Monday, March 14, 2011

Album Review: Children of a Lesser God by the Wisemen

The newest installment from Bronze Nazareth's Detroit-based Wisemen crew is a deep, mostly meditative though occasionally belligerent and boisterous LP that represents an advancement from their debut, the rugged underground classic, Wisemen Approaching. I think hip hop heads are sleeping on this new project majorly. It became clear a while ago that the Wisemen consistently make music that rewards dozens of listens. You can’t throw this record in once, twice, three times and be able to fully catch its essence (aside from a few instant heavy-hitters like "Lucy"), especially when there’s as much material as we have here. 19 tracks (including some instrumental interludes) with at least 6 different emcees dropping verses. And there’s really not a BAD, or totally skippable song on the whole LP. My least favorite is probably “Do It Again” but even that’s a pretty dope track as these guys seem to have a specialty for making grimy love/relationship songs. It’s also hard to pick a BEST track because there are at least four that I find to be amazing. This is how an album should be. Even the goddamn skits are good!

When the first Wisemen album was slated to be released back in 2007, I didn’t expect much, was kinda thinking Bronze Nazareth (who had achieved success with his debut solo album The Great Migration) is just trying to put his inferior crew on like Raekwon with Ice Water or Ghostface and Theodore Unit, but then the quality of every song on that first album (Wisemen Approaching) just blew me away. Every one of these dudes can spit and there are two beat geniuses on the boards. Children of a Lesser God builds towers over the previous material, though. They’re really innovating and elevating the style on this one while still holding to that core of pure raw hip hop. It’s as if they’re taking it back and moving things forward at the same time.

Album art:
The cd has some great artwork/design and I really like the album cover. Great color combo of basically gold, bronze, blood red, and black with a texture that gives the cd case a cool look to it, like blood-stained parchment. That “WISEMEN” logo looks awesome. Reminds me of the sharp wrought iron fences and gates around old cathedrals. You open up the jewel case and see a symmetrical set of Detroit buildings with a sky that looks like crack smoke hazes. Or else a bronze sky with blood clouds. The booklet is nice too with a little collage of images of the Wisemen. Artists need to start moving away from these 2 page fold booklets though, I'd like to see more albums with the full lyrics inside.

1. Intro
A down-and-out guttural voice pleads for help from a priest, with the striking “I want his [God’s] fuckin' help!” emotional grab transitioning into…

2. Children of a Lesser God
produced by Bronze Nazareth
performed by Bronze, Phillie, Kevlaar 7, Illah Dayz

What an opening. Bronze bursts in with emotions, pleas, prayers over crashing drums and rising horn wails. For an album that so heavily emphasizes lyrics and especially visual lyrics this opening verse is a perfect way to set it off. In the span of a couple of bars he paints pictures as vivid as these: “Iron chains surround my city’s canvas/brandish lanterns in overcast moments, manly standin.”

These lines are thick, heavy with meaning, almost everything he says has at least two meanings, even something as simple as the line “New release” which heralds the opening of his group’s newest album as well as a “secular fix” through which to channel and thus therapeutically release his aforementioned “bags of madness” (and ‘bags’ means both the lungs and emotional ‘baggage’).

All of this happens over emphatic live drum crashes, complete with what sound like live cymbal splashes.

The chorus is short and simple but sweet and memorable. “Children of a Lesser God,” a title that sounds like music (or poetry) when spoken.

At first I thought Phillie’s verse, speaking of jewelry and cars, was a weird and unexpected detour from what seems to be the theme of the song, but then I realized he’s not bragging. He’s basically praying for them and envisioning his hopes and dreams before coming back to earth saying “but we outside looking in.” Which also made me realize the overall meaning of the song.

Kevlaar’s verse might be the best on the track as he enters the scene with some extremely powerful and passionate words. “At my peak I was crucified” is one of the peaks on this mountain range of an album. But Kev is envisioning heavenly dreams just like Phillie, looking at his kids “basking in glow” and acquiring much more than the simple necessities in life but, as gifted as they are as musicians, they’re ahead of their time (“It’s too early, truth is dirty”) and still having to struggle because the profession of practicing pure hip hop is not a lucrative one. I like Illah Dayz’ verse because he maintains the strong delivery and powerful speech of the song but some of his words are hard to hear and decipher. He doesn’t bring down the song though.

This track is a desperate grasp towards heaven, a reaching up to the stars (as Phillie says: “tryin' to reach my star bucks” and Kevlaar speaks of “trying to reach beyond the iron” meaning beyond a life of holding heat but also beyond the earth and its gravitational iron core to the stars), but it’s like a Daedalian flight (on wings made from the pages of their art) that then drifts back downward and falls back to earth. You can hear this in the beat as it’s represented by the ascent and descent of the horns which fall alongside the sound of a trickling harp. This descent is also in the distorted second bar of the chorus and the common theme of prayer-flights and back-down-to-earth-drops of each verse as each emcee has to resort to a “secular fix” because “low wages got me fucked up and pullin' gages.”


3. Thirsty Fish ft Raekwon
prod. by Kevlaar 7
performed by Bronze, Salute the Kid, Raekwon

The drums, man. The motha effin drums. The knockin’ drumsticks sound almost tangible and the sample music is unbelievably smooth with all of its elements (including a guitar riff and jangling cymbals) conspiring toward the sound of a slithering, gritty blaxploitation-flick Cadillac cruising down a city street. I saw Cilvaringz describe this as the best Kevlaar beat he’s ever heard. I don’t know if I agree with that but it’s definitely a great beat and it’s a perfect fit for the Slang Lord Wu general and biggest feature on the album, Raekwon the Chef, to tear into shreds. “Rockin them gun umbrellas,” Rae smoothly steps in and delivers his usual menu of short-sentence portraits and slang doctrines, plenty of memorable lines like “Welcome to the House of Flying Daggers.” Great to see the man who is perhaps currently the unofficial leader of the Wu these days stamping his approval of officialness on a smooth Kevlaar banger. It’s reminiscent of Gza’s slicing and dicing on the first Wisemen album (and in fact the albums have a very similar song arrangement, I think).

Bronze gives a great introduction to the song, coining a new nickname for a blunt and letting the Kevlaar beat soak in “like some good soup” before jumping in and splashing wild paintbrush strokes with “blu-ray precision.” So many great one-liners and wordplay in his verse (his “nitroglycerin thesis”) and one of his many great lyrical performances on the album.

It’s worth mentioning that through more and more listens, you’ll detect a number of recurring themes and images, similar references and lines throughout the album between all the emcees. This comes with writing together for extended periods of time but also I’m sure some of it is intentional. In this song, Bronze’s flow is “dripping more shit than pigeon” and Salute starts a line off with “style: rugby” while later on in Corn Liquor Thoughts, Salute “drops shit that magnetize n****s like flies” and Bronze speaks “rugby talk.” The more you hear the album, the more you’ll catch these.

The key element and best thing about this album, giving it so much replay value, is the quality of the lyrics. No matter what the content even is, the lines are just so visual. An example is Salute here, talking drug-runner, crime material and his method is to use clever wordplay while drawing a verbal picture for almost every line. “For the bread, beat his forehead with the toast” and I’m picturing a karate-chop pistol-whip move by the dude from Super Fly. “No comparisons, fuck what you see on the tubes/They don’t play us on the radio so fuck them too.” I do think Lute’s verse is a bit too long though.


4. Faith Doctrine ft Beace
produced by Kevlaar 7
performed by Phillie, Bronze, Salute, Kevlaar 7, and Beace (on the chorus)

The drums and bass absolutely pound on this track. The sample beams in like an outpouring of sunlight through clouds. Very cool beat, it seems to rise and then reach a plateau before spreading itself out. It almost creates its own space that, if your headphones or speakers are loud enough, can envelop you into it and surround you. Great musical experience.

I would’ve liked to hear more from Beace on the album than just a single appearance on a chorus. I really like the message on this one and the quotes in between each verse. Kevlaar’s verse, with his own masterly-crafted beat disappearing underneath him and then rising up again, is the best part of the track for me.


5. Interlude: “Don’t nut on my bed!”

There are a couple skits like this, seemingly natural conversations recorded and serving as perfect intros leading into the songs they precede (“Toxic” being the other one).

6. Lucy
prod by Bronze Nazareth
performed by Illah Dayz, Bronze, Kevlaar 7

Through my first few listens of the album, this was by far my favorite track. The drums crash so heavily, the tambourine hi-hats bang and the pace is fast and energetic and there’s just an insane amount of passion and emotion in the beat as well as the verses. This is a song about being driven nearly mad by a female, “I was in love, lust, and infatuated, stuck in a craze” and each emcee conveys this perfectly. The sample wails "Love ain't what/ it used to be" and each emcee tells of their experience with "Lucy". I love everything about this song, each verse is great, the beat is so good that I can’t help but tap my feet to it every time I listen (even in public places), and the added instrumentation from Project Lionheart works perfectly with the rising emotive horns that seem to grow in strength as each verse descends into disarray and mental chaos (“I was all in as if my manhood was a sin/ You was cookin in the kitchen, I was bubbling in hell/ I never could tell/ if Lucy had sincerity...”).


7. Get U Shot
prod by Bronze Nazareth
performed by Kevlaar 7, Bronze, Salute

One of the refreshing moments of levity on the album. The beat is pretty simple, consisting only of a piano loop over strong drums (weirdly, the beat reminds of Duck Seazon) and it’s got a comical Southern Baptist church feel to it, especially with the old folks chattering throughout.

Kevlaar’s verse is excellent, so many great rhymes and descriptions and he is telling kind of a comical yet somber story. It’s a story about a slain gang member’s mother taking revenge by going out and gunning down her son’s murderer (“Ice Valentine”) and “now momma lookin for his team.” But “this ain’t no Sergio Leone movie” as much as it may sound like one.

Bronze walks with the beat so seamlessly here with a great flow and a few great bars of his own, “So I’ma leave ‘em leakin in the light/Cuz blood shine like beacon/I’m co-signin to deacons, speakin to mountains.”

Salute, as he does for pretty much every verse on the album, has great energy and a smooth pace in his flow. Definitely hungry and grabbing some serious shine on this album.

The 2+ minutes of rambling at the end are hilarious when you listen to them and they serve almost as a break in the action or an interlude (or a skip point if you’re stepping along trying to jam out on the hard-hitting tracks instead of sinking into the record). The final line is the funniest and transitions into the laughter opening the next joint…


8. Hurt Lockers

prod by Bronze Nazareth
performed by Salute, Phillie, Bronze

Surprisingly, it took me a few listens before I caught on to how good this track is. The beat is different than Bronze’s usual material, it reminds me a bit of “Blood Diamond.” The sample is distorted and chopped to pieces then played over knocking snares with barely any bass. Phillie’s repeated baritone chorus almost seems to serve as the bass.

It’s the lyrics that make this track so great though. Salute sets it off with major energy, almost to the point of yelling his bars, and he’s “more thirsty than that puppet n**** posing for Sprite” (I take it he's referring to Drake who I can't stand).

Phillie is nice as well, displaying a smooth flow infused with self-inflating swagger and a final line that I love: “Got game like Phil Jackson.” Of all the NBA references I’ve heard in rap songs, I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard an emcee liken himself to a coach but this is the Zen master with 11 rings we’re talking about.

My favorite part of the song is Bronze’s verse, containing some crazy lines, among my favorite:

“Over the years my name etched in hall of fame,
souvenirs left like bombin' bullet train”

“If hip hop’s deceased then show me the body bag!”

“Rap circles around you like handcuffs and ankleweights”

Only annoying thing is his lines occasionally get muffled behind the rapidly rolling drums.


9. The Illness 2

prod by Kevlaar 7
performed by Illah Dayz, Phillie, Bronze (on the chorus)

Loved Part 1 on the first album and part 2 is just as good. Insane beat, wonderful chops by K7 and Illah (the “Illahstrator”) rides this mofo very impressively. Phillie’s performance is great too with his extra-coarse voice adding a gunmetal gray tint to his story-verse that molds together with the stir-of-echoes beat. This song creates the aura and atmosphere of a dark narrow alley with its ominous voices and horns and a chorus that sounds like a warning, “the Illness: trouble is where you find it.” All together (the beat, 3 verses, chorus) this is one of the tracks I have to blast every time I go through the album.


10. Words from Big Rube
prod by Bronze Nazareth
performed by Big Rube of the Dungeon Family

It’s only a 1-minute little interlude type thing but this track is magnificent. Make it loud; listen closely to the striking depths of this drumless melody. A veteran deliverer of poignant poetry on past Outkast classics, Big Rube has a wonderful outpouring of somber-but-sweet rhymes that chime along with the bittersweet beat he laments over.

“Like a single blade of grass pushing through the cracked concrete,
I establish my roots by attempting to accomplish some feat”

“You in this jungle, gotta by humble, I’m just a mouse amongst the elephants”


11. I Gotta Know
prod by Kevlaar 7
performed by Salute the Kid, Phillie, Bronze, Illah Dayz

The repeating sample to close out the previous track leads nicely into the opening here, a clicking of the beat that conjures that sound of someone trying to spark a bic lighter. When the flame is lit it illuminates a massively spacious atmosphere announced by the deeply reverberating bass sneaking immediately into the track.

This is another track that I had to listen to many times before I could catch on to its amazingness. I couldn’t quite comprehend the beat at first, there are so many various elements involved that it took me a few listens to perceive the coalescing harmony of everything. I think that’s a testament to the elevated level of Kevlaar’s producing talents. This is a very complex beat and yet it is weaved together into a perfect melody played out over a heavily rolling bassline (I’m realizing that the heavy bassline is a specialty of his).

I like every one of the four verses here, especially Phillie’s. It’s amazing how they connect their verses and deliveries with the tone in the beat (they do this many times on the album). The chorus took me time to get used to but I’m feeling it now that I can connect with the message, which is simply “All this effort I’m putting into this, I gotta know if anything’s gonna come out of it!?!”

Initially this was a 4/5 for me but the more I vibe to this wonderful beat, the more I love this track.


12. Listen to the Wisemen
prod by Kevlaar 7
performed by Minister Watson

Suuuuuch an incredible beat. And the sample selection is perfect (is that the Beatles?). Partly a trippy-sounding audio-hypnosis but partly just dope, bangin' instruments and then Minister Watson. When I had this on in the car, my girlfriend commented that it sounded like a voicemail. “It’s a message,” I said only realizing the potential of what I was saying after I’d already said it. This is a message in the middle of the album but it’s not simply saying “listen to our music,” it’s an eloquent description of wisdom.


13. Panic in Vision Park

prod by Bronze Nazareth
performed by Bronze, Phillie, Kevlaar 7

Among my favorite tracks on the album. The drum patterns are so creative, very original and live-sounding. Like “I Gotta Know,” there’s a lot going on in this beat and when its collective harmony hits you it is mesmerizing. Next to "Corn Liquor Thoughts," this has to be Bronze’s best verse, he just totally spazzes out here and laces the track with darts:

"Cut loose, I’m worse than Noah’s flood waters
Medusa’s daughters, traveling like assassin bullets into ya body cabinets"

The last line conjures Dali’s famous cabinet images:

and then he follows it with this terrific one:

“Amongst open-book rappers, there’s no chapters
an urban worthless map drawn, saran wrap ya whack songs”

then just keeps rolling on from there over this head-bopper.

Phillie slows it down a bit too much although I love the line “go nuts in the club like my necklace broke.” After that, the beat drops for one of Kevlaar’s best lyrical outputs on the album:

“It’s a gift and a curse, like nursing a dead flower
back to life, I watch you grow then let you go until my final hour”

Such an eloquent title for this track and I also love the poignant comedian quotes and crowd sounds. Really, really cool track. Perfect, creative jazz-hip hop fusion.


14. Do It Again
prod by Supaa Maine
performed by Bronze, Phillie, Salute, Kevlaar 7

At first I was questioning why this track was even on the album, it’s the only outside production and kind of a simple beat. It’s definitely grown on me now though. Altogether with the saxophones and everything there’s more depth to the beat than you realize at first. It also perfectly fits the theme of the song as the pace of the beat conjures a woman’s orgasm and the lyrics are great here, I especially like Salute’s verse. Flowing with the song’s theme, notice the repetition of fluid and fountains in each verse.


15. Interlude: Toxic
prod by Bronze

We all been there…

16. Makes Want a Shot
prod by Bronze Nazareth
performed by Salute, Bronze, Kevlaar 7

Another track whose greatness I was initially deaf to at first but has since grown on me. The beat’s not amazing, but the emcees kill this one. Every verse is strong, especially Bronze’s with the fast flow. Plenty of great samples, quotes, and effects too (like the earth belching on Kev’s verse).

Overall, the album really has a nice flow and sequence to it and here we’re preparing to close it out with a few drinks.


17. Victorious Hoods ft Victorious, Planet Asia
prod by Kevlaar 7
performed by Illah Dayz, Salute, Phillie, Victorious, Planet Asia, Kevlaar 7 (on the chorus)

Very celebratory, victorious feel to this one. Great beat with the bongo drums and live horns chiming in and a very memorable chorus. This feels like the victorious conclusion to the opening track, bringing in a couple underground dartsmiths (including the consistently excellent Planet Asia) to the party, and they’re all toasting to the completion of this dope album.


18. Corn Liquor Thoughts
produced by Bronze Nazareth
performed by Salute, Bronze, Kevlaar 7, Phillie, June Megaladon

I’ve been trying to think of another album that concludes with such an awesome song as this one…Supreme Clientele (Wu Banga 101)? No Said Date? Hard to think of another one.

This is the grimiest, darkest, dirtiest track on the album and it’s arguably the best track on the entire album. The beat has a kind of smooth staggering pace like a drunk dragging himself home from the bar along the sidewalk at night. In his mind his thoughts, dreams, emotions fade in and out (the chopped voices you hear), occasionally he blacks out and the beat disappears completely. Those slurring guitar strings just sound like whiskey to me.

Salute has many nice verses on the album but this is his best; he sets off this low-rider banger perfectly: “torching for the fortune, I could give a fuck about fame.” His lyrics and delivery create the image of jaguars or panthers pacing through grasslands, “let the youngest move wit the pack.”

Bronze absolutely tears this one to shreds. “Pay me my advance in Colombian coke and watch me/ flip it like Dominique Dawes/ swingin through bars like a coked-up sloth/ math precise compass off” and then in the middle of his verse, the beat drops and he really does swing through like climbing monkey bars, trying to catch back on to the beat with each new line, “Rotate the flow straight.”

Kevlaar sounds possessed, or like he’s been swigging a flask before an assassination attempt: “Spin the cylinder, cyclical spitter: realer than lead spit at the White House pillars.” He’s thinking about pulling stings, flippin' your boat "like Corey Smith shivers,” and once again (just like the title track) he’s got one of the best single lines on the whole album: “Impossible, I sell popsicles in hell/ hungry n*****, y'all I’m ringing the dinner bell.”

When I heard Phillie’s part at first I thought he took a wrong turn somewhere since he’s swaggin' on a dark track but I realized he’s embodying the track’s theme because it’s undeniable that he sounds shitfaced drunk, just bragging away but he’s in perfect harmony with the beat. June Mega, in his sole appearance on the album (besides his spoken story on track 5), closes it out nicely with that ominous style of a swimming shark.


19. Outro: Hip Hop Blues
prod by Kevlaar 7

Great ending to a great album. Another superb beat (seriously heavy drums) over words that sum up this crew’s genre.


Overall this album is loaded with heavy bass (thanks to Kevlaar), great drum patterns, and a boatload of fresh instruments (horns, saxophones, guitars, pianos, chopped-up voice samples) all backing up consistently sharp, precise lyricism. This is undoubtedly a lot more polished than the first album, they even successfully experiment with a few new techniques of bringing the beat in and out based on the content of certain bars. Intricate design and near-flawless execution. Based on the ratings I gave for each track (16 songs since I didn’t rate 3 of the skits) the total score amounts to 73.5 out of 80 which is basically a little more than 9 out of 10. So, I’ll say:

Beats 4.5/5
Lyrics 5/5
Overall 9.5 out of 10

best tracks (in no order):
Corn Liquor Thoughts
Children of a Lesser God
Panic in Vision Park

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