Monday, October 31, 2011

Album Review: Who Got the Camera? by Kevlaar 7

Note: this review was actually written in August, about a month before the Occupy Wall Street protests started springing up everywhere. Obviously, that stuff is extremely relevant to the album but I'd rather leave the review as it is and let it stand as a time capsule to show the building pressure and anger mounting right before things started blowing up into mass protests in this country. Also, please see my condensed version of this review, published in Slant Magazine back in March. 

I write this now six months after the album was released and its message is as relevant now as it was the moment it dropped. This EP, a musical outcry for "revision of the whole system," was released while mass street movements erupted in Egypt and throughout the Middle East, and now London is experiencing a violent uprising of the deprived on its city streets. The London uprising was reportedly sparked as a reaction to the police murdering an innocent man, Mark Duggan, similar to the slaying of Oscar Grant and the many other innocent victims mentioned throughout this album.

This is Kevlaar 7 asserting himself as one of the best hip hop emcees on the planet right now (or at the very least, "the illest nigga in the mitten [Detroit]"), by tapping into and broadcasting the present revolutionary aura of the earth, this zeitgeist of dissent and uprising, truth vs. power, speaking on it loud and clear for all the listeners who may not have been hearing the loudly churning wheels of history since most rappers don't acknowledge it (instead, they blindly exacerbate the plight of their own people). The miserable state of the art (hip hop) is just another symptom of the nefariously corrupted system in place, begging for a destroying/rebuilding flip from the conveyors of real(ity).

Hip hop, which in its truest essence is a form of revolt, is here returned to its impassioned glory, the rebel army fighting back with violently pulsating waves of knowledge and wisdom.

On this 11-track EP, Kevlaar gathers the sounds of producers and emcees from all over the world to help convey the message. "Is you cowards or coming with me? It's gritty/ Before it gets better it gets more shitty." The overall result is what I think is a deeply meaningful and memorable piece of music. This album has defined my entire year thus far, personally (or at least the first half of my year). As an EP with a close consistency of quality its replay value is enormous and I found myself listening to this everyday (on repeat) for more than two months straight when it was first released. I still throw it on pretty regularly, its aggressive and well-spoken criticism of things works as a panacea, a means of relief from the stress this often hideous world brings, while the chords struck at the end of it are uplifting.

Above all, it is an album of consistently DOPE hip hop with a heavy message inside of it that doesn't manage to disrupt the musical, artistic element.

1. Empires
produced by Zakat

Smooth, somnolent strings open the album. The looping record of brainwashed sheep. Off in the distance army machine guns rattle, police sirens fly by. This is the sound of our empire, the New Roman Empire. The eminent voice of Cornel West articulates the immensely eye-opening paradox of Jesus, "a jew living in the underside of the Roman Empire." He was put to death as a political prisoner, hung on a cross by the Romans---the same Romans who later adapted Christianity as their official religion before "going on persecuting the other folks, jews and others."

The question is raised: with all this talk about Jesus, does anybody consider the relationship between the empire that put him to death and the empire we are a part of now? (The same empire that "uses theology as a gun" to quote Kevlaar later in "Garden of Eden.")

And, "given what he [Jesus] was willing to sacrifice in his own imperial moment," wouldn't Jesus ask of us the same revolt, the same sacrifice in the face of oppression?

This is the awakening of those who are asleep. The beat, becoming increasingly soulful, drifts into the distance, its sounds emanating like the tones of the wake-up record in Inception. A voice sings "this is how I feel..." while the song fades away.

A perfect intro by Bay Area producer Zakat (the word "zakat" referring to the almsgiving pillar of Islam), this is a bestowal of alms in the form of music, a sign of Kevlaar devoting his art as a loud voice for the oppressed, an offering of art in the service of truth.


2. Tears (Why Me)
featuring Zagnif Nori (of Noble Scity) and Shake C (of I.W.G.)
prod. by Bronze Nazareth

The notion of tears is carried on from the closing words of the previous song. This world, when the wool is lifted from our eyes, is certainly an ugly place, ugly enough to bring one to despair. A chilling scene opens this track, the recording of an interview with a young black man in prison for murder who confesses that he's "got nothin to live for, I don't know why the fuck I was born in the first place." He presents a sad reflection on existence but affirms this life in the end, saying that there "ain't no use cryin' over it."

This song is an affirmation, the will to be "positive through the worst fate as drama builds." The beat is one of the most emotionally-charged joints from Bronze Nazareth I've heard in a long time, Kevlaar certainly picked a ripe instrumental from the Bronze beat farm. All three emcees rise to the epic occasion and deliver powerful verses.

"Welcome to the revolution, see the rebel movement, 1080 resolution" - Shake C.

Zagnif Nori, a New York emcee representing Noble Scity (one of the like-minded underground groups arising) delivers an egalitarian verse with an impressive array of adeptly delivered lines with many syllables, heavy with imagery. He deserves major props for delivering so well on this opening verse and introducing the message of the track (and the album overall):

"Uphill climb, facing death, misery/ Present victory, walking a hard road to follow/
Speaking truth, deep in proof through bars, poems, and novels."

After the evocative chorus of "tears have erased most of the words..." and Bronze's gargantuan orchestra of emotive horns, Kevlaar expresses the resilience of one battling oppression: "The purpose of my tears is to magnify and cleanse, every dirty year I've got to stand in defense." His verse taps into the marching tone of this beat, a "militant advance" with elucidated grievances against the system that murdered Oscar Grant, "saying shots were accidental." The anger boils up as he's tempted to "burn the bush down to Egyptian sand, mothafucka!" (calling to mind the Egyptian street revolts as well as a batch of other meanings), pleading for positive change on the brink of all-out war and retaliatory blood baths.

Shake C. of I.W.G. (IronWorkers Guild, a large group of artists from Indiana) grabs attention with possibly the best verse on the track. His flow is smooth and his wordplay stunning while carrying so much weight. His talk of "the rebel movement in 1080 resolution" is a clairvoyant description of the movements that began erupting right when this song dropped and his final line is eerily close to describing a man's martyrhood in a Detroit police station that happened shortly after this album dropped: "hold grudges with both hands/ like the pump grip."

One of the standout tracks on a high-quality record.


3. Coming back as...

prod. by Colonna

A short track with strictly boom bap drum breaks over a Haile Selassie-flavored sample. The beat from Colonna (who hails from Paris, France apparently) has a great pace to it thanks to the mashing drums and Kevlaar runs down it like Jason Kidd on a fast break, dishing out bars with an adept flow. Keeping with the theme of a wake-up call ("nigga, good morning!"), it's as though Kevlaar's wielding a bullhorn on this one, it blares a few times and he speaks loudly into it to emphasize the line: "yall ain't foolin us/ WITH THE WAR CRIMES YOU COMMITTIN"

Very outspoken lyrics throughout, he's aware that what he's putting out there "may be bringing either repentance or" his own death/disappearance but he ain't holding back ("no apologies") as he reasserts the camera element of the album ("freeze the imaging") and presents the famous image of the By All Means Necessary album cover ("peepin out the curtains with the uzi sniffin"), acknowledging an influential predecessor while stating the intention to step out the shadows "of history's gallows" and finally get past the problems we've faced over the decades.

A great, high-energy little track that serves as a nice transition between two bigger ones.


4. Black Heroin

feat. Mystery School (Merc Versus & A Man Called Relik) and Iron Braydz (of All Elements)
prod. by Central Intelligence

There's a lot going on here, four lengthy verses and a complicated beat. It took me a little while to assimilate everything on this joint but it's a great track overall.

The beat is highly original, I call the sound "cosmic spaghetti western," and it slowly morphs from one meandering loop to a different one with heavier stomping drums. K7 gets vicious on it:

"Fuck the US Parliament
eat this, drink that, here take this shot
infecting us with serums, infertility, delirium
no options but long shots"

The "Ice Cube of 2010" angrily and articulately airs out the snakes and tries to "stir the riot homes" and wake up the revolutionary spirit, which has begun to happen recently throughout England as we've seen. Bill O'Reilly, Fox News, our New Roman Empire with its Manchurian Candidate leader all fall in the Kevlaar crosshairs here. One of the best verses on the album.

"Billy O'Reilly and Fox despise me, fuck em
they're just the chips in ya mental construction
go natural, the path to reverse destruction"

The featured artists all bring great mic work to the table as well though the song does seem to drag at times. Merc Versus (from the same crew as Shake C, Woodenchainz, and A Man Called Relik who all appear on the album) has some absurdly impressive wordplay but his verse lingers a few bars too long.

The third verse is from his brother, A Man Called Relik, and you really need to get familiar with that name if you aren't already. He is tremendously talented lyrically (my next review will be of his superb debut album, N.P.R.) with a gift for enunciating his raps in a way that I would describe as intense eloquence. Iron Braydz is another great emcee and his verse completes this solid socially-conscious cypher joint.


5. Boulevard Article

prod. by Kevlaar 7

One of my personal favorite tracks from the overall Kevlaar catalogue, this joint had been floating around for a while and finally appeared here in fully-mastered form for the first time. With DJ scratches, ill chops on the beat and a heavy snare crash this a smooth yet chunky banger . "Puff the double mint" to this one.

Kevlaar twirls two symmetrical verses with ridiculous imagery ("splash graffiti in the ravine") and weaves out bars that often sound like perfectly spoken tongue twisters. I find this to be an amazing track in all aspects: the lyrics are thick and delivered with a great flow that feels like a descent down a spiral staircase (or strand of DNA) if that makes any sense; the chorus is a memorable anthem, and the beat is of the pure hip hop, hard-drum and smooth-sample essence.

In the context of the overall record, this serves as a brief, thoughtful bridge before the intensity starts to really explode in the next few tracks.


6. I Have a Dream

prod. by Woodenchainz

Can't say enough about this track. I wrote 3,000+ words about it already, analyzing every bar to show how it perfectly parallels MLK's speech, even down to following the theme of each of King's paragraphs. The passion is through the roof on this one and many of the lines attain the height of timelessness:

"Storms of persecution should spark swarms of revolutions"

"I have a dream today that the devil vanished,
replant this in our handbooks, teach our children the answers"

One of the best songs of the year.


7. King's Truth

prod. by Paragone

As much info as this album contains, as many facts and sharp observations as it presents, the key element imbuing this EP and making it so worthwhile is the energy in it. There's a raw emotion rumbling underneath every track and here's another example of that energy bursting out. This is a rare speech from Dr. King, rare because his eloquent anger is palpable and he strongly condemns the oppression of blacks in a way that can really shake someone up. This is the MLK that was at the forefront of revolution and upheaval, not the peaceful diplomat he's conventionally painted as nowadays.

The combination of the beat's ominous tone and King's deep passion make this a track that will strike you in the heart.


8. Garden of Eden feat. William Cooper

prod. by BP

The increasing energy of the album seems to culminate in these next two tracks. This beat thumps with the urgency of a conspiracy movie climax and both emcees reveal the scary hidden truth behind things, Da Vinci Code style. I like Will Cooper a lot and this is about as rough as I've ever heard him, his style fits perfectly on this album. After putting "congressional car artist" faces on the curb, he passes the mic to Kevlaar who proceeds to spit one of the most ridiculous verses anybody has ever aimed at the establishment. To me, his verse is the scathing-social-critique equivalent of Cappadonna on "Winter Warz."

There's so much science in there that it needs to be studied (which I'll do soon) as he first breaks down the global and historical ubiquity of the Christ archetype and how that whole mythology is derived from "astrological sequence, the birth and the death of God's sun." It is an urge for us to "study the enemy" and the truth behind their "trick-knowledge" and he even calls for "mixed violence, race riots and uprisings" which, as I said, began blowing up in the streets at the same time this album dropped. The most important part of it all though is the breakdown of 9/11 as an inside job, essentially the key reason behind the need for mass street movements and uprisings here in the US. We let the Wall Street "demons run wild" and Kevlaar announces straight up: "True terrorists are financiers, hear my plea!"

I'm not a huge fan of the beat but it does serve this track perfectly.


9. Who Got the Camera?

feat Bronze Nazareth
prod. by Endemic

"If this offends you, it's meant to, it's that simple"

The "call for justice" reaches its peak here as this joint is a street demonstration on wax. Kevlaar directs the crowd in the chorus, yelling out for witnesses to cluster around the police who, if we were to hit the streets, would inevitably start beating people down. The drums are heavy and the pace is fast, giving that feeling of moving around through a violent crowd. K7 warns us against the system that "monopolized the news, feeding us toxins, watch it don't be boxed in" and makes it clear that he'll continue to condemn the system no matter how much heat it puts him under. He's ready to "take a hit like Jesus did" because at least he'll be fighting for the truth.

Bronze, in his only lyrical appearance, delivers a verse whose structure and patterns are as incredible as the powerful message they bring. "I write on the same trees where strange fruit hung/ with the same pencil chiseled from where the axe swung." His verse is a poetic reminder that our generation is barely past slavery and, in fact, the same mindstate manifests today in many ways, particularly in police brutality ("officer Jeffrey Cotton: modern day confederate") and the prison industrial complex ("prisons with brothers cramped like slaveship clusters").

At the end, Kevlaar dedicates the track to those who've been brutalized by the police and reads off a distressingly long list before telling the story of Detroit's Ayiana Jones, a seven-year-old girl who was killed by the police in her sleep. This occurred during the filming of the A&E show "The First 48" and yet the police still managed to cover it up.

This leaves us struck, hit hard emotionally, which leads to a somber reflection in the next track.


10. I'm Open (Changes)

prod. by Lastchild Musik

The organization of the music on this EP is terrific. After the culmination of anger and emotion in the previous tracks, there is a feeling of exhaustive sadness here as he reflects on the image of the world we've just witnessed. Another great beat from an outside producer, this one has a nice kick with a deeply soulful sample. This is the most personal track on the album as K7 somberly considers the "family structure holding on a thin line, it's a grim time to be born" and promises to try to clean up the dirt on this globe, get things right for his own seeds and their generation. He speaks potent words on the murder of his cousin and the recent death of his grandfather before considering the inherent necessity for change in the world.

A beautiful, honest, and affirming way to close things out.


11. This World (Outro)

prod. by Kevlaar 7

A superb beat with thick bass, heavy drums, and a tender melancholy sample. Carl Dix speaks powerful words on the epidemic of police brutality and the system designed to leave inner city youth either killing each other on the streets, wasting away in prison, or killing people around the world as "trained mass murderers" extending the empire's reach around the world.

There is so much depth and intricate orchestration in this wonderful beat as its sample cries "this world!" over sweet rising and falling flutes. This smooth instrumentation transitions nicely back to the opening of the record, making it so easy and natural to listen to the album on repeat.


Beats 5/5

Lyrics 5/5
Overall: 10 out of 10

I've never given an album a perfect 10 before. In my ratings for each track I've tried to be as conservative as possible but even if I tack off another few points it still adds up to a 9.5 or 9.6 out of ten and I give this album an extra half a point for the heavy MESSAGE it communicates no matter what. It also helps that this is an EP of only 11 tracks so it doesn't have quite as much room for failure or low points.

In the grand scheme of things, this is an important album in the vein of Black Market Militia and Immortal Technique except with better beats. You've been missing out big-time if you haven't already been listening to this.

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