Aesop Rock, Bazooka Tooth (September 23, 2003)
Bazooka Tooth is refined by intricately detailed imagery and segmented into titles like “Limelighters” (with Camp Lo) and “Super Fluke.” “Smoking on a broken blue note/Talking to an escape artist carcass/Lingering in the bulldozer,” Aesop suggests on the former. “Flash the Message” slinks along remembrances of LSD trails; and “11:35” and “Freeze” (the latter with Mr. Lif) talk up third-person stories about wayward kids, “punch drunks,” and murderous, overqualified TV anchor women. One-time collaborator, Blockhead, helps supply a brief moment of levity on “Cook It Up,” a tongue-in-cheek love letter from Aesop the “aggro pimp.” But most songs just watch, observe, and criticize the parade passing by; the net result, like so much non-commercial rap, is similar to being disembodied, as if you were watching you live your life. What happened to the rapper who bragged on Float’s “Commencement at the Obedience Academy” to “pluck the petals off a classic blood rose one at a time/Gripping the stem and right invite the thorns to dig up in my lifelines?” Bazooka Tooth’s limelighting escapades with the cool kids, fueled by Aesop’s own fledgling, if slightly awkward, production – think standard Definitive Jux-style electro-hop humanized by an organic Eighties funk-rock sensibility – overshadows the old motormouth cynicism and hopelessly idealistic reveries of his previous three albums. Notwithstanding his Anticon label’s longstanding rivalry with Definitive Jux, it’s difficult to envision moody sound artist Dose One finding the same common ground with this new, pumped-up MC that he once did on Float, even if the propensity for producing metaphor pile-ups and sardonic rejoinders is still very much in evidence here. Maybe Bazooka Tooth is just a good a put-on, a temporary role to capitalize on Aesop Rock’s underground superstardom as a “super fluke.” It radiates with a confidence fueled by acolytes, and one can’t help but want to join in on the fun. But what’s a career when all that’s left after fame is O.G. stories and manic depression disguised as aggression? Aesop Rock may always be more famous than his detractors, but keeping himself from becoming one of them is another matter. Guests include El-P, Party Fun Action Committee, and various Def Jukkies.
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.
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.
Jaylib, Champion Sound (October 7, 2003)
Jaylib promises to be a dream collaboration between two of the hottest producers in hip-hop, Jay Dee (formerly of Slum Village) and Madlib (Lootpack, Quasimoto). But the resulting Champion Sound is slightly more earthbound, as each tries to outdo the other with numbskull raps about players and hoes. It gets so bad that Jay Dee raps on the otherwise great track “The Mission,” “Now let me speak on these journalists/Only the ones who need to learn to listen/Before they criticize verses that burn kitchens.” Champion Sound’s appeal, then, lies in the music itself, minus the disposable rhymes. On paper, at least, the two producers each produce nearly half of the album’s 17 tracks and co-produce the intro, “L.A. to Detroit.” But the beats are surprisingly consistent, and every song utilizes Jay Dee’s infamously hard drums and snares to bolster Madlib’s notoriously psychedelic samples. The combination leads to strong tracks like the dance floor bound “Raw Shit” with Talib Kweli; “The Exclusive,” a pairing with legendary rapper Percee P, who brings some much-needed lyrical aggression; and “No Games,” a bouncy panoply of Seventies era synth riffs. Champion Sound is a fun party album that’s difficult to take seriously. Stones Throw.
The Neptunes, Clones (August 19, 2003)
With Clones, the Neptunes have made another world of glitter and glamour, love as lust and lust as an end unto itself. This universe is illustrated on the cover of the album, a photo that superimposes Pharell Williams and Chad Hugo over planet Earth rotating in space, a none-too-subtle nod to their years-long dominance of urban radio. In fact, one of its singles, “Frontin’,” already sits at number one on the Billboard singles chart. Three other tracks — Busta Rhymes’s “Light Your Ass on Fire,” Clipse’s “Hot Damn,” and Kelis’s “Popular Thug” — have been in heavy rotation on radio stations and in clubs for weeks. Then there’s the music itself: raw and minimalist, often cranked out with nothing but a keyboard and a drum machine. In the past, the Neptunes have been rightly criticized for churning out “clone” tracks that sound indistinguishable from one another, but Clones is rhythmically diverse. “Good Girl” has a precocious blend of airy melodies and Vanessa Marquez’s thin yet sincere vocals, while Busta Rhymes’s “Light Your Ass on Fire” sounds like the insides of an echo chamber that he fills with oversexed incantations of body parts. Unfortunately, most of the guests who appear over the Neptunes’ beats, an all-star roster that ranges from Ludacris and Snoop Dogg to Ol’ Dirty Bastard (christened here as Dirt McGirt) and N.O.R.E., deliver performances that feel half-hearted and bored. All that Ludacris can come up with on “It Wasn’t Us” is a reprise of his now-famous cadence from “What’s Your Fantasy.” Dirt McGirt, to his credit, gets suitably brolic on the knotty, RZA-like, “Pop Shit”; and Nas and Kelis combine for a charming duet on “Popular Thug.” Then there’s Rosco P. Coldchain’s “Hot” with Boo-Bonic and the Clipse’s Pusha T, a song that’s chilled by meandering raps and a flimsy 808 drum track. All this adds up to a bumpy hour of genuine hits and irritating filler. Star Trak, with distribution by Arista Records.
Chingy, Jackpot (July 15, 2003)
Chingy’s debut album, Jackpot, rides into record stores on the strength of “Right Thurr,” an insanely catchy single full of chest-swelling keyboard melodies. It sounds like the inside of a strip club, spewing out snare effects and lewd drum patterns inspired by the Neptunes that twirl and clap like dancers spinning on a pole. Mostly produced by the Trak Starz, it’s remarkably consistent in quality, and each track glitters and glistens with libidinous energy while projecting a superficial glamour that’s both enticing and alienating. Even the original pussymonger, LA producer DJ Quik (under the pseudonym “Da Quiksta”), contributes “Bagg Up,” a luscious midtempo beat that hearkens back to early Nineties G-funk. The Trak Starz is the true star of Jackpot; Chingy’s role, then, is to contribute the occasional sure shot hook and ride its beats with fluffy, innocuous rhymes that allude to pimping and other good-natured sex games. On the hit single “Right Thurr,” he succeeds magnificently, slurring out “I like the way you do it right thurr” in a faux-British accent with all the charisma of Dana Dane. Less appealing is “Chingy Jackpot,” where an anonymous female vocalist dispenses with political correctness and asks, “Chingy/Why your eyes so chinky?” Otherwise, it’s hip-pop business as usual here. Guests include DTP benefactor Ludacris and Snoop Dogg on “Holidae Inn.” Disturbing the Peace/Capitol.
Missy Elliott, This Is Not a Test! (November 25, 2003)
It’s business as usual. Appropriations of hip-hop and R&B classics abound, from “Don’t Be Cruel’s” lift of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” to “Is This Our Last Time’s” hearkening back to Shalamar’s “The Second Time Around.” Nothing that Elliott didn’t explore more effectively on Miss E … So Addictive, which will probably go down in history as the authoritative document of the mainstream rap industry’s brief, intense love affair with ecstasy; and Under Construction, where she first began to play with the same hip-hop icons that dominate This is Not A Test. But a straight listening won’t explain the many pleasures to be found here. “Toyz” is a foray into proto-house rapture, complete with funky hard bass line and an uptempo beat for all the dancers in the hizzouse. The first single from the album, “Pass the Dutch” skitters along a percussive track of handclaps and bass feedback. It’s freaky and haunting, which may explain why it recently stalled in the lower depths of the Billboard Top 40 Singles Chart. “It’s Real” is short and sweet, a simple piano melody over which she croons, “It’s Real,” as if she wants to reassure us that she’s a real woman in da real world instead of futuristic diva. Throughout, longtime collaborator Timbaland and Elliott split production duties, their respective styles meshing so completely that it’s difficult to separate one (Timbaland’s “Pass That Dutch”) from the other (Elliott’s “Toyz”). Elliott’s appeal as a MC/songstress has always been beguiling, difficult to pin down. When she first shot to prominence with “Supa Dupa Fly (The Rain,” detractors quickly wrote her off as all style, no substance. Seven years later, though, it makes sense that groups like Company Flow once chided her for “bringing a go kart to the Grand Prix.” Though MTV viewers recently voted her as one of the 22 greatest MCs of all time, she’s not a rapper in the familiar, lyrically obtuse sense, but in the old school, party-rocking tradition, spitting whatever words the beat inspires. It’s a formula that now seems as warm and forward thinking as anything her Eighties heroes created. If This Is Not A Test feels slightly less fresh than the last jam, and indeed turns out to be the last in a trio of great albums, then fuck it, she’s had a good run. Goldmind/Elektra.
Lifesavas, Spirit in Stone (July 1, 2003)
There is an austerity to the Lifesavas that some will find off-putting or atypical of underground hip-hop acts. One skit on their debut album, Spirit in Stone, “Thuggity Skit,” clumsily parodies monosyllabic Southern rappers. On “Livin’ Time/Life Movement I,” Vursatyl proclaims, “We pro-life and we’re pro-longevity/Procreation/Produce/Provocative/And pro-prosperity,” while “State of the World/Apocalypse/War” and “Resist” are unabashedly righteous pro-activist anthems. This Portland trio has little use for the capitalist-minded mentality of most radio-driven rap, instead choosing to model itself after “conscious” artists like the Roots, Mos Def, and their mentors, Blackalicious (whose Chief Xcel produced one of Spirit in Stone’s better cuts, the scratch guitar romp “Soldierfied”). It may take a moment for potential fans whose appreciation of current hip-hop stops at 50 Cent and Jay-Z to adjust to the Lifesavas aesthetic: bouncy, head nod-inducing beats patched together from samples of Sixties and Seventies soul records; rapid-fire lyrics filled with baroque metaphors like “Snakes slip and slither through the eye of the dice/So is the game the gamble or is the gamble your life”; and wordy choruses that merely serve as a bridge between verses than stand-alone hooks. Jumbo the Garbageman produced most of the tracks. Vursatyl produced the album’s single, “Hellohihey” as well as “State of the World/Apocalypse/War,” and DJ Rev. Shines handled the subtly pro-life screed “Livin’ Time.” Quannum.
Kid Koala, Some of my Best Friends are DJs (October 7, 2003)
Some Of My Best Friends Are DJs, the second album by Canadian DJ Kid Koala, is cut from the same cloth as his earlier records, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and the Scratchcratchratchatch mixtape (later released as the Scratchappyland EP). But there’s no overarching concept this time around, just a series of suites that sound like elaborate jokes, albeit the kind of satirical story gags favored by Steve Martin and Garrison Keillor. “More Dance Music” is a minute-long skit featuring a narrator reminiscing about her romantic evening while listening to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome; it’s followed by “Vacation Island,” a kitschy instrumental dominated by a dreamy ukulele plucking away. “Flu Season” finds Koala cutting up the sound of a person sneezing: It’s allegedly the result of two DJs with a cold running into each other. There are dozens of other random sounds crammed into Some Of My Best Friends, making this thirty-minute album, which is accompanied by a comic book drawn by Koala himself, sound dense and nearly twice as long as its running time. Ninja Tune.