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)

Slaine – The King of Everything Else Album Review

Boston-bred MC Slaine has never been shy about his drug- and alcohol-fueled adventures. His latest opus, The King of Everything Else, is a full-length account of those adventures.

The LP is nothing if not cathartic, and for good reason. From the album’s opening track, “No Handouts”, it is made clear that Slaine has a lot of emotional baggage, the probable root cause of years of drug and alcohol abuse. Indeed, brutally honest tales of sex, drugs, and firewater are abundant on The King of Everything Else. Lyrically, the MC’s wordplay is sharp, his storytelling detailed and, at times, darkly comical. The production, for the most part, has an air of orchestrated recklessness, a perfect match for Slaine’s heavy-hearted rhymes. Early standouts include “Dot Ave”, a portrait of the complacency and intoxicated limbo that plagues those hailing from Boston’s Dorchester Avenue, and “Pissed it all Away”, where Slaine predicts his decline into irrelevance, the product of his constant debauchery. On “The Years”, Slaine recounts the years-long cycle that begins with the childhood dream of playing pro baseball. His aspirations quickly shift to being an MC, prompting a move to New York before his addictions inevitably land him back in Boston, fearing for his life. The tale ends with him avoiding a potentially fatal conflict and a reinvigorated desire to hone his craft. Another gem is the Statik Selektah-produced “Our Moment”, which depicts a tumultuous relationship of Slaine’s, one that hits both extremes of the emotional spectrum, but very little in between.

Slaine’s long history of using drugs is a running theme on The King of Everything Else. In fact, one could argue that the album is overly saturated with his dope-fueled shenanigans. In the rapper’s defense, he’s shed light on some of addiction’s many facets. On “Bobby Be Real”, Slaine plays Dr. Jekyll to the doped up “Bobby’s” Mr. Hyde, with Tech N9ne and Madchild aiding in the storytelling. “Dopehead”, featuring Special Teamz cohort Jaysaun, is a portrait of the typical junkie/tweaker, from the raggedy appearance to the never-ending quest for the next fix. The next stop on the drug train is “Come Back Down”, where Slaine, Checkmark and Vinnie Paz look for a permanent oasis from their many hardships, opting to keep desperately chasing that ever-elusive high. Finally, on “Gettin’ High”, produced by La Coka Nostra’s DJ Lethal, Slaine and West Coast MC Demrick each narrate their introduction to their respective poisons of choice.

When considering Slaine’s recent sobriety, The King of Everything Else seems like the ultimate purging of his demons. Underneath the trifecta of vices that is booze, drugs and pussy, the LP is his effort to rid himself of his tempestuous past. With all the soul-baring tales he’s told, if this album doesn’t do it, nothing will.

Grade: 8/10

Gems: No Handouts, Bobby Be Real ft. Tech N9ne & Madchild, Pissed it All Away, The Years, Hip Hop Dummy ft. Apathy & Bishop Lamont, Our Moment, Defiance ft. Rite Hook, Gettin’ High ft. Demrick

Dilated Peoples – Directors of Photography Album Review

While Dilated Peoples were on an eight-year group hiatus, Evidence, Rakaa Iriscience and DJ Babu didn’t remain idle in their solo careers. With their long-awaited fifth album, Directors of Photography, it appears as though their time apart has served them well.

Contrary to their previous efforts, the production was kept mostly in house, a change befitting the album’s title. Evidence and Babu admirably handle the bulk of the duties this time, namely on bangers like “Trouble” and “Hallelujah”. While the number of guest producers is kept to a handful, those enlisted are some of hip-hop’s best. Long-time collaborator The Alchemist sets the stage for Rakaa and Evidence on “Cut my Teeth”, where both MCs recount the many lessons learned from growing up in the Mid-City and Venice areas of Los Angeles, respectively. On the album’s first single, “Good as Gone”, produced by the almighty DJ Premier, Dilated silences the critics and doubters, the inevitable bi-products of their longevity in hip-hop. With “Let Your Thoughts Fly Away”, the group does just that, providing listeners with a mental oasis over a Diamond D beat slightly reminiscent of Mos Def’s “Kalifornia”. But of all the LP’s featured beatsmiths, it’s Seattle’s Jake One that steals the show with “Show me the Way”, in which Dilated treasures not just the success they’ve accrued, but the decades-long grind preceding it.

Lyrically, Rakaa and Evidence have reached a stage affectionately known as “grown man rap.” The days of straight braggadocio are not altogether gone, but the MCs have clearly taken a more personal approach to this album. On a handful of tracks, Dilated waxes poetic about lessons learned (“Cut my Teeth”), living life to the fullest (“Show me the Way”) and enjoying hard-earned success while still wanting more (“The Bigger Picture”). If Directors of Photography has any flaws, it’s that it leaves its audience wanting to know more about said directors. The group takes the listener on a journey unlike those of their previous albums while leaving many questions unanswered. In short, Dilated Peoples, even while artfully venturing into new lyrical territory, are not ready to bare their souls just yet.

In summation, Directors of Photography shows no ill effects of the trio’s long layoff. Five albums into a stellar career, the group is as hungry as they were on their 2000 debut, The Platform. Combining that drive with eight years’ worth of maturation, Dilated Peoples have crafted one of this year’s best LPs.

Grade: 9/10

Gems: Cut My Teeth, Show me the Way ft. Aloe Blacc, Let Your Thoughts Fly Away, Century of the Self ft. Catero, Opinions May Vary ft. Gangrene, Trouble, Hallelujah ft. Fashawn, Rapsody, Domo Genesis, Vinnie Paz & Action Bronson

 

Watson & Holmes – Watson & Holmes Album Review

There was a time, around the early-to-mid-nineties, when the Wu-Tang Clan seemed to have a stranglehold on the hip-hop market, releasing a new project every six months to a year. This past decade has seen an underground crew, Army of the Pharaohs, be just as prolific, if not more so, than the Wu. The latest release from the AOTP umbrella comes from its newest member, Hartford, Connecticut’s Blacastan. The LP, a collaboration with producer Stu Bangas, has cast the man on the boards as the Watson to Blac’s Holmes, as illustrated in the album’s artwork.

While the New England duo have rightfully equated their partnership to that of modern literature’s most famous detective team, Watson & Holmes does not follow the blueprint of a traditional concept album. In other words, there is no underlying thread, as the title and cover art may lead one to expect, say, in this case, a murder mystery, to tie the LP’s sixteen tracks together. That being said, Stu Bangas has done the next best thing: sprinkled in interludes taken from past adaptations of Sherlock Holmes mysteries over coherent and atmospheric production. Just like the blog’s previously reviewed albums, one of Watson & Holmes’ strengths is its uniform sound, often the result of the album’s beats being handled by one producer.

As far as lyrics go, those familiar with Blacastan’s earlier work would agree that the MC is in rare form on W&H. Starting with the album’s title track, “Holmes” rhymes over “Watson’s” darkly funky production with a hunger only heard in hip-hop’s underground. The track most befitting the duo’s adopted personae may be “Disguise”, where Blac’s lyrical darts, combined with Stu Bangas’ dark, ominous sound could double as a scene in an old Sherlock Holmes flick. On “The Road”, “Holmes” details the plight of the independent artist, from the constant travelling to the difficulty of maintaining even some marginal success to having to rely on merchandise sales. It’s an account of how so many hip-hop artists have to make their living while keeping their integrity intact. Furthermore, Blac goes toe to toe with AOTP and Demigodz cohort Apathy on “Machine”. On one of Watson & Holmes‘ last jewels, “Tormented”, an introspective Blacastan questions the tenets of organized religion and the existence of an afterlife.

In summation, when this LP was first announced, its partnership may have been a little head-scratching, but overall, Blacastan and Stu Bangas bring out the best in each other on Watson & Holmes. With few guest appearances, mostly from AOTP members, “Holmes” is tasked with shouldering the lyrical load. With the help of “Watson’s” sonic bangers, he deftly pulls it off.

Grade: 8/10

Gems: Watson & Holmes, Change, Disguise, The Road ft. Block McCloud, Close Your Eyes ft. DJ Food Stamp, Machine ft. Apathy, Tormented, Throat Chop

If you’d like to hear more of their work, you can check out MC Esoteric’s Machete Mode, produced entirely by Stu Bangas, and Blacastan’s Master Builder Parts 1&2, Blac Sabbath, The Master of Reality and Me Against the Radio. For Blacastan’s other group projects, check out AOTP’s In Death Reborn and the Demigodz’ Killmatic. Support underground, independent hip-hop.

Cormega – Mega Philosophy Album Review

I had heard that Cormega and Large Professor were making an album together about a year and a half ago. In 2013, the Queens natives went on tour together, and I had a chance to see them grace the stage at Underworld in my hometown of Montreal. After listening to the long-awaited fruit of their collaboration, Mega Philosophy, I am cursing myself out for not doing more to get my ass to that show.

In hip-hop, artists who’ve been at it as long as Mega and Large Pro don’t usually put out content this good at this stage of their respective careers. But these two may have a magnum opus in this album. To begin with, from a production standpoint, albums with one man on the boards are usually blessed with a more cohesive and continuous sound. And who better for the task than Large Professor, a disciple of the late, great Paul C?
As for Cormega, the Queensbridge MC spits some of his best rhymes on Mega Philosophy. Shunning the materialism that has polluted this past generation of rap music, Mega instead waxes poetic on failed relationships, platonic or otherwise, (“Valuable Lessons”) and the duplicitous nature of the music industry (“Industry”). Furthermore, hip-hop heads will be pleased to hear the second incarnation of “MARS (Dream Team)”, which trades Action Bronson, Roc Marciano and Saigon for AZ, Redman and Styles P. There’s even a gem for those partial to the “rappity-rap” with “Rap Basquiat”, a track more than worthy of the artist whose name it bears.

After sitting with the album, it becomes clear that Cormega and Large Professor maintain a somehwat professoral relationship with their audience, akin to preparing their pupils for life in the real world, as evidenced with “More”, “Honorable”, featuring Raekwon the Chef himself, and “Rise”, with Maya Azucena on the hook. As OC and Apollo Brown did with Trophies in 2012, Mega Philosophy is the product of a man who has not only lived, but learned from his trials and tribulations the hard way.

In short, Mega, blessed with the rare gift of knowledge of self, imparts over 40 years’ worth of wisdom in a way that only a son of the Queensbridge Projects can.

Consider this album one of this year’s best. Top 5 at least. Check out the last entry for other projects that made the list.

Grade: 10/10

Gems: THE WHOLE ALBUM. Seriously.