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

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Cynikal – Breakfast (2012)


British hip-hop doesn’t have too much of a history, and has failed to aquire much exposure on a worldwide scale – it is safe to say that Cynikal’s Breakfast is a fine example of why.

It is true that some people don’t fare too well with the English accent, when it comes to rap – but even if you do, it’s not the accent that lets the album down. Vocally, Cynikal has a voice that although is recognisable, fails to be capturing or pleasant to listen to. It is also pretty safe to conclude that singing isn’t one of the rapper’s strongest points, as the nasally use of his voice can only be described as simply annoying. This isn’t helped much by the fact that the hooks don’t redeem the already tiresome lyrics – either being repetitive or weak. The album does feature other vocalists, but the only possible positivity this gives to the album is that the female vocals on “Won’t Let You Down”  does sound a little bit like Rihanna (take that comment as you please). On the bright side, his flow does seem to come into place about halfway through the album, and there isn’t much disjointedness in his delivery.

The thing that made “Breakfast” vaguely enjoyable to listen to, was picking out the corny lines the rapper uses. It was a delight to hear “it’s a pain for me…and that shit ain’t funny”, and I’d also be lying if I said I didn’t laugh every time I heard “sorry I don’t do brunch, that don’t do much for me”. Quite frankly, some of them don’t even make sense ( “coming with the fists of a falcon”…..anyone? Falcons have fists now? Or is that meant to be a reference to something that most people don’t know about?). All in all, this has led me to conclude that Cynikal does resort to just rhyming things for the sake of rhyming. On the other hand, the lyrics could also be seen as a blessing in disguise, because at least they provided some form of enjoyable entertainment.

It is probably worth mentioning his use of British slang – which of course, is understandable, as he draws on the language and culture he knows – though, admittedly I did laugh…again. Not because the slang is funny, but because it seems hard to take this man seriously when he tells us he is “writin’ this with a flippin’ smile”. Most of the record is about how he has reached a new “state of mind” and how he “wants to be something”. Yes, it spells out all the clichés you can think of (the predictable phrase “Knowledge is power”, sampled on “Exhibit A” is only one of many examples. It’s fair to say that the original by Jay Electronica had a better use of samples) and it almost feels like he is trying to convince us that he is not looking for fame and” status”, that he is something fresh and new – it is quite ironic that he has actually just created an album that is an attempt at an already played out style. Just to complete our expectation from this album, “The Struggle” is a storytelling track about a teenage boy who had a bad childhood and leaves to make something of himself – naturally, none of us saw that coming.

The production itself is mainstream friendly, (it sounds like he strives to be like J.Cole, only further supported by his rework of “Losing My Balance”). Not bad, but at the same time, bland, with the exception of, “Travellin'”, which holds a nice enough drum beat and an enjoyable looping sample. Once again, there is a lack of anything outstanding with this element of this music as well. Perhaps the criticism about his predictable use of sample and beats wouldn’t be quite so severe, if there was something more believable or genuine in what Cynikal is saying. Unfortunately, the combination of the two failing factors makes it hard to be forgiving.

Overall, I can’t exactly call this groundbreaking, and I’m not likely to recommend it to anyone. In fact, it appears to be a showcase of how British hip-hop culture is still relatively backward, in comparison to its American counter part.

Best track: Travellin’

25/100

Download Breakfast for free here.

David Dallas – The Rose Tint (2011)


When we’re talking about hip hop, New Zealand isn’t always (well hardly ever) at the forefront of discussion. The fact of the matter is, try as they might, for a small and distant country surrounded by ocean, recognition is bound to come with some difficultly. But Auckland native David Dallas, recipient of the “Best Hip-Hop Album” award for his debut album Something Awesome, and deservedly so, is a promising, driving force in changing that for the better.

His second full-length, The Rose Tint, a release through Duck Down records, does a good job of showcasing just how he plans to do so. Raw, resolute, yet unruffled lyricism, comparable to that of Versis, accompanied by more radio-friendly instrumentals, predominately from Fire & Ice in this one, that provide aid in carrying the album to the broader audience that he much appreciates. In the guest verse department, we have the likes of Freddie Gibbs and Buckshot. Basically, this guy should be on your radar if he wasn’t already. Let’s have a walk-through anyway.​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​

A soulful sample of The Ebonys’s “A Love of Your Own” kicks off the project. In “Start Looking Around,” Dallas states his distaste for some things, specifically a past relationship that held him down, but brings a self-assured, bold attitude.

“Now I’m up in my zone feeling like a motherfucking cyclone, I can do whatever I set my sights on”

“Take a Picture” is one of the more notable songs on the album, centered on his soon-to-come ascension into the spotlight. Freddie Gibbs puts forward a well-written verse in “Caught in a Daze” which to me is reminiscent of a laid-back Curren$y track (all of them.) Admirably, even in such a nonchalant track, Dallas seems to enjoy making use of his wit while crafting rhymes. “Nothing to Do” features Pieter T on the chorus, and revisits the desolate relationship that David had the unpleasant task of having to endure. “Til Tomorrow” is perhaps my favorite song on the album, for its catchy (some credit to Ratatat for that) and optimistically succinct nature. “Ain’t Perfect” continues the relative optimism, and leads on to “Sideline” with Che Fu. This one will be resonant among angst-filled teens, as it highlights the frustration Dallas had in adolescence with being in his prime, but too afraid to step out of his safety zone. “Postcard” is a dedication to his father. Dallas says he’ll make it big for him, the same dad who thought that hip hop was a temporary fad. Upon listening to “Make Up,” one thing I’d finally noticed is that Dallas’ verses are quite authentic and imperviously uninfluenced by some other well-known rapper, which many other up-and-coming emcees have an inclination to do lately. Following through with this, he finishes off with “Ain’t Coming Down” alongside Buckshot.

In conclusion, The Rose Tint consists of well-written verses, memorable choruses, and is gift-wrapped and readied by David Dallas’ unswerving flow. David possesses a certain steadfastness for his music, and this is audibly recognizable throughout the album. So, the question it ultimately all comes down to… Worth a spin? My answer would be yes.

Best tracks: ‘Til Tomorrow, Ain’t Perfect, and Sideline.

Overall: 91/100

Method Man – Tical 2000: Judgement Day (1998)


Interestingly enough, Tical 2000: Judgement Day was the first sophomore effort from a Wu-Tang Clan member (GZA’s Liquid Swords is arguable depending on stance) and the first time we see a Shaolin fore-bearer follow up a widely acclaimed debut.

A product of its time thematically, Judgement Day is naturally built around apocalyptic allusions and unhinged beats (think Busta Rhymes’ When Disaster Strikes…), ingredients that the Ticallion Stallion traditionally relishes. Indeed, his spliff-shrouded, nightmarish accounts and distant yet rigorous perspectives on the kill-or-be-killed ghetto war zone are as persistent as a haunted grandfather clock’s pendulum.

Tical 2000 : Judgement Day

There is noticeably more emphasis placed  on the latter here, signifying a very lyrical and surprisingly accessible project. Paranoia and the sussing-out of jittery looking corner boys are guaranteed in any case. So the question is: does Iron Lung fashion another legendary weapon?

We get off to a convincing start. Following a short introduction, which serves as a millennium launch procedure, the listener is plunged into a desolate, disease-ridden Y2K full of bleak soliloquies, unnerving descriptions and quiet street menace. The unearthly shuffle of ‘Perfect World’ and the thumping ‘Cradle Rock’ (where Left Eye shares chorus duty and supplies a nonsensical but nevertheless imposing spoken word outro) are like bottled samples of what this environment would probably sound like. From track four onward however, the subject matter becomes progressively conventional and the album’s concept anchored by sound rather than lyrics (a minor quibble considering that Tical 2000 is actually one of the less digressing albums of its kind). Reassuringly, Method Man and co. are accomplished artists and can elevate anything roaming seemingly banal territory to formidable heights. ‘Sweet Love’ is an enjoyable sex romp featuring a well-judged vocal excerpt and an entertaining Streetlife verse while ‘Suspect Chin Music’ is simply one of RZA’s best ’90s concoctions.

The ubiquitous and well-balanced presence of in-house producers bestows a pleasingly gritty, modest variety to proceedings. Erick Sermon, Havoc, Prince Paul and Trackmasters make up the outsiders and each contributes only once. Choppy piano keys, dissonant strings and rattling hi-hats are trademarks of Method Man’s sonic palate and all are executed more than competently throughout. Unfortunately, once the album exceeds its late teens, the acerbic soundscapes begin to drag a little. There aren’t enough truly distinct moments to break through the bulk (‘Retro Godfather’ a sadly brief oddity) and one gets the sense that some moderation would have served the record’s progression far better. Pointless skits cheapen it slightly, but they’re hardly detrimental. Johnny Blaze himself is in very good form and his penchant for gloomy imagery and persistent hooks remains strong (‘Torture’ and ‘Elements’ are both near-masterclasses). True, there’s hardly an abundance of thrilling, deranged performances á la Tical #1 and a slight lack of focus means Tical 2000 doesn’t quite live up to its overbearing title but the gravel-mouthed delivery and increasingly workman-like, scrupulous flow parallel a mostly focused musical backdrop perfectly.

Relief (or variety) finally rears its head again in the form of ‘Big Dogs’, which is equivalent to staggering up a staircase and discovering a low-key party after being trapped in a basement for half an hour. Hot Nikkels and weed-smoking cohort Redman do what they that they do better than anyone – trading goofy, vulgar lines over flatulent funk. Next is penultimate song ‘Break Ups 2 Make Ups’, a spare R&B style jam with a simple guitar loop that shows impressive restraint alongside neo-soul giant D’Angelo’s delicate crooning. We now arrive at the album’s true ground zero and title track ‘Judgement Day’. Picking up where 2 and 3 left off, Meth resumes a prophetic tone and cleverly utilises a detailed countdown as the chorus. The up-tempo beat is strikingly more polished and electronic in feel than its neighbors but still fits the bigger picture with acutely layered arrangements and concludes things authoritatively.

Like many late ‘90s hip-hop albums, Tical 2000 is overlong and coupled with a tracklist padded by novelty spoofs; even so, it’s an unfairly overlooked volume in the Wu canon and few weak moments can be traced. Taken as a mere assemblage of tracks for picking and choosing rather than an adhesive front, it consistently satisfies and a small cavalcade of gems awaits the un-ordained.

78/100

Sabzi – PARTHENIA (2011)


Blue Scholars and Common Market. On the Northwest scene, they are viewed as some very prominent acts, both capturing the essence of Seattle hip hop. What’s great about these groups especially, is that they’re very relatable. As Geo says on the title track of the album Bayani, “two students skipped a class, went and crafted an album.” The adroit Sabzi, also known as Saba, handles production for the two, and also has quite the solo career.

Being a jazz-trained pianist, he already possessed a background in music before he turned to turntables. Sabzi says perhaps the biggest influence on his music is the thoughts and perspectives of the youth that he works with in high school and college workshops. He’s also been known to sample Indie music, and even Bibio, whom I happened to review last. He stays devoted, continuing to produce sprawling creations that incorporate these extensive musical influences for his fans.

If you haven’t yet familiarized yourself with the Seattle scene, Sabzi’s latest digital release, PARTHENIA, will provide an adequate introduction, at least to the instrumental aspect.

The album stars off with “Hydroq B,” which hints at the mechanical quality that will be present throughout, while also proposing an ambient soundscape that would be best suited for sweltering, slow summer evenings. This leads on to “Purbasha,” a more energetic track with airy abstractions. “Chronique” abides to the chill-out essence, with an eery synth floating around at various times. What’s easily noticeable about this album, even this early, is that transitions between tracks are unwrinkled. The short but sweet “Me¢hani¢a£ Inse¢ts” paves the way for “Larkeeee,” which features a loopy synthesizer line that weaves through a xylophonic melody. The synths play an important role in this album, deepening and highlighting the resonance of other elements of the music. Next is “ur a hella flake, bro,” which, if you’ve heard Blue Scholars’ latest release Cinemetropolis, may remind you of “Fou Lee,” as it features the same abrasive breathing. “Quimbara Wang” and “Trailer Park Bazaar” continue the obscurity, while bringing in some timely bass instrumentation and percussion. “Colossal Mass” oddly separates itself from the other tracks, even if it follows the same approach. The album comes to a fitting close with “SPECTACULAR.”

In conclusion, this is an instrumental project that is unique from the norm and offers music that is sound all the way through, and never dull. My favorite tracks on the album were Purbasha, Larkeeee, and ur a hella flake, bro. You can purchase and listen to PARTHENIA on Sabzi’s bandcamp.

Overall: 84/100

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