Off Def Jam and onto another major label, Mississippi-born emcee Big K.R.I.T. is still locked in by one of the big boys though perhaps not the most well known of them. His third album and a double LP at that, entitled 4eva is a Mighty Long Time, comes via Multi Alumni, but only after receiving the green light from BMG Rights Management, a subsidiary of multinational corporation Bertelsmann. Needless to say then, we get some superficial subject matter, and much of the first section is its home. Disrespect towards women, drug use plus money, spending and just propaganda for consumerism make praising this portion of the album extremely difficult. Before the more meaningful close, K.R.I.T. even acknowledges the duplicity in “Mixed Messages.” He tries to justify his conflicting themes and inconsistencies as all natural, fine and even cool, if you believe the tone of the song and fail to question the motives of the company with which he’s involved. The large amount of material helps a little bit and so does the fresh production that mainly works as verse accompaniment as opposed to anthem- and hit-making support, but it’s simply mired by hazy language and contradictory beliefs that can’t be taken as genuinely K.R.I.T.’s own. (2 out of 5 stars)
Slumerican, Shady and Interscope country-slicker Yelawolf returns bearing his fourth LP Trial By Fire, after the typical 2.5 years since his last, the Love Story album of 2015. With more backwoods-active raps over folk rock guitars and an insidious alcohol-and-drinking trope, Yelawolf and his labels have assembled an album more similar to all of his previous projects combined than not, but not necessarily for the better. Yelawolf’s emcee skills are upright and he takes turns championing friendship, family and his musical influences but Trial By Fire is to a greater extent a series of melodramatic character studies, with stereotypes included. People getting their hands dirty to get by, dangerous city dwellers, a cheating male lover and a grief stricken father put on a showcase of human suffering in painfully expected, traditional roles. And as we’ve said, the drinking motif makes everything that much more slimy. Trial by Fire, which is no better than average, fails to exchange the image of Yelawolf as a wild, rural industry-rapper for that of an enlightening, evolving, multidimensional artist. (2 out of 5 stars)
Since Khaalis has been away so long and also because he’s not caught in the mainstream spotlight, his background needs some revisiting. This artist’s journey began during the golden era. As the younger brother of Masta Ace Incorporated producer Lord Digga, Khaalis would learn from and contribute to his elder sibling’s work. In addition to befriending Masta Ace, he also met the other Juice Crew artists being in such close proximity to him. Khaalis’s own debut LP, My Soul To Keep, arrived in 2009, but he is perhaps most well known for his extensive mixtape discography. In 2008 alone, he released twelve of them, one in each month of the year.
In Lazarus, Khaalis of course stands out for his outstanding wordplay and messages but so does the rock and gospel-tinged production with samples of “Frere Jacques,” Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want To Wait” and more. Plus velvety song-vocals by guests like the reappearing Jennifer Myles provide nice counterbalance to Khaalis’s intense lyricism. More than mere supplements, this music and the feature artists are part and parcel of the project alongside the main attraction—Khaalis’s priceless verses.
With his complex yet conversational flow, he raps on the tragic, violent hood-environment and how his life as a child revolved around basketball, rap and the streets in “The Wake, Pt. 2.” Another opus and an industry study in fact is rolled out (or enrolled you could say) in “Jail University,” where Khaalis examines how the separate paths of prison and college affect a career in rap, differently and sometimes with little to no difference.
We really start to see how healthy his mentality is in “So Grateful” and then immediately afterward in “The Edge, Pt. 1 & Pt. 2.” As you may have guessed but are yet to truly experience the glory of, the first describes how blessed our author is just to be alive. In the second, he says ‘bring it on’ to any and all tests of strength that could possibly come his way, with a ‘give-me-all-you’ve-got’ attitude, and by summoning his inner Melle Mel stating, “please push me ‘cause I’m close to the edge […] ‘cause I, I wanna know if I can fly.”
Your heart and soul will no doubt be soothed and warmed by the end but also, your mind will happily carry the weight of Khaalis’s load-bearing speeches. He discusses the struggle for positive racial identity in the hood and the deterioration of the health of black culture in America due to commercialism for one, how media and program directors for example have played a ravaging part in drawing a distorted picture and painting the color lines with unsuitable hues. But still, Khaalis doesn’t shy away from placing some responsibility on the shoulders of the very people who are having the hardest time. Because some of their problems are self-wrought.
Khaalis remembers to say something severely critical about absentee fathers in “Remember Me,” following it up with a tragically ending cheating-slash-domestic-violence story across songs “Bad Day” and “Escape The Lies.” Fortunately and as a result of great song placement, penultimate track “Impatience” comes through to encourage us to seize the day, reach our fullest potential, and recognize and appreciate the greatness of simply having life. Using his positive knowledge and wisdom, his sincerity and of course his high caliber flow, Khaalis enriches the spirit, whether he’s inspiring us to fight on with force behind his firm words or by connecting with us through his clarity and sprawling relatability. (5 out of 5 stars)
Maine-bred emcee Spose (Ryan Peters) claims to have made Humans, his third album of 2017, in twenty-four hours but the planning behind it probably took much longer. An exhibition that (on the surface at least) proves the P. Dank crew masters at project execution, Humans is another example of the fine offerings typical of hip-hop’s artistic underground, which is outside the jurisdiction of major labels. Spose’s established style recreation, standard loyalty to the music rules and too few wow-moments pull Humans back from perfection, but melodic hooks, musical beats, good guests and solid concepts place it above the average. Intro track “Humans” is a must listen but the entire ten track set is surely no waste of time either. (3 out of 5 stars)
With all the internal disputes going on with the Wu-Tang Clan recently, anything put out by the group or some of them will not easily match their usual excellence. It’s no wonder then that their new studio album The Saga Continues, which features most of the collective (sans U-God and most disappointingly GZA), is listed on some platforms as a Wu-Tang release, minus the “Clan” end-tag. Is it one of their official LPs then? Short answer—yeah, but unfortunately it’s their worst to date. The Entertainment One album (which by the way could have used a better title) has some decent standalone moments via Raekwon’s nice storytelling skills in “Fast and Furious,” a moment for love in “My Only One” and RZA’s politics-kicking (a series of laments really) in “Why Why Why” and “Saga,” but the majority is typical gangsterdom over basic production from DJ Mathematics. Besides the two close-to-conscious sections by RZA, the Wu crew have completely missed the D.I.Y.-target of actually using their raps for the all important goal of communicating something purposeful. Instead, the task of wisdom-giving is left to two anonymous speakers in their respective skits, defeating the point of the rap-verse as a tool to share good ideas or healthy messages. Once again, this is an eOne Music product and little more than that, a step back from A Better Tomorrow and not good enough to make us forget about Once Upon A Time In Shaolin. (2 out of 5 stars)
If rappers are critiqued mostly for what they say on a record as opposed to what they don’t, then conscious Southern trio Cunninlynguists (Kno, Deacon The Villain and Natti) are still making great product. Yet despite all the soulful poetic wisdom in their layered bars, there is still plenty in the world the men don’t talk about, but we’ll focus on what actually makes it into their lyrics. The group’s sixth studio LP, Rose Azura Njano (APOS Music/RBC Records), is a success to cut to the chase though perhaps not a lot more than that. Like always, the Cunninlynguists’ concentration primarily on smoothness and technique with their broad truisms begs the question – shouldn’t the fellas rap more pointedly on new specific subject matter, in other words get to the nitty gritty quicker without dancing (let alone beating) around the bush with style? Most with a clear honest mind would answer yes. With some variation, Rose Azura Njano is basically the same type of music the brand started with, but it’s a fine type still. The Cunninlynguists might not sound straight-to-the-point enough for some, but their continued attention to politics, the poor, minorities, and social injustice generally speaking is still very admirable. (3 out of 5 stars)
Asian American participation in hip-hop takes stronger hold as emcee Ruby Ibarra drops her debut LP, Circa91, on Beatrock Music. Having released her debut mixtape in 2012 (the Kay Slay-hosted Lost in Translation), the Philippines-born, San Lorenzo, California-raised artist has also accumulated a stack of videos, high profile performances and several article-features on prominent publications, for her career catalogue. All things considered however, it is the fall of the traditional emcee in the mainstream mass-media and its continued evolution in the underground that have helped give a platform to this talented young lady from the East and West.
If you are at all familiar with Ruby Ibarra’s work, you’ll know that it is steeped in authentic rap lyricism, finely developed and filtered, and put to good use. Lost in Translation told of that tale and so does Circa91. With her spunky energy and genuine nature, Ibarra reveals the world of a young girl, now young woman coming of age, having grappled with and now working out her conformity and assimilation issues, though not necessarily to the appeasement of everyone in society mind you. This is in many ways the story of her hunt (and that of many others) for acceptance and identity in America as a member of a dark skinned ethnic minority.
Like the gem that she shares her name with, Ruby shines bright but her heart also bleeds as she relates to us the hard, complex feelings behind the immigrant experience in the US. Some anger at the setup of the system is invariably included in her speech. No matter what though, the beauty in her voice and her end-resolve nevertheless find sanctuary in her love for family and her craft. In short, her path heads toward success, simply because she shows us her real self and is more than open with her emotions. In almost exclusively discussing the clash of cultures between the native and foreign born, Circa91 does not get into much else, but as a concept album of sorts, it excels, and as a debut with flavorful guests and production not to mention important themes and sharp lyrics, it no doubt exceeds expectations and then some. (4 out of 5 stars)