Rob Sonic, Telicatessen (2004)
Rob Sonic is a linear replica of Aesop Rock, who is a metaphorical enhancement of El-P. All wordsmiths, their enjambment of sentences creates flows that spin on ideas posited as axis. If Telicatessen is proof, then Rob Sonic’s diction is the most deceptively vivid of all. His songs reveal the clutter of the NYC experience without obsessing over the contents. “Look liver spots on the thirty year face/Dirty ear wax lugging systems around/Illegitimate tax on my cigarette packs/Need another eight, could’ve built some more jail,” he raps on “Dyslexia.” Self-produced, Telicatessen is electronic rock. It’s all synths, moogs, and bass kicking away like a fusion funk machine, and a few exploits in particular – “Former Future,” “Super Ball” – bounce along beautifully. Definitive Jux.
Starving Artists Crew, Up Pops the SAC (2004)
True school hip-hop flows through the veins of the Starving Artists Crew, a Detroit-based quartet that weaves together sunny rap tracks with fast-paced beats reminiscent of the Jurassic 5. The music is so sugary, though, that it’s difficult to distinguish between the album’s eighteen tracks. (Want more bad food metaphors? Check the self-mocking “B-Boy Buffet,” where the crew feasts on “Percee P Pudding.”) Barring a few conceptual tracks such as “Vic the Hailers,” a deft ode to the University of Michigan’s b-ball squad, SP, IQ, and Brainstorm stick to battle raps that veer between happy-go-lucky rhymes and corny punchlines. Hip-hop heads that still hang out in concrete schoolyards and miss roller skating jams on Saturdays will probably love Up Pops the SAC. For the rest of us, though, this feel-good opus may lack some bite. Fat Beats Records.
Plant Life, The Return of Jack Splash (2004)
The Return of Jack Splash is a series of riffs cut into nineteen tracks, with lead singer Jack Splash and backup singers Dena Deadly and Rashida twisting out slangy hooks that rarely form into distinctive choruses. For Splash, it’s all about the delivery, and he takes to his role as funk band leader with aplomb, even when his feathery voice gives out or goes out of tune. The true star of the show, however, is producer Panda One. As the primary beatmaker, Panda creates music that varies adeptly from the disco hustle of “When She Smiles She Lights the Sky” to the full-on funk stomp of “Got2Get2Gether4Luv.” Secretly, Panda One and Jack Splash are pseudonyms for L.A. musician Matt Kahane, and Kahane’s “Jack Splash” would soon build a reputation for producing lush neo-soul tracks for Raheem DeVaughn, Alicia Keys, Cee Lo Green and many others. Counterflow Recordings.
Mos Def, The New Danger
Mos Def’s sophomore album, The New Danger, is remarkably different from his 1999 bow, Black on Both Sides. That memorable debut possessed literate rhymes delivered with razor sharp timing; The New Danger relies on smart scat rap leisurely doled out. Black on Both Sides offered late-Nineties boom bap and neo-soul; The New Danger indulges in Black Rock Coalition grunge and Ghostface Killah-styled soul loops. Black on Both Sides was a hallmark of indie rap heroics; The New Danger is pure black bohemianism, one of a growing canon built on OutKast’s Stankonia. What both albums share, however, is overweening ambition, and The New Danger is more than just Mos Def bugging out in a studio. “Lapdance (YEA)” is hard, freaky funk courtesy of his hard rock side project, Black Jack Johnson, while “Sunshine” is a psychedelic roots winner produced by Kanye West. Then there’s the nine-minute opus, “Modern Marvel,” where Mos Def builds to an epiphany over a reverberating sample of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” “If Marvin was alive now/Wow, what would I say to him,” he says. “Global imprisonment, sickness, indifference/When he said, ‘Save the babies,’ was we listening?” It’s a testament to Mos Def’s power as a conceptualist that he comes close to articulating his vision, similar to Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Going On, of a recording that eerily reflects the imperiled state of people of color in this country without necessarily articulating those concerns – even “War” is used for vague declamatory verses instead of the analytical and precise dialectics he was once known for. Unfortunately, it’s that same lack of attention to detail that eventually anesthetizes the album. Barring moments of clarity such as “Modern Marvel,” many songs just meander into rambling, freestyle-like raps. On “Life is Real,” he tailors a host of rhymes around the same end words, rapping “My whole life is real/Morning, noon, and night is real/When I spit, what I write is real.” The effect would be kinetic if he were flowing on a hit such as Busta Rhymes’s “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See,” for example. But the music, mostly produced by Minnesota and himself, sporadically pleases, too often mimicking Mos Def’s own vocal wanderings. The New Danger seems perfect for a year filled with interesting, occasionally awe-inspiring albums that don’t really work as a whole, from The Fiery Furnaces’s Blueberry Boat to The Roots’ The Tipping Point. Of course, it’s those brief, brilliant sparks that everyone remembers, and make Mos Def’s vacillations worth listening to. Rawkus/Geffen.
Insight, The Blast Radius (2004)
“I use speech to bust rhymes through a concrete wall,” raps Boston MC/producer Insight on “Evolve,” the first single from The Blast Radius. Insight’s music is meant to hit like shrapnel, dousing the ears in horn stabs, rumbling bass, and careening effects. It bears a remarkable similarity to DJ Premier’s Works of Mart, but Premier rarely programs his tracks at such high decibels, tweaking the trebles until they become a fizzy, carbonated mess. As a vocalist, he divides his tracks into solemn, if enthusiastic, lessons on the art of MC’ing, hip-hop culture, and sundry textbook lessons. For example, there’s “Time Frame,” where he blends an impromptu history of electronics, complete with shout-outs to Thomas Edison, and a random sampling of highlights in twentieth-century black music. Then there’s “Inventors,” on which he drops a young man into a bad dream, a world without inventions created by black scientists: “He took another step and noticed many things different/Like the filament inside of a lightbulb was missing.” Brick Records, with distribution by Traffic Entertainment Group.
Talib Kweli, The Beautiful Struggle (September 28, 2004)
Talib Kweli often serves as a lightning rod for critics disenchanted by the unfulfilled promise of the late-Nineties indie hip-hop movement. Much of The Beautiful Struggle probably won’t satisfy them, thanks to fluffy cuts such as “Around My Way,” where guest John Legend sings over a smooth jazz interpolation of the Police’s “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic.” Other songs, however, prove that Kweli can still bring it, as he addresses everything from squashing beef in the black community (“Work It Out”) to the challenges of raising a young daughter (“Black Girl Pain”). “I speak in schools a lot because they say I’m intelligent/I know it’s ‘cause I’m dope, if I was wack I’d be irrelevant,” he rhymes on the title track. Musically uneven and lyrically on-point, The Beautiful Struggle isn’t bad. The maudlin single “I Try,” and its Mary J. Blige chorus, was one of producer Kanye West’s only flops during his 2004 MVP-caliber year. Kweli’s old Reflection Eternal partner Hi-Tek also produced a few tracks. This was one of the last products of Rawkus’ doomed business arrangement with Geffen, and the influential indie hip-hop label collapsed soon afterwards.
RJD2, Since We Last Spoke (May 18, 2004)
The early word on RJD2’s Since We Last Spoke is that it’s something of a disappointment, especially coming on the heels of the robust, near-heroic Dead Ringer. True, it’s willfully introspective and less frenetic than that auspicious debut; there are no headline-grabbing raps by his old crew, MHz (the then-controversial, indie-scene-diss “Final Frontier”), or loud elephant horns heralding the Def Jukkie attack on the mainstream. Though billed as more of a “rock” album, there’s only one straight-up rock track in “Through the Walls,” a slick AOR cut on which RJ sings in a winsome, shy croon. Following the trend of producers singing, albeit off-key, on their own records, he laces “Making Days Longer,” too. His voice successfully imbues Since We Last Spoke with an intimate touch. But the album still seems muddled, full of rhythm tracks that rumble along like aimless yet good-natured sampling jams. The funky disco beat powering “Iced Living,” for example, collapses into an airy vacuum of guitar licks, while “To All of You” is a soft R&B ballad that goes on a minute too long. Definitive Jux.
Beans, Shock City Maverick (October 18, 2004)
As a soloist in a post-Anti-Pop Consortium career, Beans has attracted mixed reviews from listeners fearful of a lone, enigmatic artist voicing wily and esoteric raps with no one else to distort the static. A true auteur, Beans shuns forced collaborations, and he doesn’t seem to mind the hermetic claustrophobia that occasionally suffocates Shock City Maverick. It’s his spotlight, after all, and he distorts it with hints of minimalist techno and electro that both grate and slice against imagistic lyrics such as “I rock shit with no sample clearances and no guest appearances/But a reputation for consistent deviation,” on “I’ll Melt You.” Shock City Maverick is his world, and we’re just guests trying to jump into his conversation with himself. Fred Ones helped with mixing, engineering, and occasional turntable scratching. Warp.
Immortal Technique, Revolutionary Vol. 2 (November 18, 2003)
Like their punk rock brethren, “conscious” rappers are fond of making flat earth statements about overthrowing the government and obtaining some form of abstract justice for the people. But it’s not Harlem rapper Immortal Technique’s ability to spew well-written calls to kill the pigs that makes him so deadly, but allegations like “Condoleezza Rice is just a New Age Sally Hemmings,” which makes a devastating comparison between the national security advisor’s subordinate position to President Bush and Thomas Jefferson’s infamous slave lover. It’s next level lyrics like this that has helped his second album, Revolutionary Vol. 2, released on counter-culture playwright Jonathan Stuart’s Viper Records, generate a huge buzz within New York rap circles hungry for an MC capable of voicing leftist political opinions with raw talent. Guests include imprisoned activist and journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, who shines with a spoken dissection of the War of Terrorism on “Homeland and Hip-Hop”; and the Stronghold crew, which appears on the underground hit “Peruvian Cocaine.”
MF Doom, Mm..Food (November 16, 2004)
The long-delayed MM…Food is the third release from Doom this year after Madvillainy and his uneven pairing with a team of producers as Viktor Vaughn on Vaudeville Villain 2, not counting miscellaneous instrumental records such as his Special Herbs and Spices series. MM…Food is split into three courses (with no dessert). The first course, a five-part meal titled “Appetizers,” is simply brilliant. The beat for “Hoe Cakes” blends J.J. Fad shouting “Super,” the opening bars of Anita Baker’s “Sweet Love,” and a random beatboxer. Doom’s “Special Recipes” are equally strong, allowing him to explore his knack for chopping up vocal snippets from various sources over thematic numbers such as “Gumbo” and “Poo-Putt Platter.” The “Entrees” aren’t as impressive as the earlier courses, but there’s still much to recommend among them, from the staccato, early Seventies keyboard loop on “Kon Queso” to the smooth R&B heaven that is “Rapp Snitch Knishes,” a mike-trading session between Doom and Mr. Fantastik. “Doggone it/Do the statistics/How he bust lyrics is too futuristic for ballistics,” raps Doom on “Kon Karne,” “And far too eccentric for forensics/I’m dedicating this mix to Subroc, the hip-hop Hendrix.” Mostly produced by Doom, but Count Bass D handled the excellent soul-jazz number “Potholderz,” and PNS from the Molemen took on “Kon Queso.” Avoid the meandering track “Guinnesses” if possible. Rhymesayers.
Lloyd Banks, The Hunger for More (June 29, 2004)
Lloyd Banks is garnering acclaim for a series of high-profile mixtapes, an allegiance with a superstar rap crew (50 Cent’s platinum-certified G-Unit), and a distinct voice that sounds cool and husky, expressing a surprisingly soft elegance. But he’s just as obsessed with hits as the next rapper, and has stocked his debut, The Hunger for More, with a disc full of potential ones. Some of them, such as “Warrior” or “If You So Gangsta” hit the mark, smoothly blending dark, menacing beats with restrained braggadocio. But there’s more than a few misses, from the plodding opener “Ain’t No Click” to “Warrior Part 2,” an ineffective collaboration with Eminem, 50 Cent, and Nate Dogg. Producers include Timbaland and Danjahandz, who produced the smoothly effective single “I’m So Fly; and Eminem and Kwame (here called K1Mil), who worked on the top 10, the bombastically cinematic top 10 hit “On Fire.” G-Unit/Interscope.
Jadakiss, Kiss of Death (June 22, 2004)
In press interviews for his new album, Kiss of Death, Jadakiss, a member of the Lox, has asserted that he wants to be considered as one of the greatest MCs of all time. Though it seems like hollow bravado, the fact that New York’s hip-hop community take his statements seriously is an indication of the amount of respect he gets there. But his profile is due to his singular talents as a technically-proficient rapper, not as an artist; his debut album, Kiss the Game Goodbye, was wildly uneven in its attempts to please both mass (the Neptunes-produced “Knock Yourself Out”) and underground (the Alchemist banger “We Gonna Make It”) audiences. Kiss of Death is a minor improvement, and Jadakiss gamely tries to inject some pathos into his famously cold-blooded approach. There’s the lead single, “Why,” a series of questions that range from the earnest (“If it’s all love, daddy, why did you come with your nine?”) to the ridiculous (“Why did they come up with witness protection?”). Most of all, he constantly predicts his ascension, dropping lyrical hints such as “Bring You Down’s” “Trust me, this album, the vapors going to go around” as if they were subliminal messages. Producers include Mobb Deep’s Havoc on “Why” (with chorus by Anthony Hamilton), Scott Storch on “U Make Me Wanna” (chorus by Mariah Carey) and “Time’s Up” (chorus by Nate Dogg), and many others. Guests include Jadakiss’ crew the Lox, which was in the process of changing its name to D-Block to avoid contractual obligations with Bad Boy Records; and Kanye West, who produces and adds a guest verse to “Gettin’ It In.” Ruff Ryders/Interscope.