Marlowe Album Review: Allow Solemn Brigham to introduce himself

Early offerings often announce the arrival of authors equal parts gusto and raw, soon-to-be-developed talent. Colour North Carolina’s Solemn Brigham an exception.

The latest of many to roam resident Mello Music Group producer L’Orange’s otherworldly soundscapes, Brigham introduces himself with as much of an eager debutant’s drive as a seasoned scribe’s understated confidence and technical proficiency on Marlowe, the 17-track fruit of his alliance with the Seattle-based beatsmith. Airtight flow, internal rhymes and multis at the ready, Brigham burns the midnight oil (“my odd ways made daybreak the new curfew”) and tirelessly battles his inner-demons (“The Basement,” “Things We Summon”) while seeking some sense of purpose or payoff for his struggles in L’Orange’s bizarro world of sideshow attractions and funhouses. The LP’s silent partner swaps the dusty, tried-and-true samples befitting a peak-Prohibition speakeasy for horns and psychedelic rock loops that buck in concert with the endless motor of Marlowe‘s vocal half, as Brigham reconciles himself with choosing necessity over morality on standout “Honest Living” – where he cops to making “a modest killing doing what’s not appealing” – before braving the night a la Travis Bickle on “Palm Readers.”

Brigham’s bars are revelatory for a relative newcomer, but unlike L’Orange’s carefully constructed alternative universe, he often tosses up the meat of his sins and plight to the imagination. That said, whether the omission makes Marlowe’s listeners deem the LP somewhat unfinished or spawns gleeful efforts to fill in the blanks over its 50-minute run time, the MC leaves no question regarding his abilities unanswered.

Grade: 8/10

Skyzoo – Music For My Friends Album Review

Purists have rightfully lamented the lack of identity in New York hip-hop in recent years. Luckily, Skyzoo doesn’t need to, as they say, “bring New York back”. He already embodies it.

His latest LP, Music For My Friends, is an ode to everything that molds us: our environment, our era, the company we keep. In Skyzoo’s case, the album is a peek into the formative years of an 80s Brooklyn baby, during which innocence was tainted, but not altogether lost, and nature took a backseat to nurture. The 16-track opus only reinforces the notion that for better or for worse, we are all products of our respective habitats.

In depicting the elements of the Skyzoo equation, the MC tells tales of relentless pursuit of money, happiness and everything in between. If “Luxury” and the “erroneously” titled “Suicide Doors” are any indication, luxury is the endgame, as it once was for Sky’s neighborhood elders, a teenage pipe dream, but one within reach nonetheless. While “The Moments That Matter” preaches living in the now, “Money Makes Us Happy” delves into carpe diem‘s inevitable ceiling and the duplicitous nature of the paper chase. As for the means of materializing their street dreams, Sky and his crew know fully well that slinging dope is a dangerously easy fix. On the Jadakiss-assisted “See a Key (Ki’)”, Skyzoo almost innocently flirts with that temptation and on “Asking Bodie For a Package”, details the road to succumbing to it. Sadly, the youthful recklessness and childlike abandon that fueled Sky’s adolescence also spawned some casualties, with the wordsmith paying homage to them on “Things I Should’ve Told My Friends”. Lyrically, the Brooklynite’s rhyme scheme is complex and the wordplay singularly cryptic. But for all the evidence of lyrical mastery, Music For My Friends is best summarized by one no-frills bar on “All Day, Always”: “All the shit we saw is what we all became.”

The nostalgia in Skyzoo’s lyrics is mostly echoed by the production, but never more so than on MarcNfinit’s horn-laced “Suicide Doors” and soul-sampling “The Experience”. Longtime collaborator !llmind contributes four tracks, all of which, in serving the LP’s focus, veer away from the “boom trap” sound that made his name. On “Money Makes Us Happy”, The Rvlt.’s piano and drum loops add a blissful, yet regretful tone to Skyzoo, Black Thought and Bilal’s musings. In short, the album’s sound is reminiscent of a bygone era, as it should be, but remains far from dated. Echos of New York are heard primarily through samples, but are sometimes absent, meaning the beats occasionally fail the LP’s primary vision. Therefore, the album isn’t “bringing New York back”, but it still satiates both old and new hip-hop heads.

Ultimately, Music For My Friends is audible evidence of the cloth from which Skyzoo and his running mates are cut. Nostalgia abounds, but regret is seldom heard. In essence, Sky’s childhood stories of hustling, chasing dreams and toying with disaster only epitomize the notion that we are what we come from.

Grade: 8/10

Gems: Suicide Doors, See a Key (Ki’) ft. Jadakiss, Money Makes Us Happy ft. Black Thought & Bilal, Civilized Leisure ft. Mozaic, The Experience, Asking Bodie For a Package ft. Skarr Akbar

Malik B & Mr. Green – Unpredictable Album Review

As an original member of Philadelphia hip-hop group The Roots, Malik B often performed in the shadow of one the genre’s greatest MCs, Black Thought. In the 15-plus years between leaving the group and the release of his full-length debut, Unpredictable, the “Illadelph” native has figured “it” out, both as a wordsmith and a self-aware, albeit imperfect man.

The term “grown man rap” often gets thrown around when referring to rappers who’ve stood the test of time. Their first few releases, driven by unabashed braggadocio, a voracious appetite for peer validation and loads of raw talent slowly, but surely get swapped for technically sound and introspective rhymes. Malik B has reached that stage…without the discography. With New Jersey beatsmith Mr. Green rounding out the partnership, Unpredictable has all the fundamentals of a solid hip-hop opus in spades.

The album’s lyrical content is a mixed bag befitting its title. Clocking in at under 40 minutes, several of the LP’s 13 tracks are evidence of Malik B’s quest for self-improvement and/or enlightenment, spiritual or otherwise. If the first few bars on “We Gonna Make It” are any indication, the man has done a lot of soul searching: “It ain’t no stressin’ no more, ’cause God blessin’ me/I got the secret to success, it’s a recipe.” Moreover, while “Crown of Thorns” acts as the MC’s account of hardships past, the self-explanatory “Fake Friends” brings Malik’s path to self-acceptance full circle. But in a genre as competitive as hip-hop, even the “grown man” rappers can’t abandon self-agrandization altogether. Simply put, machismo never takes a back seat in hip-hop, hence muscle-flexing tracks like “Dolla Bill”, “Definition”, “Rips in the Paper” and “Rhyme Exercise”. Between the delicate, but harmonious balance of humility and ego lies one of Unpredictable‘s thematic (and sonic) gems, “Devil”, where Malik B details the catch-22’s and psychological toll in navigating a seedy Philadelphia underworld.

As for the production, the LP’s master on the boards, Mr. Green, does more than merely set the stage for Malik B’s musings. He raises it. The sampler Green flaunts on the cover art is a proud claim of a student of “boom bap”, a 90’s sound characterized by looped drum breaks, re-purposed samples and scratch hooks. Unpredictable is somewhat reminiscent of that golden-era sound, most notably on “Dolla Bill” and “Tyrants”. In short, Mr. Green, like his contemporaries Marco Polo and Apollo Brown, is applying the old-school’s production style to 21st-century hip-hop.

All art-snobbery momentarily aside, the merit of a hip-hop album lies in its rhymes and beats. Even though Malik B wasted most of a Mr. Green banger by following a killer verse with three minutes of Jamaican Patois on “Tyrants”, the LP succeeds on both of those fronts. That being said, the duo, as much of a peas-and-carrots pairing as they may be, are not reinventing the wheel so much as bringing it back temporarily. Nevertheless, boom bap, like any sound that’s attained “classic” status, never gets old, making Unpredictable 40 minutes well spent.

Grade: 7.5/10

Gems: Dolla Bill, Metal is Out ft. Benefit, Devil, Definition, Rips in the Paper, Rhyme Exercise, Dark Streets ft. R.A. the Rugged Man & Amalie Bruun

Apollo Brown & Ras Kass – Blasphemy Album Review

The general consensus among hip-hop fans is that while Ras Kass remains a solid lyricist, the West Coast MC’s body of work has been somewhat tarnished by sub-par production. Blasphemy, the fruit of his recent partnership with Detroit beatsmith Apollo Brown, has broken the chain of dysfunction.

Just as with previous collaborations with veterans OC and Guilty Simpson, Brown’s soul-sampled sounds have proven a perfect canvas for a wordsmith of Ras Kass’ caliber. As far as subject matter is concerned, Blasphemy is a well-rounded portrait of a self-aware and (obviously) imperfect man. Ras Kass sheds light on his own shortcomings and vices in addition to outing the hypocrisy and blasphemy of his environment.

Excluding the intro, there isn’t a hip-hop fan who won’t find at least a few pearls throughout the LP’s fourteen tracks. To begin with, the pair hit the ground running on “How to Kill God”, Ras Kass’ calculated denunciation of the proclaimed tenets of organized religion and the modus operandi of the Western world’s leaders. “H20”, featuring an always welcome verse from Pharaohe Monch, sees the Watts native delve into bittersweet introspection over angelic production.  The album’s second single, “Humble Pi”, serves as the duo’s lesson in humility, as a lack of mainstream success has kept Ras grounded, unlike hip-hop’s A-list titans.

A running (and fitting) theme on Blasphemy is that of human vice, beginning with “Please Don’t Let Me”, a track with some wise words for those who tend to flirt with disaster. Furthermore, with cuts like “Strawberry” and “Francine”, it’s evident that Ras Kass’ preferred poison is promiscuity, especially on the latter, in which he masterfully recounts a menage-a-trois with fatal consequences. A thematic outlier and stand-out track on the album is “48 Laws Pt.1”, a new and abridged take on Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power. While they’ll certainly resonate with young upstarts in the music industry, the MC’s revised rules are words even the average stiff could live by, mantras that can ably preserve one’s integrity and well-being.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a proper hip-hop album without a dose of unadulterated braggadocio. Hip-hop heads need not fret, “Giraffe Pussy” and “Drunk Irish”, both featuring some of rap’s top spitters, will aptly satisfy their need for what is colloquially known as “rappity-rap”. Moreover, on “Animal Sacrifice”, Ras Kass venomously sets the record straight on what constitutes a true MC.

The LP’s final track, “Bon Voyage”, pays tribute to the lost, among them hip-hop’s many late greats, a finale befitting such a reflective album.

Blasphemy comes out on October 28th.

Grade: 8.5/10

Gems: How to Kill God, H20 ft. Pharaohe Monch & Rakaa Iriscience, Giraffe Pussy ft. Royce da 5’9”, Bishop Lamont & Xzibit, Animal Sacrifice, Humble Pi, 48 Laws Pt.1, Francine

See also: Ras Kass – Soul on Ice (1996), OC & Apollo Brown – Trophies (2012), Guilty Simpson & Apollo Brown – Dice Game (2012)