In this rap universe opinion leadership may change as fast as the Hot Rap Singles charts, one rule remains in effect: don’t beg for props, earn them. If someone decides to call his album “Overlooked” then, he’d better come up with some persuasive arguments as to why that should change. Frontline, a four-man group out of Chicago, are definitely in need of some attention, if only for the reason that members jDoubleu and Chauncie Gardner are some of the more excentric rappers the underground has produced.
After each crew member shortly introduces himself in the opening “Overlooked & Underestimated”, Chauncie Gardner is off to present his many styles in the aptly titled “Styles I Possess”. At some point he reflects, “now when you lose focus on a rhyme, what should you do? / put your pen down until later, dude / don’t try and force another sentence unto / just pass it off to the left.” With four members in Frontline, that should be no problem. Taking over from him is BaNNeR with “Veteran”, taking you on a tour through his hometown Chicago and its various hip-hop scenes. He also offers a glimpse into his own background:
“I’m from the land of pimps and hoes, Vice Lords and foes
Problems of my city seen clearer from project windows
Yo, I picture poverty, harsh reality that bothers me
On the inside I cry, that ain’t the way it oughta be”
15 tracks later, BaNNeR takes another look out of his window and delivers one of its highlights, the somber “Street Symphony”. His voice reduced to almost a whisper, he gives this detailed account:
“Through my window I gaze out into the night air
when in my right ear I hear a faint voice cry out in despair
No doubt it was somone that had fallen prey to the city
but I’ve heard it one too many times so I felt no remorse when the sound hit me
Please forgive me… if I seem somewhat cold-hearted
but I have one too many friends who are now dearly departed
They all fell prey to the beast that we call the mean streets
the only animal known to man that can kill when it sleeps
And no matter your living condition, your age, race or religion
inner city symphonies are worldwide and this is just one rendition
When the day grows long and the sun starts to descend
and the sky becomes black is when the hunt tends to begin”
Appropriately, the track changes up, the delivery becomes more animated, as BaNNeR singles out two lost souls and tells their stories, the latter of the two so disturbing that you’d rather cover your ears. But like LA veteran rapper Frost once said, these stories have to be told.
Arguing from a personal point of view, jDoubleu and Chauncie Gardner try to prove that the suburbs aren’t Disneyland either (“Who said suburban families don’t have problems?”). In “Trying Souls” they talk about life’s trials and tribulations, such as the divorces of their parents:
“My mom and dad are both responsible for me being alive
I’m grateful, but why’d my pops leave when I was five?
I struggled to keep the tears out of my eyes
Sure I cried, but to no surprise my mom and I survived
Today all three of us live our own seperate lives
I still talk to my dad but the voice in my mind
is there to remind that during the hard times
my mother’s hand was the only one I could find”
Finally, they get all together to complain on “Life’s a Bitch”. And that’s where some of the more urgent problems of this release manifest. The sentiments seem sincere, but ultimately the track is awfully average, leaving you shrugging your shoulders instead of agreeing with Frontline. If it ain’t the flow, it’s the voice, if it ain’t the voice, it’s the lyrics. If it ain’t the lyrics, it’s the beats. Something always prevents the songs on this album from being taken completely serious.
Still, they manage to make their points and occasionally even get them across. “The Sickness” sees Atlas and guest Adad attacking materialistic mainstream rappers, “Kamikaze” sends BaNNeR on a mission impossible to battle corporate hip-hop. But you can only complain for so long. The breaking point in their anti-commercial stance is when Atlas claims to “show you what hip-hop is about” and to be “the resurrection of the Microphone Fiend,” when it’s all too clear that the wish was father to the thought here.
Thankfully, Frontline also have fun with it. Masters of their craft they may not be yet, but they do deliver a suspenseful album. “Metamorphasis” is about, well, mind and body altering experiences, and surprisingly they are able to keep it abstract and funny at the same time. In “Marvel Us” they dress up as super villains, only to break out of Arkham Asylum in “Asylum Break” (w/ O-Type Star). Switching with ease between simply “Reppin’ The Chi” and the bizarre accounts of Chauncie Gardner (something about a little man in his head dictating his rhymes) and jDoubleu (doing the split personality thing in “Mind in the Gutter”), this album never ceases to surprise. Even if you’re familiar with this particular steelo and are quick to file it under ‘Rappers Examining Their Heads’, a cut like “Street Symphony” will catch you off guard.
The downfall of “Overlooked” doesn’t lie in its diversity, it’s in the details. Refinement on all levels would be in order for Frontline to break through enemy lines. Matching the tracks better up with the raps, the raps better with the rhymes would be an undeniable advancement.