period.

11. Winicumuhround
I don't like this one too much. Erick Sermon and Redman's beat just seems a bit too busy for my taste. P.S.: "Winicumuharound" is the second of three songs on this album to sample "Atomic Dog."

12. Wuditlooklike
Remember when I said "A Million and 1 Buddah Spots" sounded like something Smif-N-Wessun would rap over, and I said that was a damn good thing? Well, "Wuditlooklike," produced by Redman, sounds like something Heltah Skeltah would rap over, and if you've been following this blog at all, you'd know I'd think that's even better.

13. Slide and Rock On
Sorry, but this one was really, really boring. Oh, and this marks the third and final time that "Atomic Dog" is sampled on Dare Iz a Darkside.

14. Sooperman Luva II
Just like he did on "A Day Of Sooperman Lover" on Whut? Thee Album, Redman flashes his incredible storytelling ability here, even if the story is somewhat twisted. His beat is also pretty solid.

15. We Run N.Y.
Redman's beat bangs and he sounds great on this, but Hurricane G's guest appearance really ruins what could be a brilliant song. Plain and simply, she sucks, and her voice is nearly as annoying as Nicki Minaj's. No; seriously.

16. Tonight's Da Night (Remix)
The original (off of Whut? Thee Album) was good, but the remix is even better, featuring some bouncy production from Red instead of a laid-back beat. Like "Can't Wait," it also samples the Mary Jane Girls' "All Night Long," although the sample is not nearly as pronounced on this record. This is just a phenomenal song overall.

FINAL THOUGHTS

One common criticism of Dare Iz a Darkside is that the beats all sound the same, and while that may be a valid concern for stretches of this album, who gives a damn if all of the beats knock? This is simply a great record by Redman from start-to-finish, as the production is great, Red's rhymes and punchlines are in prime form, and it maintains a steady feel throughout.

Of Redman's first three albums (and, let's not kid ourselves; his three best albums), I would probably say that Dare Iz a Darkside would be the best place to start for someone who may be new to Redman, as it combines the sounds from Whut? Thee Album and Muddy Waters into one whole project. That way, you get a taste of both worlds.

Just like any of Redman's albums, Dare Iz a Darkside makes for an incredibly entertaining listen. The subject matter is generally upbeat and funny, and Red doesn't delve into anything that will make you think and potentially cause your head to explode. He is very up front, forthright, and simple, making him easily accessible for all audiences.

Redman's consistency in the rap game is certainly something to marvel at, as he put out three classics to begin his career, and then released the very solid Doc's Da Name 2000, that along with his aforementioned very impressive collaborative efforts. At this point, it's fairly clear that Red is past his prime (just listen to his latest work, Reggie, if you need verification), but his fantastic early work (all of which will be reviewed on this blog at some point) cannot be ignored.

TOP FIVE TRACKS

1. Can't Wait
2. Basically
3. Tonight's Da Night (Remix)
4. Bobyahed2dis
5. Rockafella

SKIPPABLE TRACKS

None.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Album Review: "Illmatic" - Nas (1994)

INTRODUCTION

Well, seeing as how I have mentioned Illmatic, Nas' debut album, probably somewhere close to five-thousand times on this blog, I may as well review the album and get it out of the way now.

It all started when Nas appeared on Main Source's cut, "Live At The Barbeque," back in 1992. This was absolutely vital to Nas' career, as, in doing so, he befriended Main Source group member Large Professor who would go on to produce three songs on Illmatic, including the album's lead single, "Halftime," which was released in the same year.

The second Nas became known to the masses, the 19-year old immediately drew comparisons to Rakim. He displayed impeccable lyricism, outstanding flow, and picture-perfect storytelling ability, all qualities that were ever-present on Nas' debut record.

Nas was not only able to enlist Large Professor on Illmatic, but also DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, and L.E.S., all of whom, along with Nas, would combine to form what many hip-hop heads consider to be the greatest release in rap's illustrious history.

Now, enough with the formalities. Let's get to the review.

1. The Genesis
Some people consider this a song, some people don't. Consider me as being part of the latter group. Next.

2. N.Y. State of Mind
The album kicks off with a DJ Premier beat that many consider to be one of his greatest productions. The instrumental features some deep piano keys with a high note popping up every few seconds, and the kick drums on this bang. This cut is also home to this famous Nas line: "I never sleep, 'cause sleep is the cousin of death." Many acknowledge "N.Y. State of Mind" as being the best song on Illmatic. I don't, but it's still good.

3. Life's a Bitch
"Life's a Bitch" is the only track on Illmatic that features a guest verse, and AZ does the honors and jumpstarts his own career by doing so. The beat is co-produced by L.E.S. and Nas (don't kid yourself; I'm sure Nas had very, very little to do with the production) and is probably the album's most soulful instrumental. This is one of the few songs that are both depressing and uplifting at the same time. Strange, but true.

4. The World Is Yours
The Pete Rock joint. This is most people's "runner-up" to "N.Y. State Of Mind" for the project's most superior song, and with good reason. PR's jazzy production is very upbeat, and Nas sounds right at home over it, spitting three classic verses.

5. Halftime
I think I've said before that I'm a sucker for shakers, so, obviously, I really like this cut, as shakers dominate Large Professor's instrumental. Again, this was Illmatic's first single, and while it may seem like a conspicuous choice given some of the other songs on this album, you have to realize that nearly every track on this project is single material.

6. Memory Lane (Sittin' In Da Park)
The second of three Premo beats on the album. It's an odd Premo beat, too, as you rarely hear vocal samples in his instrumentals, but, nevertheless, this sounds damn good. As phenomenal as Nas is lyrically throughout the entirety of Illmatic, "Memory Lane (Sittin' In Da Park)" may be his best performance, as he spits two immaculate verses on this cut. This part in particular really sticks out to me: "
Sentence begins indented, with formality, my duration's infinite, moneywise or physiology."

7. One Love
Q-Tip is on the boards here, and he creates a beat that sounds like something that would play in the jungles of Africa. Well, that's what I got out of it, anyway. The sample is exceedingly peaceful, and, given the title, that is obviously very appropriate. What I love most about this instrumental is the reverberating snare Q-Tip uses. It knocks. As far as Nas goes, he raps three verses, the third of which is renowned by many as one of the greatest verses in hip-hop history.

8. One Time 4 Your Mind
A large faction considers this track to be the weak link on Illmatic. I can see why, as Large Professor's instrumental is probably the most "ordinary" beat on the album, but I really like this song. Nas' second verse is very, very impressive, and I dig LP's laid-back production. This is also the shortest cut on the record.

9. Represent 

Awesome cut here. DJ Premier's piano-driven production provides a sense of urgency, and Nas rises to the occasion, spitting these two bars right off the bat: "Straight up, shit is real, and any day could be your last in the jungle, get murdered on the humble, guns'll blast, niggas tumble."

10. It Ain't Hard To Tell
Another Large Professor beat, and it's his best on the album. "It Ain't Hard To Tell" comes in right behind "Represent" as my favorite song on Illmatic, and it's a great, great way to conclude the project, as it consists of Nas bragging about how flawless he is, something he had every right to do after the first eight songs. LP's production matches Nas' exuberant mood, as the vocal sample and the horns that are present where the hook would be (Nas does not rap a hook on this) provide the listener with an upbeat backdrop.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Illmatic is certainly one of the best hip-hop albums ever. While it isn't my personal favorite, it is impossible to deny the overall faultlessness of the project, as Nas' outstanding raps combined with the incredible production behind him makes for a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience.

The funny thing is, the key to Illmatic is not Nas' lyrical performance or the beats; it is the length. There are only nine full songs on the album, leaving a very, very little chance of error. If Nas extended the album a bit, maybe a mediocre (or simply bad) cut would have snuck its way in and ruined the perfection of Illmatic, but, thankfully, Nas didn't give that potential occurrence an opportunity to rear its ugly head.

Even the "weaker" songs on Illmatic would be standout tracks on most other albums. This is one of the few records you can listen to all the way through without getting bored or skipping any tracks. The formula on Illmatic is absolutely flawless, and that is what coerces people to hold it in such high esteem.

Have there been albums that contained more eye-opening lyricism than Illmatic? Yes. Have there been better-produced albums than Illmatic? Sure. However, it is the complete package that makes Illmatic such a classic piece of work and arguably the greatest hip-hop album ever. It also is credited for "saving" the east coast, as Nas' debut arrived at a time when Dr. Dre and the west coast were dominating the rap scene.

I'm sure I don't need to tell you to add this to your collection, so I won't even bother. Now I will do arguably the toughest task of my entire life: pick the top five best songs on Illmatic.

TOP FIVE TRACKS

1. Memory Lane (Sittin' In Da Park)

2. Represent
3. It Ain't Hard To Tell
4. Halftime
5. The World Is Yours

SKIPPABLE TRACKS

...

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Album Review: "Hell On Earth" - Mobb Deep (1996)

INTRODUCTION

About a year-and-a-half after dropping the critically acclaimed and renowned classic The Infamous, Mobb Deep came back with Hell On Earth, an album that actually turned out to be the duo's swansong, as Prodigy and Havoc would never, ever come close to matching this kind of performance again.

Hell On Earth's formula was very similar to that of The Infamous: hardcore, gritty beats by Havoc and vivid street tales by both Mobb Deep members. Unlike the duo's sophomore effort, though (which was The Infamous, in case you didn't know, in which case, you wouldn't be a true Mobb Deep fan; sorry), this project was entirely produced by Havoc, as the preceding album featured some beats by Q-Tip.

Expecting Mobb Deep to reproduce the perfection of The Infamous is almost absurd, but it managed to create the next best thing on its third album, Hell On Earth. While it is not on the same level as the project that is home to "Survival Of The Fittest" and "Shook Ones Pt. II," is still is an outstanding piece of work that can put most other hip-hop albums to shame.

What Hell On Earth is probably most known for is "Drop a Gem On 'Em," one of many 2Pac disses that east coast artists released during the whole east coast/west coast feud during the mid 90s. However, although the track was recorded while 2Pac was still alive, the album was not released until after he was murdered, so he was never given a chance to respond.

Other than "Drop a Gem On 'Em," though, the album did not really have any major hits, and that is one of the reasons it will always be a couple of notches below The Infamous.

TRACK-BY-TRACK

1. Animal Instinct

Havoc opens up the album by laying down a menacing beat for he, Prodigy, and guest artists Ty Knitty and Twin Gambino of the group The Infamous Mobb. Each and every participant does their part in making "Animal Instinct" a great way to kick off Hell On Earth.

2. Drop a Gem On 'Em
The aforementioned 2Pac diss. The beat on this is crazy, as Havoc lays down an eerie piano loop with subtle kicks and reverberating snares. Even though I like Havoc better than P, I will admit that Prodigy's verse was considerably more scathing. It is much longer than Havoc's and goes into much more detail, including these lines: "
Rikers Island flashback of the house you got scuffed it in, you would think you gettin' your head shot's enough but then, now you wanna go at my team, you must have been drunk when you wrote that shit, too bad you had to, did it to your own self, my rebellion, I retaliate, I had the whole New York state, aimin' at your face." One of the most underrated diss tracks in rap history.

3. Bloodsport
Havoc's beat consists of very modest horns, so the hats and snares really dominate the instrumental. The production is pretty good, although this is the first (but certainly not the last) cut on Hell On Earth that would have sounded entirely out of place on The Infamous. I don't mean that in a bad way, though.

4. Extortion
Method Man makes a guest appearance on this cut, and he rips it to no end:
"I blaze your britches, P.L.O. extortion, you forcin', the hand that rocks the cradle, caution before you enter, this Shaolin representer, carry thirty-six deadly shits, you fuckin' with, top contenders." Havoc's beat crawls, but it's damn good. Great record.

5. More Trife Life
This is pretty much a sequel to The Infamous' "Trife Life." It's better, though. Havoc's snare in this is ill, and he raps solo on this track. He tells the story of rendezvousing with a girl without knowing he was being set up, and the dark beat he laces complements the tale perfectly. One of the best songs on the album.

6. Man Down
I've never cared for this cut too much. Havoc's drums are pretty solid, but the rest of the beat just doesn't seem to work. Big Noyd guest raps, but he is unable to add much, as I just can't get past the underwhelming production.

7. Can't Get Enough Of It
Now that's more like it. Havoc's production on this is sick, as he samples Gary Burton's "Las Vegas Tango" and somehow manages to make it sound like the most ominous thing in the world. He also tears his beat to bits, rapping: "
I love this rap shit, got me fillin' mad clips, what happens to fake rappers, but they damn good actors, from population, through the math I subtract them, you hear no laughter, QBC the thug factor, you niggas ain't worth the punch, back snatch ya, pitbull attack ya, and half snap ya, Kodak moments I capture." This is one of my favorite Mobb Deep tracks, period.

8. Nighttime Vultures
Havoc has made better beats, but Raekwon's guest verse makes this a solid cut. It's not even that he kills it lyrically, but he just sounds phenomenal over the production. As usual, Havoc's snares are top-notch.

9. G.O.D. Pt. III
This was Hell On Earth's third single, and I've never understood why. Personally, I think this track sucks. It doesn't sound like a Havoc beat at all. I know I might be going against the grain with my thoughts on this song, but it is what is. I think this is easily the worst cut on the album.

10. Get Dealt With
Back on track. Havoc puts down a very good beat, and both he and Prodigy sound great over it. This is a typical Mobb Deep record, so I really don't have much else to say. Nice cut, though.

11. Hell On Earth (Front Lines)
I effing love this. The instrumental by Havoc possesses a melancholic quality, and the duo effortlessly goes in on it and shreds it. I particularly love these lines by Prodigy: "
Jail niggas sendin' kites to the street, over some beef that wasn't fully cooked, finish 'em off, well done meat, then sent twenty-two slugs to your head, travel all the way down to your leg." Sick, sick song.

12. Give It Up Fast
Havoc's drums on this bang, but the rest of the beat is just alright. Nas and Big Noyd drop guest verses, but it's Havoc who steals the show, as he sounds the most comfortable over the instrumental. That's understandable, too, seeing as how he did produce it.

13. Still Shinin'
This is the best song on Hell On Earth; bar effing none. Havoc takes a Willie Hutch sample ("Hospital's Prelude Of Love Theme") and flips it wonderfully, throwing on some banging drums for good measure. Both he and Prodigy sound equally spectacular over it, too. "Still Shinin'" is the definition of a head-nodder. Also, you need to bump this in your ride to fully appreciate it.

14. Apostle's Warning
The production by Havoc is very subdued, and both Mobb Deep members do it justice and close out Hell On Earth in fashion. That's all I've got.

FINAL THOUGHTS

While it's fairly obvious after one listen that Hell On Earth is not on the same level as The Infamous, it's still damn good and is a borderline classic. The production by Havoc had certainly become "busier" by this point, but it was still able to provide an appropriate backdrop for Mobb Deep to continue its mafioso-themed raps.

Much like it is unfair to compare any of Nas' albums to his masterpiece, Illmatic, it is simply unreasonable to expect Hell On Earth to come across with as much authority as The Infamous. I understood that aspect going in, and that was why I wasn't too disappointed when I came away with a "meh" feeling on a couple of tracks on this album.

I have also learned to really, really appreciate Hell On Earth because, let's face it; it was Mobb Deep's last good album. You can say whatever you want about Murda Muzik, but I think it sucked; plain and simple. I'm not even kidding when I say it wasn't even that much better than Blood Money. Mobb Deep's fall from grace wasn't a gradual process; it was akin to dropping an anvil off of the Empire State Building. I don't know what happened in the three years between Hell On Earth and Murda Muzik, but whatever it was, it destroyed Mobb Deep as a group.

The best songs on this project are ridiculously great and can certainly stand next to any records on The Infamous, but, on that same token, nearly every track on The Infamous is a classic while nearly every track on Hell On Earth is merely good. Again, though, I'll stop comparing their third release to their masterpiece and just focus on the album as a whole, and the fact is that it is a very, very impressive piece of work that should be a part of any hip-hop fan's repertoire.


TOP FIVE TRACKS

1. Still Shinin'
2. Hell On Earth (Front Lines)
3. Can't Get Enough Of It
4. Drop a Gem On 'Em
5. More Trife Life

SKIPPABLE TRACKS

G.O.D. Pt. III

Friday, January 7, 2011

Album Review: "It Was Written" - Nas (1996)

INTRODUCTION

Two years after releasing his classic, heralded debut, Illmatic, Nas came back with It Was Written, a great piece of work that is underappreciated by most because Nas set the bar so ridiculously high with his first record. People looked at the liner notes and saw that neither Pete Rock nor Large Professor produced any tracks on Nas' sophomore effort, and they then dubbed it a bust without even listening to it (actually I'm just assuming, but that probably did happen in some cases).

It Was Written was actually predominantly produced by Trackmasters, as they were involved in laying down seven of the album's 13 beats, with Havoc, DJ Premier, L.E.S., Dr. Dre, and Live Squad rounding out the remaining cuts. Even with the absence of both Pete Rock and Large Professor, the instrumentals on this album are very good and suit Nas to a tee.

As expected, the hype for It Was Written was off the charts, and that obviously contributed to the massive amount of disappointment it caused in the hip-hop community. Everyone was expecting another Illmatic, but let's be real here; much like there will never be another Michael Jordan (sorry Kobe and LeBron fans), there will never be another Illmatic. It is now 2011, and we have yet to see another rap album that had the kind of impact that Nas' debut did.

Despite some of the criticism It Was Written has received, it is still generally viewed as Nas' second-best work, although some are partial to Stillmatic. Thanks to Illmatic, it has become essentially impossible for Nas to appease the masses, as even his most hardcore fans will usually find fault with each and every song he does because those tracks don't sound like "The World Is Yours." It's stupid, too, because Nas' body of work is undeniably great (save a couple of hiccups here and there).

Nas' content on It Was Written was also drastically different than it was on Illmatic, as Nas adopted the concept of mafioso rap on his sophomore project, following in the footsteps of good friend and frequent collaborator AZ, whose debut album Doe or Die personified mafioso rap to the fullest extent.

The more I look into it, the more I realize that 1996 really was a fantastic year for hip-hop, possibly even better than 1994, the year most consider to be the greatest (largely due to Illmatic and The Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready To Die).

TRACK-BY-TRACK

1. The Message

This was always one of the more popular songs off of the album, as listeners were hypnotized by Trackmasters' somber beat which contained various samples and booming kicks. Nas' subject matter is fairly typical of 90s mafioso rap, and while "The Message" isn't exactly his finest lyrical moment, he manages to keep you interested. The production is damn good, too.

2. Street Dreams
Trackmasters' beat seems boring when it first starts, but it grows on you as the song progresses. "Street Dreams" is somewhat similar in content to AZ's "Sugar Hill," as it is Nas essentially saying how he wants to live lavishly. Not one of my favorite cuts on It Was Written, but it isn't bad.

3. I Gave You Power
This is the lone DJ Premier beat on the album, and I've gotta say, this does not sound like a typical Premo production. That said, I can picture Guru going in on this, so maybe it does? Anyway, this is damn good, as Nas easily rides the dark beat and kills it, dropping three great verses and an infectious hook.

4. Watch Dem Niggas
"Watch Dem Niggas" features a great, chill beat from Trackmasters as Nas warns his listeners about looking out for potential snakes in your crew. Foxy Brown's presence on the hook was kind of unnecessary, but overall, this is a really good cut.

5. Take It In Blood
The second best song on the album, in my opinion (you'll see why later). Live Squad, the most obscure producer on the entire project, drops a crazy, soulful beat for Nas, who absolutely rips it:
"Individual, lyrical math abrasion, psychic evaluation, the foulest nation, we livin' in, dangerous lives, mad leak and battered wives, a lifestyle where bad streets is patternized." The overall feel of this track is just incredible, making it easily one of the best songs Nas has ever done. This is one of my favorite Nas records, period.

6. Nas Is Coming
There was a lot of hype for this one, as it featured a collaboration between Nas and Dr. Dre while that whole east coast/west coast feud was still boiling. That said, this was too much ado about nothing, because this track is horrendous. Dre's beat is just terrible, and the song is unnecessarily long at five minutes and forty-one seconds. I say "unnecessarily" because the actual rapping doesn't start until a minute in, and the final minute-and-a-half of the cut is full of adlibs and nothing more. The worst song on It Was Written; bar none.

7. Affirmative Action
The short-lived group The Firm (a group consisting of Nas, AZ, Cormega [who, due to internal beef with the rest of the collective, was quickly replaced by Nature], and Foxy Brown) formed on this cut, and they (except for Foxy Brown, who is just horrible) all do a nice job over this middle-eastern-twanged Trackmasters beat. I don't really have much else to say about "Affirmative Action" other than the fact that I enjoyed it.

8. The Set Up
The first of two Havoc productions on the album. This one is the lesser of the two, but it still bangs. Havoc also guest raps, dropping an incredibly long hook that pretty much sounds like a verse. Even though it was just a hook, Havoc's griminess made this cut that much better. Nas also sounds fantastic on this. Great, great song all-around.

9. Black Girl Lost
I didn't really care for this cut, which is basically Nas reprimanding a girl for her, um, reprimandable behavior over a cheesy beat co-produced by L.E.S. and Trackmasters. This isn't as bad as "Nas Is Coming," but it still isn't all that good.

10. Suspect
Without looking at the liner notes, you would think Havoc produced this banger, but he didn't; L.E.S. did, making up for the dud that was "Black Girl Lost." The beat here is nothing short of sick, possessing an eerie quality that certainly sounds like it could have been on Mobb Deep's The Infamous. Nas obliges, shredding the instrumental to pieces with two appropriately dark verses.

11. Shootouts
This track has always reminded me of "Fu-Gee-La," and that's a good thing, as that is the one track from The Fugees that I actually like. The production by Trackmasters is phenomenal, and Nas sounds extremely comfortable over it, dropping two sick, long verses which would lead into...

12. Live Nigga Rap
...this. "Live Nigga Rap" is the other Havoc beat on It Was Written, and it
knocks beyond belief. Both Mobb Deep members, Prodigy and Havoc, drop verses, and I don't think I need to tell you whose verse I like better. Well, in case I do, I think Havoc just tore this up: "We got it locked beyond measure, the clique's under pressure, extort you for your treasure, smack you with the undresser, represent your clique, go ahead, get that ass whipped, floatin' in the river with your body wrapped in plastic." It seems that Havoc's performance even forced Nas to step is game up, as he spits what I think is his best verse on the album. This is the best track on the project.

13. If I Ruled The World (Imagine That)
This was the album's first single, and it still receives some airplay today. I didn't like this when I first heard it, but it eventually grew on me. The Trackmasters beat is very smooth, and Nas sounds very good over it. However, Lauryn Hill just sounds out of place on the hook, and her inclusion on this cut really takes something away from it.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Regardless of what the critics have to say, It Was Written is a bonafide classic. Outside of a couple of meh tracks, the album is consistently good from top-to-bottom, featuring very good production and a more than adequate performance on the mic from Nas. He may not have been at the level he was on Illmatic, but, honestly, why does everything Nas does always have to strike up an Illmatic discussion? Damnit; I'm even doing it.

The overall feel of this album encompasses the subgenre of mafioso rap: dark beats, dark rhymes, and a confident emcee behind the mic. Nas is able to one-up his buddy AZ, dropping an album that I think was clearly better than Doe or Die, as good as Doe or Die was. Yes; the subject matter may become repetitive after a while, but isn't that the case on most albums anyway?

There is a large faction that says Nas does not exactly have a good ear for beats, and while that may be a valid criticism for his past couple of albums, you simply cannot use that argument when judging the early part of Nas' career. The beats on Illmatic were tremendous, and It Was Written possessed equally solid production all the way through, even without Pete Rock and Large Professor.

As I stated earlier, some feel that Stillmatic is Nas' second greatest work, but I think that title belongs to It Was Written, and I don't even think it's that close. Stillmatic was good, but it was not nearly as consistent as Nas' sophomore release.

TOP FIVE TRACKS

1. Live Nigga Rap
2. Take It In Blood
3. Suspect
4. Shootouts
5. The Set Up

SKIPPABLE TRACKS

Nas Is Coming

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Album Review: "The Minstrel Show" - Little Brother (2005)

INTRODUCTION

Little Brother just can't seem to catch a break. Their debut album, The Listening (which I reviewed here), despite being deemed a classic by some, was commonly criticized for what people called "bland" production by 9th Wonder. Then, their sophomore release, The Minstrel Show, stirred up all kinds of controversy for the simple fact that the subject matter was intelligent. No; I'm serious.

For those of you who may not know the history, BET refused to air the music video of the album's lead single, "Lovin' It," because the channel thought the song was "too intelligent" and that it was essentially talking down to other forms of hip-hop, as the video did parody some of rap's subgenres.

Ultimately, The Minstrel Show suffered rather poor sales (not that it would have sold much even if the whole BET situation didn't happen anyway), but was still looked at by most as a better offering from the group than The Listening, and to this day, it is generally viewed as Little Brother's best work.

Unlike on Little Brother's debut, The Minstrel Show was not entirely produced by 9th Wonder, as Khrysis contributed one track.

TRACK-BY-TRACK

1. Beautiful Morning

Outstanding way to open up the album. The production on "Beautiful Morning" is more energetic than anything on The Listening (with the exception of "The Getup"), and the track really does give off a vibe of something that you should bump as soon as you wake up. Both Phonte and Rapper Big Pooh both do their thing and cruise over the smooth 9th beat. The album opener is also one of the album's best.

2. The Becoming
This cut is very short, spanning one minute and fifty-two seconds, and Phonte is alone on it. 9th Wonder uses a solid sample consisting of some choppy guitar strums, and his trademark snare is ever-present. Decent cut.

3. Not Enough
Just listening to Darien Brockington's hook will make you think this is a traditional, run-of-the-mill love rap, but on "Not Enough," Little Brother is actually talking to the industry and saying no matter what they do, they cannot seem to garner enough respect in the hip-hop circuit, and BET's beef with them illustrates that notion to a tee. 9th's beat here is outstanding, and Darien Brockington does an admirable job on the hook. Great track.

4. Cheatin'
Phonte adopts his Percy Miracles persona here and decides to go in R&B style, singing a hilarious, but at the same time, serious, song about how he caught his girl cheating on him. The best part is when Phonte says he looked in his girl's cell phone and "saw another man's digits." 9th Wonder's (he decides to go by the name of "Piano Reeves" for this track for whatever reason) production is pretty standard (although it does fit the mood), so it is Phonte's lines that make "Cheatin'" worth listening to.

5. Hiding Place
Elzhi makes a guest appearance on this, and he and both Little Brother members rip this 9th beat. This is probably the hardest you will ever see Little Brother go in terms of sounding downright aggressive on a record, and Big Pooh in particular shreds it. "Hiding Place" also contains what probably is one of the rawest 9th Wonder productions you will ever hear. Excellent song all-around.

6. Slow It Down
Like on "Not Enough," Darien Brockington is here for the hook, but Little Brother isn't trying to fool you twice; this really is a love rap, and a damn good one at that. 9th's instrumental is sick, both Phonte and Pooh do it classy, and Darien Brockington, who I really, really like, drops yet another fantastic chorus. We're only six songs in, and I'm already digging this more than The Listening (and I liked The Listening).

7. Say It Again
Actually, I wasn't really feeling this one. My interest waned as the track went on, and that was probably because of 9th Wonder's production; I just didn't like it.

8. Lovin' It
The Minstrel Show's single that caused all of that hubbub with BET. Joe Scudda, who I have always liked, drops by to drop a guest verse, and he fits in perfectly with Phonte and Big Pooh. 9th's beat is very laid-back and ridiculously relaxing.

9. All For You
Darien Brockington makes his third and final appearance on The Minstrel Show on "All For You," crooning yet another hook, but, once again, do not be fooled; this is not a love song. The concept is similar to "Away From Me" off of The Listening, where Big Pooh reflected about his poor relationship with his brother and Phonte talked about how he wanted a better relationship with his son. This time, though, Pooh raps about his damaged relationship with his father. Phonte also does temporarily, but then he realizes that maybe he simply misunderstood his dad and that he had a tougher life than he thought, as Phonte begins to see his father in himself. 9th's beat is pretty solid, although the fact that this track runs nearly five minutes long may make you sick of it after a while. That was the case for me, at least. Nevertheless, this was a good cut.

10. Watch Me
The Khrysis-produced joint. I'm pretty sure I've already stated on this blog that Khrysis is my second-favorite producer behind Hi-Tek, but in case I didn't, now you know. He lives up to my high standards for him on "Watch Me," throwing on a nice, smooth Michael Jackson sample consisting of light piano hits and some well-placed vocals, and Phonte and Rapper Big Pooh ride the beat fluidly. Also, DJ Jazzy Jeff does some scratching toward the end, and it really adds a nice touch. My favorite record off of The Minstrel Show.

11. Sincerely Yours
Rapper Big Pooh gets a solo track here, and I was very happy to see that, as he is my favorite Little Brother member. He does not disappoint, either, flawlessly flowing over a great, almost nostalgic beat by 9th Wonder (I particularly love that vocal sample on the hook). It doesn't get much better than this.

12. Still Lives Through
The hook is pretty poor, but 9th's beat is nice (I love that snare), and both Pooh and Phonte come through with solid performances. This isn't one of my favorite cuts on The Minstrel Show, but it's still decent enough.

13. We Got Now
My boy Chaundon makes an appearance here, and while I've heard better verses out of him, I loved these two lines:
"Hate it or love it, who fuckin' wit our music? Yeah, y'all niggas is the shit when it comes to bowel movements." 9th's beat is merely average, though.

FINAL THOUGHTS

In terms of production, The Minstrel Show displays loads more variety than The Listening. What people have to remember, though, is that The Listening was recorded very early on in 9th Wonder's career, so he hadn't really experimented with too many things yet and was essentially still learning on the job. He demonstrates considerable growth on Little Brother's sophomore effort, making the album a much more enjoyable listen from start-to-finish for hip-hop fans.

Once again, do not misconstrue what I am saying; I did indeed enjoy The Listening, but as much as I liked it, it is one of those albums that is fairly difficult to listen to all the way through in one sitting, as there is not much variation in the instrumentals.

Also (and I'm serious about this), Darien Brockington's presence really made The Minstrel Show that much better. There were only two feature artists on The Listening: Median, whom I like, and Keisha Shontelle, whom I thought was a poor choice. This album contains much better guest appearances all around, as Elzhi, Joe Scudda, and Chaundon all join Darien Brockington to make for an outstanding lineup. I usually prefer not to hear too many guest verses, but Little Brother incorporates just enough on The Minstrel Show to improve the overall effort.

For all intents and purposes, The Minstrel Show is Little Brother's best album to date, and because it doesn't look like we're ever going to get another project from the group again (it appears that they have disbanded for good), that will probably remain the case forever. The production, the lyrics, the concepts, and the choice of feature artists was all a stroke of genius by Little Brother, and all of that led to this masterpiece.

TOP FIVE TRACKS

1. Watch Me
2. Beautiful Morning
3. Slow It Down
4. Sincerely Yours
5. Not Enough

SKIPPABLE TRACKS

None.