Saturday, August 31, 2013

Album Review: "Heavy Mental" - Killah Priest (1998)

INTRODUCTION

I'm sure most Wu-Tang fans know the story of Killah Priest. Back when the Wu-Tang Clan was recording Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, he and Masta Killa were in competition for a verse on "Da Mystery of Chessboxin'." While Killah Priest fell asleep, Masta Killa stayed up all night writing, and Priest woke up to Masta's verse the following morning.

As a result, Killah Priest was left off one of the most influential albums in hip-hop history, and he also likely cost himself an official spot in the Clan.

You would think something like that would have been incredibly detrimental to Priest's career, but things kind of worked out for him. He ended dropping a famous verse (well, famous to hardcore hip-hop fans, anyway) on the Gravediggaz song "Diary of a Madman," made guest appearances on a couple of Wu-Tang solo projects and closed out Liquid Swords with his trademark record, "B.I.B.L.E." 

Plus, Priest became a member of the Wu-affiliated group, Sunz of Man, which was always my favorite of the Wu-Tang offshoots.

Thanks to all of his hard work, a solo career was born, and in 1998, Killah Priest released his debut album, Heavy Mental.

Based on the fact that he was very closely tied to the Wu, you would expect a whole lot of production from The RZA, right? Wrong.

There are 20 tracks on Heavy Mental, and not one of them is laced by Prince Rakeem. Instead, Priest enlisted 4th Disciple as his go-to beatmaker, much like many of the other Clan affiliates.

Although many bemoaned RZA's absence, Heavy Mental still managed to achieve gold status, making Killah Priest's first solo venture a profitable one.

Nowadays, this album is considered a classic by many, some labeling it one of the best lyrical performances in hip-hop history.

Does Heavy Mental hold up to its lofty praise?

Let's find out.


TRACK-BY-TRACK

1. Intro
You just had to do it, Priest...

2. One Step
This is one of four singles off of Heavy Mental (the others being "Tai Chi," "Cross My Heart" and "If You Don't Know"), and it is probably the most well-known song of the batch. True Master is actually on the boards here, and he utilizes a William Bell sample that would eventually become rather commonplace in hip-hop. "One Step" was always my favorite track that used the sample, though. Killah Priest sounds built for this beat, and he throws in his Sunz of Man brother Hell Razah (who sounds an awful lot like Priest on the hook) and one of the Wu's go-to female R&B artists, Tekitha, in for good measure. This track is great.

3. Blessed are Those
Y-Kim The Illfigure, he of the Wu-affiliated group Royal Fam, laces this cut for Killah Priest, but it's basically just a drumbeat with a faint vocal sample that's not exactly going to break your neck. Perhaps appropriately, Priest sounds a bit disinterested. The record isn't that long though, so at least there's that.

4. From Then Till Now
Y-Kim is here again (4th Disciple is coming; I promise), and he lays down an instrumental that is somewhat similar in style to "Blessed are Those" in that it is a drumbeat placed over an eerie vocal sample. However, this time, it works. The hook is kind of corny, but overall, this song is pretty good.

5. Cross My Heart
This is a Wu posse cut, and it knocks. Inspectah Deck and GZA stop by to drop guest verses over the banging True Master production, and all three rappers wreck it. "Cross My Heart" is the best track here so far.

6. Fake MCs
4th Disciple provides his first of 11 beats for Killah Priest on "Fake MCs," this one being of the minimalistic, piano-laden variety that sounds really freaking good. This is one of those records that has that quiet dignity quality about it, almost like it could be Tim Duncan's theme music. Oh, you wanted to know how the instrumental fit Priest? Very well.

7. It's Over
Killah Priest spits with such continuity and stamina on "It's Over" that I actually had to take a few deep breaths for him throughout. You'll find yourself so mesmerized by his performance on the mic that you won't even really notice the 4th Disciple backdrop, which, by the way, is nothing more than decent. Priest shows he can carry a song here, and that's an awesome quality for an MC to possess.

8. Tai Chi
Killah Priest's Sunz of Man brethren Hell Razah and 60 Second Assassin join him on this 4th Disciple-laced cut, which sounds pretty damn terrific. All three dudes rip it, and Priest proves here that he thought of using the term "pineal gland" in a rap long before Ab-Soul.

9. Heavy Mental
This was basically spoken word, and the musical backdrop Killah Priest himself laid out is kind of creepy. Pass.

10. If You Don't Know
That brings us to the best song on the album. This absolutely bangs, from True Master's tremendous beat to Killah Priest's incredibly intimidating raps to Ol' Dirty Bastard's almost coherent hook. Plus, hearing ODB saying he is "the insect to your pie" is freaking hilarious. "If You Don't Know" is not only the best track on Heavy Mental, but I firmly believe that it is one of the most impressive pieces of work in the entire Wu-Tang catalog. It's that good.

11. Atoms To Adam
This cut is incredibly boring, so naturally, it carries the distinction of being the longest record on Heavy Mental.

12. High Explosives
The beat here (by Arabian Knight) sounds like something any bedroom producer could whip up on Garage Band. Obviously, that is not a good thing. The silver lining is that "High Explosives" lasts for just over three minutes, but these last two songs have absolutely killed the momentum.

13. Wisdom
Fortunately, the drought only lasts for the two preceding tracks, as "Wisdom" is really freaking good. 4th Disciple's instrumental is awesome, and Killah Priest seems extraordinarily comfortable with it. I actually wish this was considerably longer, as it runs for only two minutes and five seconds.

14. B.I.B.L.E.
Ah; good old "B.I.B.L.E." Even the most casual Wu-Tang fans know this song, as, like I mentioned earlier, it was the cut that closed out Liquid Swords. That's how good this is. GZA felt it was great enough to end one of the best albums of all-time. Plenty of other producers have tried to use the "Our Love Has Died" sample from the Ohio Players since "B.I.B.L.E." dropped, but they have all failed miserably in trying to top what 4th Disciple did here.

15. Mystic City
Shanghai The Messenger is present on two tracks on Heavy Mental: "Atoms To Adam" and this one. Both of them turned out to be two of the weakest records on the project. Coincidence? Maybe, because 4th Disciple's beats on both songs suck, too.

16. Information
Things get back on the right path here, as 4th Disciple's production blows what he did on "Mystic City" out of the freaking water. Actually, that is an insult to the job 4th Disciple did on "Information." This certifiably bangs, and Killah Priest's energy matches the instrumental for most of the cut. I could have done without the one minute, 15 second skit at the end, though.

17. Science Project
4th Disciple gets his RZA on here. That is a good thing. I could picture each and every one of the official Wu-Tang members on "Science Project," and that is definitely a good thing. That being said, the way Priest and Hell Razah continuously repeat their lines throughout is really annoying. They both wasted a damn good beat.

18. Almost There
This is another RZA-like instrumental by 4th Disciple, but this time, Killah Priest wastes absolutely nothing; he goes in like his life depended on it. I particularly love the snare drum here.

19. The Professional
John The Baptist steps behind the boards for the final song on Heavy Mental, and he crafts a pretty damn awesome beat for Priest to rip. Closing out an album is frequently a major problem for hip-hop artists, but it certainly wasn't an issue for Killah Priest. This was a perfectly fine way to end the project, the minute-long skit at the back-end of the track notwithstanding.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Heavy Mental is truly an outstanding debut album from a damn good rapper. Killah Priest certainly took plenty of risks here, as he did not track down a single RZA production and placed 18 full tracks on the project, but he still managed to hit this one out of the park, and that is extremely impressive.

Killah Priest is clearly an exceedingly intelligent dude, and he is able to take that intelligence and utilize it to devise awesome songs. Yes, a lot of the subject matter here is deep, as Priest definitely likes to discuss religion and topics that the average human being would be absolutely clueless about, but he makes it work.

The production on Heavy Mental remains entertaining for the good majority of the album, too. Save for a couple of stinkers here and there, 4th Disciple and company do an incredible job of providing Killah Priest with appropriate backdrops to drop his knowledge. Surprisingly, most of the beats hold up well today, and that is saying an awful lot for a guy not many people outside of hardcore Wu fans know about.

Heavy Mental is the crown jewel of Killah Priest's extensive discography, one that I actually began exploring way back when when I wrote about Black August (that was back when I wasn't doing things in chronological order). Believe it or not, that was the first Priest album I heard, so I have kind of worked my way backward. The rest of his material is consistently solid, as well, so I will likely get to a good portion of it eventually.

If you're a fan of hip-hop that is a bit rough around the edges (or, in other words, raw), then you will probably like Heavy Mental. I think you should give this a listen regardless, though. Killah Priest certainly has plenty to say, and it's not like he's just spitting intellectual babble over crappy production.

In my mind, Heavy Mental is an underrated classic.

TOP TRACKS

1. If You Don't Know
2. B.I.B.L.E.
3. Cross My Heart
4. Information
5. One Step

3 comments:

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  2. Atoms to Adam is boring ...wow? do you have any idea how lyrically complex and deep that song is .....he wrote dam near 22 years ago...he was dropping mad knowledge smh ...ahead of its time!

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