ESSENTIAL HIP-HOP REVIEW: WORDS: MATT OLIVER





What a blockbuster month in hip-hop it’s been… Snoop setting the world’s biggest gin and juice record. Eminem and Nicki Minaj reportedly going steady. 50 Cent against Ja Rule, episode #89. Seven tracks being the new 18 tracks plus intro, outro and skits, plus bonus disc.

And there’s also been Pusha T versus Drake: ‘Daytona’ is a significant, title belt-claiming blow that’ll take some recovering from – the latter’s ‘Scorpion’ is imminent, with the additional angle of Martin Shkreli weighing in. Kanye’s ‘Ye’ poses more questions than answers, which is precisely what makes the man, while Nas & Kanye’s ‘Nasir’ has its moments, but falls short of what the dream team billing promises and certainly needs more room than the running length du jour. This is before we’ve even had time to take on Kid Cudi & Kanye’s ‘Kids See Ghosts’, or attempted to try and keep up with The Carters.

 

Singles/EPs

Dead Residents’ ‘Style Terrorist #1’ weighs an absolute ton, a clunky renegade barking like a sergeant major wearing influences as badges of honour. Heist vibes in full effect when Mr Brown sets a tripwire and infra red assault course and Confucius MC and Jehst come abseiling in through windows, all in the name of protecting ‘The Art-form part 2’, warning that “the ultimate high is the overdose”. One man’s lazy day on the river is another’s circled by sharks – Benofficial’s ‘Machine Gun Benny’ perfects the casual-smarting look. On the edge of grime and trap, VersesBang is sonically and sartorially sharp with seven tracker ‘Dressed to Kill…Myself’, well-paced so as to let listeners take a peek behind the big time persona (“I need to take control, like playing FIFA when it ain’t my go”).





After destroying airwaves with one of the freestyles of recent times, Black Thought rises above all of the aforementioned hullaballoo with the six track ‘Streams of Thought’. Augmented by 9th Wonder’s telepathy, soulfully shaded but a no-go zone for suckers, it’s an absolute lesson in politics, autobiography and pure battle-hardened craftsmanship that number one spots are reserved for. Parading the glamour life before denting it hard, Conway the Machine and Sonnyjim, with business-like savagery, cause ‘Death by Misadventure’, professional professors in the science of not flinching when stakes get high. To pianos that go left where ‘Still DRE’ went right, Blank Face and Tools Beastly ride the streets on ‘Gunslinger’, advising against feeling lucky. Trademark street cinema from Endemic Emerald joins with French generals 87 Escadron for the war report ‘Mercenaires’, army fatigue gruffness driving through the eye of the storm with Ruste Juxx and Tragedy resuming support. Add Apollo Brown carefully stirring emotions with boom bap going deep in thought, to Locksmith laying bare introspection, ideas and education, and the answer of ‘No Question’ is empathetic and quietly emphatic.




Albums

This year, Ramson Badbonez is ‘Jason Bonez’. That’s not Jason of the Bourne Identity, nor the Argonaut organiser or even the one-time Scott Robinson, but the mask-wearing blood and guts specialist who as with everything he does, doesn’t take his foot off the gas from the first unsheathing. Here to carve open nine swashbuckling tracks, wringing the house of horror hitman spiel out hard, there’s a new patron saint for whenever the 13th Friday of the month rolls around.





The restless sound of Rye Shabby is to ‘Die Shabby’. Worldly pressures that build up around him are absorbed by the protection of a dark, eerie glow, lyrically economical with energy but never the truth. With Verb T writing out prescriptions that enhance the dilapidated, empty experience, sling it on during the dead of night and find it how it envelopes the room, bringing silhouettes to life and an unspoken feel for consolation.

We may be a bit late on this one, but with new special editions launched and then swiped off shelves, Crimeapple and Big Ghost are the crime family with ‘nuff shots to share. ‘Aguardiente’ is a 100% proof of ferocious rhymes and slick stories making you believe everything spoken about every goon, scam and threat (the hook to ‘Five Chechnyans’ will make you laugh when it probably shouldn’t), to the tune of soul-infused onlookers and accomplices that either look the other way or are in too deep. Music to stash goods and tint windows by.





Neat and tidy true school enthusiasts who have the golden age running through them like a stick of rock, New York’s Penpals crew keep the underground on the level when penning ‘To Whom It May Concern’. Their zeal for technical perfection/pseudo-nerdery means rocking the boat extends to shouting out John Cleese, but the likes of ‘On the Roof’ are just what your garden party and fly school reunion needs. A few listens in and thou shalt not return to sender.

Time for some hip-hop corporal punishment to keep the next generation in line: Bumpy Knuckles is the elected elder statesman who won’t bend to socially mediated conventions. ‘Pop Duke’ is produced by Nottz knocking heads together, and has Chuck D, Kool G Rap and Biz Markie showing there’s no substitute for experience and a carefully sharpened stick in the mud that creditably, doesn’t ramble on.

In it to win it. Fake it til you make it. ‘Thieving as Long as I’m Breathing’. The world according to blasé boosters and old skool aestheticians Career Crooks, savvy Philly pair Zilla Rocca and Small Professor emptying a swag bag of doting remixes plus their own version of how to hold the hip-hop underground to ransom like gentlemen bandits. Do not be scared to check or scared to look. ‘Paranoid City’ by Isaac Roberts, previously known as Sleaze da Don, and Sonnyjim, is another to get repackaged by respectful well-wishers. Remixing new life into the pair’s doyens at the top table diary, Illinformed, Kelakovski, Smugii, Kosyne and the headliners themselves put up a very fine set of variations still keeping it tight knit.





Tom Caruana unveils volume six of his always exceptional ‘Rough Versions’ remix series with a collection of super funky Biggie revisions that elevate classics to new levels, made like the Son of Sam man was the real brains behind Bad Boy all along. The equally notorious David Begun is also at it again with a slice and dice job of Mobb Deep and Dr Octagon. Even if you think the format is tired (and there’s not much wrong when linking core QBC epitaphs to the ghoulish underground), the artwork alone to ‘Dr OctoMobb’ deserves a bony-fingered round of applause.





Bored of the World Cup? To finish, here’s the one man army that is Aesop Rock.




Matt Oliver

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MATT OLIVER’S ESSENTIAL MONTHLY HIP-HOP REVIEW

 

A happy new year to all freshly affiliated and dyed-in-the-wool Rapture & Verse rapscallions, climbing off its seasonal sickbed by thinking Eminem’s ‘Revival’ would be the antidote (it isn’t, by an unimaginable distance), and surprised that in the era of health and safety, you can still buy a GZA ‘Liquid Swords’ reissue complete with mini toy weaponry. Hopefully last month’s comprehensive Monolith Cocktail round-ups have put you in the picture as to 2017’s ins and outs; while we catch up with December’s overspill, there’s always Skillz and Uncle Murda squabbling for your retrospective vote.






Singles/EPs

After worming his way into the inner circle of Madlib and DOOM, electronic/house superpower Four Tet doesn’t fluff his audition remixing ‘Madvillainy’, a satisfyingly clean alternative bringing its own worldly daredevilry to the original’s boggy waddling. ‘No Excuses’ asserts Big Cakes, and the seven, Queen’s English-get-the-money tracks don’t pull their punches, making a convincing argument to go for second helpings. More international assassination from Endemic Emerald sends his latest platoon into battle, with Scorzayzee and Tragedy among the stripes-earners, while his string sections get the streets surrounded, the granite-and-gasoline ‘Black Bag Operation’ taking the opportunity to dump rubbish.





Liquid refreshment from Moka Only & E.d.g.e. comes ‘Lucid’ to a fluorescent twittering of too cool-for-clubs synths. Noteworthy for the useful mantra that “rap always overgrown, the grass need a mow y’know, too abstract to be quotable”. The trife life sticks close to Muja Messiah, taking on Roc Marciano’s sweat-trickling gangster leisure time; ‘Saran Rap’ is a half dozen street codes with eyes wide open that would relax if the stakes weren’t so high. Illogic re-enters his astral plane to tell everyone about ‘The Beauty in Evolution’, fastening his seatbelt and hanging out the window with a mix of dubby, jazzy instrumentals and rhymes trying to keep a lid on sounding awed.

Straightforward instructional from Slim Thug throws itself into the front row as he sorts ‘Kingz & Bosses’ with Big KRIT, pleasingly muted in measuring for crowns and emperor’s robes. The sledgehammer sound of BigBob pulverising a piano allows Sadat X and Big Twins to carefully take aim and open fire on the enjoyably unequivocal

roach-stomper ‘The Truth’. When the streets are watching, it’s ‘All Eyes On Us’, with Jamo Gang – Ras Kass, El Gant and J57 – bristling at the wheel of a related, get down or lay down steamrollering.




Albums

Completing his Michigan trilogy, Dabrye’s ‘Three/Three’ invites over a glut of underground hip-hop firebrands, but taps a sign that reads ‘respect our neighbours’ every time one takes to the booth. A stylish, steady holding it down, passing pure hip-hop, neo-soul and electronic routings rarely trespassing into the reds, with DOOM, Guilty Simpson, Ghostface, Danny Brown, Nolan the Ninja and Jonwayne standing for a fine album that doesn’t shout so from the rooftops.





High Focus maximise their strength by mix-and-matching two of their topmost chefs souring their latest specials board. Never a duo for soft centres, Jam Baxter and Ed Scissor spray disarray to decorate ‘Laminated Cakes’, their gateaux filled with mercurial gall and grit, and with Ghosttown providing the tough base and sprinkle of hallucinogens that aren’t exactly melt in the mouth. As they make you head nod like there’s a guillotine blade eying up your scone, Pierce Artists are the ‘Kings Returning’ to a hard-backed throne. Unlike the nation’s cricketers, Elliot Fresh and Deeq determinedly dig in, don’t waft at anything airy-fairy and never take their eye off the ball, to Rack Mode keeping perfect line and length on the beats. Part superhero, part vicious dental plan, ‘Teeth Ledger’ has Datkid and Bailey Brown flexing the sort of infectiously perturbing superiority that comes easy. Hood rat rhymes do obnoxious as matter of fact, and beats shrug in the face of catastrophe while waiting for the night bus: both have got a garrison of goods to set wintry nights ablaze, anchored by the supreme head-trolling ‘Whos Dat’. Another slow release slug to your chest from Bisk, with Sam Zircon assisting the leech-like tactics, makes it rain with ‘Saucemoney’ – perfect for when the sun refuses to come up.

Oh No cherrypicking from cool Cali stronghold Now Again is a funk/soul think tank that sounds played by ear, and whose good-paced trolley dash of sounds masks meticulous programming. Keeping a queue of mic antagonists waiting while mentally composing a posse cut’s posse cut, the dustiness of ‘Oh No vs Now Again 3’ is dredged in gold and will reactivate your head. Cutting through early year frostiness is Pete Rock and his ‘Lost Sessions’ finding sunshine on the horizon. Of casual instrumental majesty, the MPC finds the balcony view to its liking once given plenty of breathing space. No need to pass the aux here. The first hip-hop signing by The White Stripes’ Jack White is inauspiciously named New York emcee SHIRT – sartorially scruffy (and a search engine’s nightmare), but with enough raw, nomadic swagger to have you recognising the ‘Pure Beauty’ within.





David Begun continues to meddle in the affairs of Nas and Madlib, ‘Nasimoto: The Even Further Adventures’ playing God with the Gods and bootlegging to a boss standard. Fresh perspectives that push all the right, corresponding buttons. The crux of Masta Ace’s ‘Son of Yvonne’ gets renovated by a host of European producers that do both proud to earn their place in the album’s family portrait. Funky on the low but full of that all important snap that makes Ace tick, the tight-knit promise to never from the beaten track claims a companion to complement and rival the original.

Playing street games and getting results, Religion’s ‘The Demo Reel’ rigs up cop themes crossing the wrong side of town until reality starts to distort. Mists paint the scene from the ground up and freaks come out at night for loops and kicks that will work your neck blue, allowed a seldom spring in its step. For those still walking around in a post-Christmas fug, ‘The Top Left: Skeleton Staff’ from Mistah Bohze will shake you by the collar and out of your resolution-dodging malaise. Bulky from first to last until you’re swamped, and including a crafty reinvention of ‘Kernkraft 400’, the Glasgow emcee ploughs through on his own can’t stop-won’t stop manifesto.





“This is not trap, we don’t mumble neither: closed mouths don’t get fed”. Redbaren 907 and Deep of 2 Hungry Boys are ‘Unbreakable’, and you soon believe them: a won’t flop beats and rhymes unit (‘Barz Flows and Delivery’ hammering the point home), dishing out a one-two you can reliably gain muscle to. With the globe circling the drain, KXNG Crooked presents blow by blow coverage from the disaster zone with a flow to make you put your foot through the TV. ‘Good vs Evil 2: The Red Empire’ is iron-fisted intensity not sugar-coating narratives (despite some carnal urges) for anyone; despite the bleak pictures he paints, you trust the KXNG, whose force relegates beats to a footnote, to repair the job in hand.



Mixtapes

Everything worth hearing from Jeru the Damaja – a higher 90s heyday than most – gets its laundry aired on the ‘Dirty Rotten Mixtape’, Chrome and Donnie Propa in charge of putting together the best wrathful mathematics going. On the surprisingly lightweight ‘Emperor Nehru’s New Groove’, giving brains not too much to worry about, Bishop Nehru is on cruise control when flaunting shiny wares for the club and lounge: smooth operations hanging at the shallow end. Bruse Wane declaring ‘The Batman Should’ve Been On It’ transitions between classic beat loans and original album prep, swooping like charity gala attendee by day before night shift vengeance takes over. The bat signal is fairly strong with this one.





No videos this month. Go catch up with a boxset instead.

You can check out all Matt’s past roundups here

And all his reviews/roundups/selections from 2017 here

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