Ghostface Killah, Bulletproof Wallets (November 13, 2001)
Bulletproof Wallets, the third album by Wu-Tang member and verbal portraitist Ghostface Killah, sounds like a sequel to last year’s Supreme Clientele. The irrepressible Iron Man has carbon-copied a successful formula, in this case one of last year’s best rap albums, a rare compromise between underground linguistics and mainstream ethos. But where Supreme Clientele flowed with bizarre non-sequiturs and Ghost’s fractured slanguage, Bulletproof Wallets bumbles along with an uneven collection of street epics and would-be party anthems. “Ghost Showers” mimics his breakthrough single from last year, “Cherchez La Ghost,” all the way down to the classic disco loop and signifying female. R&B singer Carl Thomas croons urban pop for him on “Never Be the Same Again.” Ghost wants to be president of the hip-hop nation; he’s sick of motherfuckers biting Wu-Tang Clan’s myriad styles and innovations. “Niggas don’t understand we started all that Cristal, all that Wallabee shit,” he vents on the intro. Absent throughout is Supreme Clientele’s sheer irrationality. Perhaps stung by criticism that his ravioli-sized rhymes were too rich for consumption, Ghost has jettisoned the made-up words and preposterous imagery. Lunkhead braggadocio and criminal histrionics are all that remain. “My Rolls be Liberace/And my bedroom is off the hook all day/Designed by Versace,” he boasts on “Ghost Showers.” It’s all quite fabulous, especially for a man who reveals on “Forest” that his wonderland consists of Daffy Duck, Kermit, and other cartoon characters fornicating, doing drugs, and killing each other. But those for who marveled at Supreme Clientele’s abstractions, Bulletproof Wallets might sound disappointingly mundane. In interviews, Ghostface Killah complained that his label, Epic Records, botched the release by omitting several songs due to sample clearance issues. Those missing tracks, including”The Sun,” “The Watch,” and others, are widely available on file-sharing networks.
De La Soul, AOI: Bionix (December 4, 2001)
Much of Bionix’s material responds to criticism that De La Soul’s last album, Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump, was a concession to the mainstream rap marketplace. “Unlike these underground MCs who rock for heads/We include the throat, chest, arms, and legs,” brags Posdnous on the title track. Metaphors abound: the “Rev. Do Good” series of skits lampoon their former image as hip-hop ascetics, “Peer Pressure” finds Posdnous and Dave smoking weed (cash?) under the tutelage of Cypress Hill’s B-Real. “See me on the cover of your XXL/Taking a holiday at the hotel,” Dave raps on “Simply,” which inexplicably uses Wings’ “Wonderful Christmas Time” as a musical backdrop. De La’s embrace of commercial values is admirable, but on Bionix there’s no cavalcade of guest stars to shield them from conventionality as Mosaic Thump almost did. At best, “Simply Havin’,” “Watch Out” and a handful of others find them crafting consciously middlebrow pop tunes. At worst, they hack out oafish sex romps like “Pawn Star,” unable (or unwilling) to admit how they have become pawns, rather than innovators, in the hip-pop game. Producers include Supa Dave West, Kev Brown, and J Dilla. Tommy Boy Records.
Busdriver, Temporary Forever (2002)
For the uninitiated, Busdriver will seem to be a delirious psychotic, a rambling MC with verbal diarrhea. One must remember, though, that half of the Los Angeles underground hip-hop scene, as well as a good portion of the Jamaican dancehall industry, several members of Anticon, Twista, and Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony rap in the same run-on, staccato cadences, making Busdriver’s Temporary Forever less an exercise in willful affrontery than encoded sociology. This becomes apparent on the appropriately titled “Jazz Fmgers” when Busdriver lollygags over O.D.’s fire music at a seemingly brisk pace and Aceyalone shows up and begins rapping with the same frenetic delivery. “Hopefully the jazzman will be appreciated for the work that they have done in the past, present, and future,” Aceyalone says self-referentially, stumbling over the last stanza while former Invisibl Skratch Pikl D-Styles happily scratches away. Busdriver’s more than a third-rate Project Blowdian, though it’s clear he’s been influenced considerably by Aceyalone’s Freestyle Fellowship adventures. He capably proves on “Stylin’ Under Pressure” to have a winning sense of humor, playfully answering a Carl’s Jr. clerk’s frustrated requests for his order with absurd responses like “How about a person burger, cause eating a hamburger is worse than murder.” But eventually, one must make peace with Busdriver’s manic motormouth. It helps that his words are matched with beats by Daddy Kev, O.D., Paris Zax, and other quick-witted producers capable of tracks like “Along Came a Biter,” where Paris Zax crafts a flute-ridden jig to parallel Busdriver’s vocal eccentricities, adding new melodies to the track as the dreadlocked MC’s flow grows more convoluted. Still, by the end of the disc you suspect that even Busdriver can only take so much of himself: he tries to repeat the hilarious “Stylin’ Under Pressure” gag at another fast food restaurant, only to give up and admit, “I can’t do this right now.” Released on Busdriver’s Temporary Whatever label, with distribution by Mush.
Awol One and Mike Nardone, Speakerface (September 17, 2002)
Slightly less laconic than Madlib’s Quasimoto character but considerably more wry and self-deprecating, Awol One rhymes when he wants to, which is about half the time. His voice resembles a wheezing yawn, perfect for uttering choruses like “Kiss Yourself Destruction’s” “It’s not a waste of time if you spend your time getting wasted,” a sentiment preceded by guest rapper 2MEX’s praise for amphetamines on “NME.” Most will write Speakerface off as pure comedy, though some will notice a few disturbing themes such as the misogyny (a useless accusation considering how completely male-dominated rap music is) undercutting tracks like the “Abortion Theme Song” and Awol One’s allegation, “I know this girl, she gave herself a pregnancy test in a public bathroom.” He doesn’t stint on the less savory aspects of his personality. The final track on Speakerface is a minute-long recording of him pissing in a toilet. At the very least, he’s good for lines like “God blesses me, I can tell by his tears,” and “I know my enemies like I know my own nuts/They’re like a sheep in wolf’s clothing.” Mike Nardone produced. Mean Street.
Cex, Tall, Dark and Handcuffed (2002)
Baltimore, Maryland’s Cex escapes classification. A magnetic live artist, he’s known for working himself and the audience into a libidinous sweat, flopping on the floor and spurting out rhymes in a breathy shout while electro-funk beats play in the background. Cex’s shows are more than mere musical performances: they’re an experience. Having said that, the most surprising thing about his sophomore album Tall, Dark, and Handcuffed is that he squarely pigeonholes himself as a straight-up rapper, and a mediocre one at that. There are mere traces of the excitement he causes on stage, like when he concludes “Brutal Exposure” with the line, “If I’m going to fuck with this industry, it’ll be the way that I can feel it/Covered in her blood and my piss, fucking on her period/I’m serious.” Then, near the end of the next track “One Cex,” he leeringly sings, “I know you’re stressed because there’s only one Cex” in a righteously corrupt voice. Most of the hour-long album, however, finds him playing Edan (or is it MC Paul Barman?) over minimalist electronic beats with scant personality or surprises. Even a rare party track, “Cuts,” sounds limp and rote even as he alleges “The underground needs a-changin.” When did Cex the party rapper give a fuck about the hip-hop underground? Tall, Dark, and Handcuffed is reminiscent of another would-be indie rap monarch, Princess Superstar. But while Ms. Superstar delivers tongue-in-cheek satire with surprisingly skilled rhymes and a charismatic cadence, Cex speed raps, mumbling words and overrunning beats with lame complaints like “We ain’t the type of lyricists whose big, boring words will pass through your system undigested, like corn kernels.” Tigerbeat6.
Blackalicious, Blazing Arrow (April 30, 2002)
Unlike fellow Quannum members DJ Shadow and Latyrx’s Lyrics Born and Lateef the Truth Speaker, Blackalicious are more stylists than innovators. At his best, Gift of Gab vocally leaps over Chief Xcel’s productions, stacking verbs on top of one another in a clear, understated cadence without breaking apart the verse-chorus-verse structure. A prominent exception is “Chemical Calisthenics,” which finds them breaking atoms with Cut Chemist in dramatic fashion, one-upping the memorable “A to Z” from their A to G EP with stop-start rhymes split apart like compounds. Less successful is “Release,” which collects verses from Gift of Gab (with background vocals from Zach de la Rocha), Saul Williams, and Lyrics Born into an interminably long nine minutes. The music is classic neo-soul; guests include Ben Harper, patron saint Gil Scott-Heron, Jaguar Wright, and DJ Babu and Rakaa of Dilated Peoples. MCA Records.
Busdriver and Radioinactive with Daedelus, The Weather (2003)
For the past three years, the L.A. hip-hop community has yielded some amazingly original rap music. By incorporating the Tourette-like contortions of early-90s heroes like Organized Konfusion and Freestyle Fellowship, kitschy jazz breaks reminscent of Prince Paul, and head-scratching, marijuana-induced blitzkriegs of free-association verse, they have created a relentlessly experimental movement and great albums like Busdriver’s recent Temporary Forever and Radioinactive’s 2001 effort Pyramidi. The aforementioned MCs’ new project is called the Weather, a moniker in the spirit of the light-hearted jazz fusionists Weather Report. Daedelus, who released his excellent debut Invention last year, backs the duo with tracks equaling their antics. “Carl Weathers’” collision of percussion and scratch guitar evokes Boom Bip’s junkyard funk aesthetic, while “Pen’s Oil” finds Daedelus splicing together advertising jingles with piano fills while DJ ESP scratches a vinyl recording of a wind-up toy. Though the sounds subtly shift from the lush downbeat exotica of “Germs that May Cause the Following” to the sparkling Latin jazz of “Weather Locklear,” the musical mood is a consistently whimsical backdrop for Busdriver and Radioinactive’s absurdities. The lyrics reproduced in The Weather’s CD booklet reveal most of the group’s songs to be nonsensical rhymes. Like e.e. cummings, Busdriver and Radioinactive indulge in stacking lines that make little sense beyond powering their vocals along Daedelus’ beats. “She blows the ancient wisdom whistle/Painting a crystal across your forehead in a Santa Monica semi-automatic toothbrush pistol horsesled/Force-de/Horse head and ginsengs.” Busdriver’s raps are less socially-conscious than his songs on Temporary Forever, although he usually manages to toss in opinions like “I’m the protestor of the oil-slick blunder/Whose gold scepter is his toilet plunger/Save the endangered fuzzy animals/From the pale-faced warmongers/Who just happened to be your forefathers,” marking out words like “happened” to rap in double-time to stay on beat. Hilariously, Radioinactive spends his time contradicting Busdriver’s occasionally linear thoughts, twisting the latter’s environmental concerns on “Pen’s Oil” into “I need to go inside of the store to get you some gum cause your breath smells like the Exxon Valdez oil spill,” reciting his words as if it was one long run-on sentence. The whole thing would sound quite silly if not for the trio’s imaginations pulsing throughout the hour-long disc. “The world’s just a placebo in my rusty gazebo” (Radioinactive) and “sucking the flesh-sculpted rubber duckie screaming mother funk me to the gutter monkey condemned beneath our mother country” (Busdriver) are just a few of many examples. Mush.
Buck 65, Square (2002)
Canadian rapper Buck 65 is a B-boy version of Tom Waits, adapting the singer-songwriter model to hip-hop music. His music sounds cloistered and hermetic, the result of low-fi production values and vocals that barely rise above a whisper. He likes speaking through characters – affecting the choked, wrinkled tones of an old man, or a middle-aged shut-in – and telling short, memorable vignettes that range from bitter recriminations to hilarious satires. His major-label debut, Square, is split into four parts, with several untitled songs and instrumental interludes in each section. Sonically, it finds him making beats comprised of acoustic instruments, bass-heavy arrangements that feel as humid and stultifying as a dusty attic. The fourth untitled song in “Square One” is a melancholy rock ballad; an interlude that opens “Square Three” is a dense, lumbering downbeat number. But, ironically, Square’s failure lies within Buck 65’s narratives. At best, he flips simple words into evocative observations; at worst, he comes off as monosyllabic and self-indulgent. The aforementioned fourth song begins, “I know a man who was born with his heart on the outside/Every man’s worst fear, he also had heavy hands/He couldn’t touch his lover’s face, he couldn’t hold a baby/He would never desert him, but he was worried he would hurt him, baby,” weaving a portrait with language that seems slight and unrevealing. There are other stories like this on Square, flimsy tales that never amount to much. Square has not been released in the U.S. Warner Brothers.
Aceyalone, Love & Hate (June 3, 2003)
Aceyalone, a onetime member of Freestyle Fellowship is a prodigiously gifted rapper who has often saddled himself with less accomplished producers, resulting in albums that, barring the 1998 tour de force A Book of Human Language with LA producer Mumbles, sound like grab bags. Love and Hate, his fifth solo album, is no different, but there’s a higher ratio of strong cuts on it than his last album, 2001’s Accepted Eclectic. There’s “The Saga Continues,” a homage to his longtime crew Project Blowed that finds him riding over Fat Jack’s bouncy Cali groove with A-Team partner Abstract Rude. “Moonlit Skies” is a melancholy song fueled by RJD2’s looping of an acoustic guitar and Goapele’s haunting background vocals. “Miss Amerikka” is a holdover from The Unbound Project compilation, a modest treatise produced by Joey Chavez on which Aceyalone reasons, “Life as we know it is about to change/You smell it within the air/The weather is getting strange/Drugged up, sedated, and numb from the pain/The sickness in America has spread to her brain.” The various producers, all with their own radically contrasting styles, who contribute to Love and Hate mean that there’s no consistency beyond Aceyalone’s own raps. He offers few songs that impress solely on the force of their content, with the notable exceptions being “Miss Amerikka” and the title track, the latter of which winds itself around Radio Raheem’s “love and hate” speech from the Spike Lee film Do The Right Thing (which was inspired by Robert Mitchum’s homicidal preacher speech in Night of the Hunter). Instead, there are virtuosic vocal displays like “Junkman,” on which he mimics the midtempo beat, his words jumping along in time to the music; and the self-aggrandizing “In Stereo,” a testament to his own party-rocking skills that’s undermined by an irritating chorus. Project Blowed.
J. Rawls, Histories Greatest Battles, Campaigns & Topics (2003)
This production showcase belongs to J. Rawls, best known as one-half of underground hip-hop group Lone Catalysts and the beat maker behind Black Star’s “Brown-Skinned Lady.” Most of his techniques are familiar ones, from chopping a track up like DJ Premier on “The Art of War,” for example, to breaking another into several sequential bits on “Sixty-Three is the Jubilee,” which is defined by piano notes that slide back and forth like a shimmering pond. His tone throughout Histories Greatest Battles is so austere, it feels anachronistic, like a long-lost soundtrack to Carter G. Woodson’s The Journal of Negro History. The two main vocal tracks both help and hinder this impression. B.J. Digby’s competently straightforward “Hard Rock” opens the album before giving way to Rawls’ ambitions, while Tavaris’ overwrought theatrics on the final track, “Future,” sends the narrative crashing down to earth in an avalanche of sentiment. Until that throwaway epilogue, most of the hour-long Histories Greatest Battles recalls Abstract Tribe Unique’s Underground Fossils and the Highlife Movement’s …estuary, two late-90s oddities from LA’s Project Blowed camp that predate J. Rawls’ literary vision. Female Fun.
Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Nigga Please (September 14, 1999)
Gone were the good-natured ruffneck antics of his acclaimed debut, Return To The 36 Chambers (The Dirty Version), as well as most of his Wu-Tang Clan compatriots. There was only the ODB and his paranoid, bizarre rantings, barely contained within ominous song titles like “Gettin’ High” and “You Don’t Want To F**k With Me.” Big Baby Jesus’ performance bordered on the pathetic, resembling nothing more than a series of shrieks, grunts and wails; the album’s production, headed by the Neptunes, the RZA and several others, barely redeemed it. Nigga Please was bugged-out, wildly uneven … and one of the most compelling albums of the year. Rarely has rap music been visited by a vision so personal, so reflective of its drugged, self-indulgent state that it is an aural cry for help. Guests included Chris Rock, Lil Mo (on the Billie Holiday cover “Good Morning Heartache”); Kelis added a chorus to “Got Your Money” an ode to pimping that became the album’s sole breakout hit. Elektra.
Dudley Perkins, A Lil’ Light (July 15, 2003)
On A Lil’ Light, Los Angeles-based vocalist Declaime takes a holiday from his day job as solo MC (illmindmuzik EP, Andsoitisaid) to harmonize over an album of Madlib’s beats. True, it’s something of a conceit, an hour’s length exploration of the happy accident that was “Flowers,” a seven-inch single from last year on which Dudley Perkins rhapsodized over the wonders of good herb. Far from a natural singer, Perkins croaks out words with melismatic fervor; even he admits on the yearning “Falling” that “I hang on the edge of this universe, singing off-key, speaking too loud, embracing myself.” Despite his obvious limitations as a singer, he’s capable of unorthodox, jazz-like improvisations. The most successful tracks have no lyrics or narrative, just phrases like “It’s you who gave me life” (“Momma”) or “Do you know the way to my home/I’m lost and I’m all alone” (“Solitude”) that he croons, testing the words in his mouth before voicing them with surprisingly emotional sincerity. Madlib, who has rediscovered the psychedelic soul-jazz haze that fueled his memorable Quasimoto recordings after the mixed success of his Yesterday’s New Quintet projects, helps Perkins’ efforts tremendously. One track, “Money,” sounds like a half-tempo, opiate version of DJ Premier’s beat for “Dwyck”; another, “Forevaendless,” loops a late-70s disco track for a short, memorable homage to space, the final frontier. In fact, A Lil’ Light is infused with spirituality; it’s the one quality that separates Perkins from his closest comparison, the sloppily decadent Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Both “Solitude” and “Falling” make frequent mention to God, while another song is tellingly titled “Lord’s Prayer.” Then a final, hidden track finds him singing Earth, Wind and Fire’s cover of Pete Seeger’s wartime lament, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” an obvious nod to America’s ever-widening war on terrorism. It’s a touching gesture made slightly embarrassing by hi awkward attempt to replicate Philip Bailey’s cadences. It feels akin to getting a hug from your uncle that lasts two minutes too long. Stones Throw.