Monday, June 10, 2013

Five New Hip Hop Albums Reviewed

Reviewing a handful of records from the first five months of 2013 that have occupied my ears...

The Psychic World of Walter Reed - Killah Priest

A 41-track encyclopedic masterwork from arguably the most gifted lyricist under the Wu-Tang umbrella, PWOWR is Priest's tenth album, a double-CD overflowing with a bewildering variety of mystical/cosmic/occult/street poetics. We get the full range of Priest's writing abilities in this massive collection: intricately weaved story tracks, intensely destructive battle raps, acapella spoken-word poetry psychic trips, certified Wu bangers, cinematic tours through dark electro-dystopian futures and uplifting journeys through the interstellar psycho-spiritual domain of the Wu tribe's articulate shaman.

The well-worn combo of ancient religious references and ghetto imagery that has imbued Priest's outlook for nine albums is vastly expanded here with a range of references to virtually every topic covered in the shelves of a New Age bookstore, most prominently the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, the Tarot deck, and ancient astronaut ideas (with a renewed intensity for cosmic imagery). For the combo of abundant knowledge and natural rhyming ability, nobody does it like Priest. As for the strange and oft-repeated nickname he gives himself, The 8-Deer Ocelot Claw, maybe this enigmatic line shall suffice to explain it: "I took on the alias/ because they can't pronounce the true name of the aliens/ the African, aborogini-Israelian/ King Arthuran, half-Nazaren/ half celestial barbarian."

Highlights: Almost too many to name. If I were to get rid of every track I wasn't enamored with, there'd still be over 20 phenomenal songs. Three of the album's best tracks follow in succession at the heart of Disc 1 with the Alan Watts lecture quotes of "Brilliantaire" transitioning to the fast-flowing reminiscences and lambent keys of "The Park" before a drawn-out kung-fu flick sample leads to the album's most Wu'd out moment: Ghostface and Inspectah Deck tossing ferocious darts ahead of the mighty Priest on "Devotion to the Saints". The humor, vivid imagery, and imaginative flights on "How I Write" shows KP at his absolute finest.

The production crew Godz Wrath has melded well with Priest in the past and the combo creates some outstanding moments here as on the opening track "Shadow Landz" with its thick percussion and eerie organ keys, the disorienting electro-cosmic screecher "New Reality", sci-fi street stomper "Peace God",  head-nodding banger "The Black Market" and others. Die-hard Killah Priest fans like myself will rejoice at the double-cd's supply of Priest's signature mystical-channeling spoken word poetry sessions, "Energy Work", "The PWOWR" and "Mentalude".

Flaws: On an album with so many tracks and a prolific artist like Priest for whom spitting out verses is so easy, there's bound to be some redundancy in the material. "Music of the Spheres" has far too many irregularities in both its beat and Priest's delivery to have any merit; the George Clinton chorus on "Tonite We Ride" was well-conceived but terribly executed; and "The Tower", "They Say", "Listen to Me", and "Street Thesis" all kinda blend together because of their strikingly simple or sappy material.

Most memorable quote: On an album with so many, this sequence on "Visionz" might be the most impressive:

"The tea ceremony, the holies of holy,
sacred testimony, the trees of bodhi, the priests were boney
They pointed slowly, showed me it was me
in Nairobi teepees of the Hopis, inside
it was smokey
the chief spoke ghostly
his eyes were stoney, the sky was snowy
the vibe was cozy, the tribes watched closely
I gotta deal with poetry culturally, nobly, vocally, ultimately
globally, told me I flow Jehovah tree"

Welcome to the Detroit Zoo - Phillie (of The Wisemen)
Released back at the beginning of January, this is a perfect cold weather album with its dark dusty loops so heavy on grainy strings and contemplative piano keys. Its essence also portrays vividly the cold streets of Detroit. Though it's the newest release from Bronze Nazareth and the Wisemen camp, the sound of Detroit Zoo harkens back to the essence of their early work: dark, mean, gritty, with the persistent feeling of persevering through harrowing times.

That's not to say this is a dreary or depressing audio picture, not with the wild exuberance and hyperbolic boasting of Phillie splashing all over every track. There's just an added emotional element always present under the surface which tends to add depth to most tracks, mainly due to the feeling created by Bronze's beats. In what amounts to a Phillie-and-Bronze collabo album (Bronze produced all but one track and even delivered three verses) the overall picture is a cohesive one, the tracks blend together, and a consistent theme is maintained throughout via the repeated quotes of a strikingly poignant Katt Williams bit. There are three ways to enjoy this album: focus on the beats, focus on the rhymes, or just let it play and soak in the colorful varieties of both.

Highlights: The closing track "Lion King" is the most perfect song on the album and one of my favorite songs of the year. A jaw-dropping display of lyrical dexterity, witty confidence, and execution over a spine-tingling beat with quick bass guitar strings and a dancing mellifluous flute, even the chorus is perfect, refrained into a hushed tone as the album fades to conclusion. The chemistry of Bronze's beats and Phillie's gravelly, playful early-Method Man-like delivery also impresses on the haunting "Detroit's Finest" with its heavy bass and crunchy snares. One of three different tracks about the perils of love, "Power of Pressure" becomes a theatrical romp of musical drama through the beat's wild chops, loud violins, and the flow of featured Wisemen member Illah Dayz who bursts through the door with a rush of slang in the second verse.

"For Wisdom" and "Phelonious" are perhaps Phillie's most well-rounded performances as they combine the usual strong delivery with his most well-written and serious verses. Both tracks preach a positive message with honesty and sincerity without sounding corny or forced (this has always been a specialty of The Wisemen), a convicted felon lamenting the short-sightedness that's led himself and peers to swift downfalls. The ambient strings, glistening verbal imagery, and symmetrical architecture of the verses on "Fox Theater" paint a spectacular musical scene as we picture the duo of Phillie and Bronze rapping on stage at the gloriously opulent Detroit concert hall.

Flaws: There really isn't a bad song or any dullness here, just 17 straight tracks (with no interludes) of pure hip hop done by masters of the craft. But with his solo debut, Phillie strays too far at times, his exaggerated boasts pushing the borders of ridiculousness as he shits on every single rap artist in Detroit except "peace to [Royce the] 5'9/ the only other n***a in the D gettin' live" or drools about wishing to fuck "every girl in the world." Too over-the-top sometimes. Also, even if he sounds good saying it, occasionally his words are overly trite or simple-minded as on the chorus of "Love Ballad" or his first verse on "Brick Cell Therapy".

Most memorable quote: Most of "Lion King" is prone to staying in the mind for days, but my favorite line is probably this impassioned plea on "Phelonious":

"Y'all dumb mothafuckers awaken, you half-sleep!
everybody can't be entertainers and athletes
better get up, get out, and get something, you ask me"

The Meridian Gem - Zagnif Nori
Of all the artists reviewed here, it's the up-and-coming Zagnif Nori and his Noble Scity crew who are still legitimately of the underground, grinding to establish their place as musicians, and that status is clearly evident in their sound. Thus the debut LP from Nori reverberates with a basement-level, dank essence imbuing the whole record with a dark grittiness, reminiscent of the debut work of Killarmy, Silent Weapons for Quiet Wars. Also as with early Killarmy, The Meridian Gem's hazy analogue loops underlie a lyrical portrait of warring entities, the poor and righteous versus the rich and immoral, the teachers versus the exploiters, good versus evil, etc.

Modern atrocities are highlighted, enumerated, and condemned, especially those carried out by the globe's most prolific purveyor of death and destruction, the United States. While emphasizing the importance of putting "a book in a child's hands", the sanctity of wisdom and purity of mind, the brutally realistic images of wars, poverty, and bloodshed are never far from sight. This makes for a gloomy, almost cynical record overall. One quote from "Element 26" sums up the lyrical landscape perfectly: "Envision portraits of massacres, murders in cold blood/ with beauty aligned in journals with rosebuds."

Highlights: Nori brings a unique style of rhyming, spinning out mouthfuls of elliptical bars with lots of multi-syllabic rhyming as in: "Lost in prisons, victims that's gifted, restricted of wisdom/ Lost visions, written descriptions, they stick to the system/ Evil whispers are suggested in a man's ear, plant fear/ Temptation of the weak, the strong stand clear." On an album with many slowly-paced, dreary tracks, the lively blaring horns of Kevlaar 7's production on "Zubair" make the smooth-bouncing track stand out, the same with the thumping "Seven Tiers". On "Faridat", though the sample feels too narrowly chopped and repetitive, it somehow works perfectly and complements the flow of Zagnif as he twirls out gobs of syllables with each line. "Burial" envelops the listener in a dark, misty haze as two emcees pace their verses with slow ascendancy, as Illy Vas remarks "You notice the whole process of climbing up six feet." The standout track is "Pyramid Builders", a marching lyrical assault featuring Sunz of Man's Hell Razah and The Wisemen's Kevlaar 7, all diligently piecing together pyramids of verse.

Flaws: There's a slow tempo to a lot of these tracks and occasionally the monotone deliveries and steady loops make tracks drag on. There's also little to no levity on the record, whether lyrically or production-wise, as it consistently maintains a heavy, grim outlook. As Nori often likens his mission to that of seraphim, he might benefit from considering an old quote Alan Watts loved to use: Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.

Most memorable quote: From a superb guest verse by Heaven Razah, simple yet saying so much:

"I reflect intellect so my sun don't set"

12 Reasons To Die - Ghostface Killah/Adrian Younge

The most mainstream of any album here and thus the least worthy of a detailed discussion as it's all been covered already. Ghostface teams up with one of the finest producers in the business right now for a collaborative 12-track album directed and assembled by composer/producer Adrian Younge (with narration by The Rza).

Highlights: The beats are outstanding. Hard to even call them "beats" as the entire album features a live multi-instrumental band playing all the music, only it's often in the vein of thick, dusty rap beats. I actually like the beats far better than the lyrics, though Ghost has many shining moments. Detailing his fictional story about rising up through the ranks of the DeLuca crime family before being betrayed by them and seeking revenge, Ghost shines as a writer of comic book-esque, intensely vivid tales. Getting up into his 40s, the Staten Island emcee hasn't lost a step flow-wise either. This kind of album-length dramatic role-playing rap is exactly the kind of creative ventures an artist of Ghost's caliber should be undertaking (thankfully he brought his fellow Wu-Tang Clan dartsmiths into the mix here too).

Flaws: Even if there's a very obvious array of subtextual meanings resting below the surface of the DeLuca mafioso story, the content is so filled with the words "murder" and "kill" that I find the album hard to listen to sometimes. I've actually listened to the instrumental version more than anything else. Having to closely follow along a predesigned theme and storyline (conceived by Younge) places obvious limits on the writing of Ghostface, making some of his stuff sound forced or too simple. In some ways, this is the least-creative Ghostface material we've ever heard. Not that it's bad, just not nearly as unique as Ghost Deini can be.

Most memorable quote: The entire Masta Killa verse on "I Declare War" is what most stuck with me.

G.E.M.S. (Golden Era Music Sciences) - Tragic Allies & Tragedy Khadafi

If the Massachusetts-based crew Tragic Allies had been making music in the glory days of Tragedy Khadafi (ie, the mid-90s) they'd be rich and famous. Instead, they had to grind through the underground during the watered-down 2000s to carve a name for themselves despite carrying enough hip hop artillery in their three-man armory to match up with just about anybody out there. Now they've teamed up with an all-time legend, Queensbridge emcee Tragedy Khadafi, who's been appearing on wax since the mid-80s and was largely responsible for the undisputed classic Capone-N-Noreaga album The War Report.

Highlights: There is so much to like about this record. For one thing, the beats are spectacular (all provided by Purpose) with neck-snapping drum patterns, tender chimey sample loops and that essential hip hop element: hard kicks and snares. The whole album thumps with energy, too, as on just about every track the emcees flaunt a tongue-twisting style of rapid delivery. The dexterous flow techniques are masterful, especially on tracks like "Wild Militants", "Presume the Unpredictable", and "Verge of Defeat". 

For the type of hip hop heads derided by Nas for being "trapped in the 90s" this is exactly the kind of music you salivate to hear made fresh. If you didn't grow up listening to Mobb Deep, Wu-Tang, C.N.N, etc then you might not understand why hearing a new song like "Men of Honor" is so special. As he's the dude who originally coined the term "illmatic" in a late-80s rhyme, the art consistently peddled by Tragedy Khadafi overencompasses the distasteful modernization of Nas (and other similar artists) while he continues to deliver brain tingling lyrics through the style of hip hop in its purest form, Golden Era rap.

Flaws: Though he's a superb lyricist, Estee Nack's ventures into singing background vocals sound a little grating sometimes. The closing track "Aura Snatchers (Remix)" tries too hard to be sad, coming across as maudlin. And, nitpicking a little here, the emcees spend an inordinate amount of lyrics describing or boasting about how intelligent they are rather than just displaying it. Of course, it's better than bragging about material wealth.

Most memorable quote: Even if the jangling chain of words wielded by Purpose on "Men of Honor" make for one of my favorite verses on the album, this line from Tragedy on the same track sticks out in my mind:

"Aura snatchers in the form of haters spit rebuttals
I love you
you motivate me to my highest power"

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