Reks – Rebelutionary (2012)


Since Reks returned to hip-hop after a long hiatus with the critically acclaimed Grey Hairs in 2008, he has proven to be one of the best and most productive rappers around. Rebelutionary marks his second release in just 3 months following his Statik Selektah collaboration Straight, No Chaser. With that album however, I thought he sounded rather uninspired, not really bringing anything new to the table lyrically and although I’m normally a fan of Statik’s production, it wasn’t his best effort either. Rebelutionary sees Reks team up with Florida producer Numonics to create a much more engaging listen that is arguably his most focused project to date.

As you’d expect with any album with a single producer, musically it is very cohesive. Numonics brings a soulful boom-bap sound that compliments Reks perfectly. He also avoids becoming monotonous which is a problem that can also arise with a single producer, showing his versatility to such an extent that I couldn’t really gather any “signature sound” to his production style asides from the ever-present punchy drums. Despite the quality of this backdrop, the main focus of Rebelutionary is definitely on the emcee.

One thing that has never been questioned is Reks’ ability as a rapper, and sure enough he delivers once again with his trademark aggressive flow and intelligent lyricism. As the title suggests, this is primarily a politically driven album. Reks is no stranger to political subject matter but this is his first time dedicating a full length LP to it. If you are someone who is getting tired of the abundance of rappers that tend to get a bit carried away with conspiracy theories or preachiness when approaching political themes, don’t turn away just yet. Reks’ approach is much more grounded than those, delivering his social commentaries on a wide range of issues such as social injustice, gun crime, police brutality and unemployment, as well as addressing current events such as the cases Trayvon Martin and Casey Anthony. In doing so he effectively paints a picture of how he sees American society without sacrificing any entertainment value to get his message across. There’s also a number of guest appearances from the likes of Jon Connor, Termanology, Knowledge Medina, J. NiCS, Krondon, Sene, Koncept and more. All of these features are used well but nobody ever comes close to outshining Reks.

The only thing lacking is a standout track as good as 25th Hour from R.E.K.S. or the title-track on Grey Hairs asides from perhaps, Gepeto (Reality Is…), thanks to the fantastic beat (which is almost identical to Next Time by Gang Starr). There is no doubt that Rebelutionary is a very well crafted album, with that said, it isn’t the type of album that will blow you away. The quality never really moves above “very good” to become truly great, which is why my rating isn’t higher despite not having any noticeable flaws. Overall though, Rebelutionary is one of the best releases so far in what has been a strong year for hip-hop and another step in the right direction for the rhythmatic eternal king supreme

Best tracks: Gepeto (Reality Is…), Shotgun, Ava Rice
Overall: 82/100

QuESt – Fear Not Failure (2012)


If I asked a group of hip-hop fans to name their favorite rappers that debuted within the last five years, there’s a good chance the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Freddie Gibbs, Blu and Big K.R.I.T. would be mentioned a few times. One rapper that deserves to be added to that list is QuESt. In his short career the Miami emcee has proven incredibly versatile, being equally comfortable rapping over 70′s soul samples on ‘Distant Travels Into Soul Theory’ and more traditional hip-hop beats on ‘Broken Headphones’.

For his latest offering, QuESt is using dubstep influenced production which suits his style perfectly. Generally, I’m not a huge fan of this but when it’s done properly the results can be worthwhile. Compared to this year’s other successful elctro-hop album, Chiddy Bang’s Breakfast, which was much more upbeat and party orientated, the sounds on this are more atmospheric and occasionally downtempo, but it still packs a punch with powerful drums over deep, wavy basslines (you will need headphones to fully appreciate this). I can’t think of many other rappers that would suit these beats but his flow (which is somewhat reminiscent of early Jay-Z) is flawless and he has the ability to switch pace in the blink of an eye to keep up with he varying tempo of the beats.

The title, “Fear Not Failure” serves as an underlying theme throughout the tape, as he explores the idea of overcoming fears and learning from your mistakes. This is exemplified by the following quotable at the end of Nothing to Fear;

Even if god came down and said “You know what, this isn’t gonna work out, you should just quit while you’re ahead”, I’d probably still take my chances.

This leads perfectly onto the next track Gambler, which is about doing just that, taking chances even when the odds are “slim to none”. This attitude comes across in a resounding display of confidence, resulting in a level of charisma few can match. Throughout the tape, QuESt delivers thought provoking lyrics and clever punchlines over a wide array of instrumentals, which manage to remain cohesive yet significantly different from one another. FNF is brought to a close with Darkest Before Dawn, which is probably my favorite song on the tape and features another spoken word segment that sums up the concept behind it;

Don’t be afraid to fail. Failure doesn’t keep us away from what we desire in this world. Fear does. Fear is the absence of love. The absence of trust. The absence of belief. It is fear that destroys us. To embrace failure is to embrace growth. It is fear, not failure, that holds us back.

The following bonus track feels almost unnecessary after that conclusion, not to say there is anything wrong with it. It might just be a mixtape, but with all original production and the absence of a hosting DJ, Fear Not Failure feels like a complete album, and is one of the most creative and genre-defying projects I’ve heard in recent years. If you want to hear something new, you certainly won’t regret downloading it for free over at hotnewhiphop.

Best tracks: Darkest Before Dawn, Alone Tonight, Nothing to Fear, One Way
Overall: 89/100

InVerse TangENT – The Reality Tape (2011)


When listening to an unsigned and unknown group for the first time, you have no expectations or preconceptions, so you could be in for a pleasant surprise or a lackluster experience that won’t stand out among the thousands of other aspiring rappers out there. For me, this mixtape falls somewhere in between.

According to their bio, D.C. based InVerse TangENT, strive to make music that the common man can relate to. They manage to do a decent job of achieving this, with subjects including relationships, dealing with the death of a loved one and struggling financially. However, it sometimes comes across as corny and occasionally a bit on the preachy side. The main problem is that it doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. Although it may be a bit harsh to expect anything innovative from a debut mixtape, they regularly fall into the cliches of complaining about the state of mainstream hip-hop, which has become almost obligatory for underground rappers these days. Coupled with bland production, this results in it having very little replay value for me.

Musically, it’s rather inconstant to say the least. There are a number of good tracks but just as many terrible ones that should never have left the studio, with ‘Uncensored’ and ‘I Get On’ being the lowest points of the tape. Some of the hooks are also pretty bad, with the painfully autotuned ‘Rollin Like a Baller’ and ‘She Ridin’ sounding completely out of place and more like something that escaped from a DJ Khaled album. In my opinion, ‘Talk of the Century’ is easily the standout track, with Buttafly G, Soulogik, Philasophikal and J Spitz trading verses over the menacing beat. This is a good demonstration of the group’s chemistry and provides a glimpse of their full potential. I feel that AlgahRhythm and Buttafly G stood out as the best members throughout the album, usually outshining the others on any tracks they appear on, sadly they only feature on less than half the songs respectively.

It isn’t all bad news though, if you ignore the flaws there is some solid rapping to be found and judging by the more successful tracks, this group certainly has potential and their hearts are in the right place, even if it doesn’t always satisfy from a musical perspective. You can stream and download The Reality Tape below via their bandcamp.

Best tracks: Talk of the Century, Simply Gesture, Always Remembered, Time Will Tell
Overall: 67/100

Prince Paul – A Prince Among Thieves (1999)


A Prince Among Thieves is the second studio album by acclaimed producer Prince Paul. He had already gained recognition for his work with Gravediggaz and De La Soul, and for his next effort he aimed to create an album that could also be made into a movie. Despite the ambitious nature of the task, he succeeded in doing so but apparently the budget would only stretch to a 5 minute video. Movie or no movie, he managed to create what is, in my opinion, the most perfectly executed concept album and perhaps the greatest story ever told in hip-hop.

The album follows the story of a young man named Tariq (played by Breezly Brewin’) who struggles to get by with a 9 to 5 but has aspirations of becoming a famous rapper and needs to make $1,000 to finish his demo tape in time for his meeting with the Wu.

The story begins at the end with Tariq’s Dilemma and Pain, as the protagonist tries to comprehend the recent events that have left him betrayed and close to death.

Then it goes goes full circle as Tariq narrates the story from the beginning. Starting when he awakes after a night in the studio, only to be harassed by his mom who wants him to get a promotion and move out. He turns to his best friend True (Big Sha), who is described as being “like a brother” for help. True is also a well-connected drug dealer who takes him under his wing as they embark on a journey through the criminal underworld and meet a number of intriguing characters along the way. These include an eccentric arms dealer played by Kool Keith, a pimp portrayed by Big Daddy Kane (who arguably offers the strongest lyrical performance on the album), De La Soul as a bunch of crackheads, Everlast as a corrupt cop and Xzibit, Sadat X & Kid Creole as prison inmates. Through all its twists and turns, the story is truly engaging and you will find yourself actually caring about the fate of the characters. All this builds up to a dramatic and tragic ending (which I won’t go into to avoid spoiling it for new listeners).

Despite being surrounded by a cast of hip-hop legends, the relatively unknown Breeze and Sha play their roles spectacularly well, and it’s hard to imagine anybody who could replace them.
The skits (which account for almost half the album) are used to great effect in order to progress the story and tie everything together. It doesn’t just rely on the concept either, as with any album it is only as good as the music itself. Each individual song is brilliant and could stand equally strong on its own.

With everything going on, it’s easy to forget that the creative genius behind it all is primarily a producer, but the production is just as cinematic as the storyline itself.
The sound varies greatly to mirror the events of the story. With Uplifting beats on Steady Slobbin’ and What U Got, eery strings on Pain and Handle Your Time, to the ominous vibes of The Men in Blue and You Got Shot, this is a key component in creating the atmospheric feel of the album.

The captivating plot blurs the lines between a movie, an opera and a concept album. Whatever you want to call it, this is truly a storytelling masterpiece which even 13 years later, hasn’t been matched since and is unlikely to be exceeded anytime soon.

Best tracks: Steady Slobbin’, Weapon World, Macula’s Theory, Handle Your Time
Overall: 98/100

Chiddy Bang – Breakfast (2012)


Breakfast is the highly anticipated debut album from Philadelphia duo Chiddy Bang. After their MGMT inspired single Opposite of Adults became an internet sensation they have steadily been generating quite a buzz and have recruited a sizable fanbase following a number of successful mixtapes and EPs.

This isn’t the type of album that is going to blow you away lyrically. Chiddy doesn’t have any amazing technical abilities and asides from a few clever punchlines, the subject matter rarely strays too far from the cliche topics of girls, partying, weed, haters and “flyness”. This isn’t the end of the world however, he isn’t a bad rapper by any means and chances are you might want to take the occasional break from listening to Aesop Rock and Immortal Technique anyway.

“I got a couple bad bitches, lord pray for me / Look in the mirror, we the shit that they pray to be”

What sets this album apart is the fantastic production from the talented Xaphoon Jones. His production style is derived primarily from indie-pop samples laced with electronic synths. The idea of merging electronica and hip-hop has been attempted (rather unsuccessfully) before by the likes of Blu, Lupe Fiasco and B.o.B. but this might just be the first album that it has actually worked on. The production is very creative and demands the listener’s attention on every song, combined with the incredibly catchy hooks this gives each track an energy that keeps going throughout the album.

Breakfast is exactly what it sets out to be, a fun electro-hop album that sounds great and can appeal to a wide variety of listeners. Essentially, this is what all mainstream rap should be like. At 45 minutes long it is short and sweet, a wise decision as it stops short of becoming repetitive as it may have done if it were much longer, resulting in an easy and very enjoyable listen. Overall, this is a great debut effort from Chiddy Bang and gives us reason to be hopeful for what else they might cook up in the future.

Best tracks: Talking to MyselfMind Your MannersOut 2 Space, Ray Charles
Overall: 80/100

Zion I – Mind Over Matter (2000)


Sometimes when listening to an album from over a decade ago, you may feel that it has aged to some extent. The remarkable thing about this album is that it still sounds “ahead of its time” even today and probably will for the foreseeable future.

This is largely thanks to the production which is influenced by trip hop and other electronic music. The use of frantic drum ‘n’ bass style drum breaks gives it a futuristic sound, these are especially prominent on tracks like Inner Light, Metropolis and Elevation.

The album opens with Creation, this atmospheric intro features a reading from the book of genesis and sounds like something out of The Matrix which sets the mood for the following track, Revolution (B-Boy Anthem).
The lead single, Critical features Planet Asia as they trade verses over the Premo-esque beat.
Mysterious Wayz feels like an updated version of Slick Rick’s classic Indian Girl, with tales of a lady “from a land of sand where pyramids dwell and angels blow their breath through seashells”.

In my opinion Trippin’ is the best song on the album. Baba’s social commentaries serve as the best example of Zion I’s ability to combine great music with an intellectual message.

People get stuck / Following the trends
Of a TV generation / But where does it end?

Fools Gold might just be a skit but the way it samples some of the most iconic lines about money by everyone from Rakim to Wu-Tang perfectly sets up the following track, Venus, which is about a woman who exploits men for their cash.
Mind Over Matter finishes on a strong note with One, followed by a remix of Inner Light, both of which are two of the most addicting beats on the album.

Baba Zumbi presents himself as an incredibly well-rounded and versatile MC. Not only does he have some of the most poetic and though-provoking lyrics on the west coast, but he also possesses great technical ability. With his energetic flow and impressive rhyming schemes it really is criminal how underrated he is.
There are a number of standouts but every track is up to standard, resulting in a level of consistency few albums over 20 tracks have ever been able to match. This makes Mind Over Matter one of the most unique and entertaining underground hip-hop albums of the 2000′s.

Best tracks: Trippin, Critical, Koncrete Jungle, Inner Light
Overall: 95/100

Jazz Addixx – Oxygen: Refreshed (2007)


Ever since the days of A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, the combination of hip-hop and Jazz has always been a happy marriage, this album is no exception.
Oxygen: Refreshed is a revised version of their 2005 album Oxygen, featuring some new tracks and slightly different mixes.
Consisting of MC Mudd, DJ Ragz and DJ Boom, Jazz Addixx create an album that captures an old school vibe in a modern sound while remaining innovative, pushing the boundaries of what you would expect in a jazz rap album.

Most of the production is handled by Mudd, with scratches provided by the two DJs. Instrumentally, the jazzy sound is captured  by the usual array of horns, piano and drums, but also features electronic elements to give it a modern sound. The samples are layered, incorporating the superb DJ scratches, a practice that has become noticeably less common in recent years which adds to the nostalgic feel of this record.

This isn’t just an album where the production outshines the rapping either. Mudd displays his proficient lyrical abilities throughout the album and his laid back delivery flows seamlessly over the jazzy beats which compliment each other wonderfully. Each track runs smoothly into the next, resulting in a very cohesive album and there are no fillers to be found, even the interludes add to the experience. Many of the lyrical themes focus on hip-hop culture itself, with odes to the genre such as H.I.P. – H.O.P. and Something Ya Live standing out.

What I like most about this album is that is has in abundance what many others these days are missing; a simple feel good “fun factor”. It doesn’t take itself too seriously or go near heavy political topics but with its positive lyrics and mellow production, it’s a perfect album to just chill out and relax to. Oxygen: Refreshed truly is a breath of fresh air (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun), using the traditional formula of the MC and the DJ to create a brilliant throwback to the golden age of hip-hop.

Best tracks: H.I.P. – H.O.P., Dope, 1200 Jazz
Overall: 92/100