Ever since my introduction to Uprok Records and its gifted roster of artists, I’ve consistently been impressed. Their signature blend of positive, uplifting raps and overall musical solidarity just seems to make my head bounce almost automatically. Now Raphi, member of Uprok collective Tunnel Rats, aims to do the same. And while not as instantly loveable as past releases by the label, “Cali Quake” definitely earns my seal of approval.
In my review of the Tunnel Rats’ album, Tunnel Vision, I was guilty of sort of overlooking Raphi. To be honest though, I did feel that he was overshadowed by other group members, and he didn’t make as big an impression on me as, say, Macho or Sev Statik. But listening to this solo effort, I have to admit that he’s definitely got skills. He still occasionally reminds me of Eminem vocally (not at all in subject matter though), but in general, Raphi’s got a style that’s all his own. That is, a mid-range vocal tone and the ability to flow nice on just about any tempo. Yet somehow, despite being more than competent, Raphi still doesn’t manage to elevate “Cali Quake” from goodness to excellence.
I think the main problem I have with this record is its length. It’s nearly 70 minutes long. That’s nineteen tracks (including two useless interludes). Now, while I do agree with Uprok’s philosophy of giving the customer their money’s worth, I also believe quality over quantity. Omitting a couple of the weaker tracks (like the all style/no substance “Rollin’ With the Punches” or the go-nowhere album closer “Better”) and axing the interludes would have tightened things up. Sometimes less is more.
Otherwise though, “Cali Quake” has no trouble standing on its own two feet. Musically, some of these beats have NO trouble living up to the album’s title â€“ a couple of them are bound to make your headphones pound. “Connect” sounds like Evidence had a hand in the production, and the Dert-produced “It Goes Down” is bouncy and funky enough to be an album standout. The latter track also features Wordsworth, who never gets the props he deserves. He absolutely steals the show from Raphi here. Elsewhere, “The Right Way” has a ghostly, eerie sound, with a bassline that seems to have a life of its own. “Then and Now,” Raphi’s grown-up-and-reminiscing track has a Spanish guitar vibe that’s so dope you would think Mr. Carlos Santana was involved somehow. But the most banginest beat award has to go to “Welcome,” with its East Indian-meets-West Indies vibe. Raphi claims that track to be the “future of flows,” and if that’s the case, fine by me.
Unfortunately, while all the above-mentioned cuts have strong production, Raphi’s lyrics tend to take the backseat position. Sure, the topics are varied: everything from the Rodney King fiasco to cliched claims of lyrical supremacy is covered. But nothing really grabs the listener’s attention. This is unfortunate, because on later tracks, when Raphi gets more creative, he shows what he’s truly capable of. Case in point: “Beat Battle,” where the beat itself calls Raphi out for a freestyle battle. He obliges, and things get crazy. Ultimately, this concept is a bit better than the delivery, but like home-made birthday cards, it’s the thought that counts. But when all is said and done, the best moments on “Cali Quake” are “Life Surprises” and the following track, “Anytime, Anywhere.” On the former cut, Raphi plays the role of a cat who’s mother mistakenly gets killed by a jealous ex of Raphi’s girl. Needless to say, this track is a fresh change of pace, and Raphi’s emotional, story-telling delivery is beautiful. “Anytime, Anywhere” is told from the perspective of a thug who happens to observe the scene. Telling the same story from two entirely different viewpoints is a great concept, and it’s executed to perfection. I can only wish Raphi would have kept up this level of creativity for more of the album, as this is where he really shows off his skills as an MC.
With a little more polish and a little more focus, “Cali Quake” could have been fantastic. As it stands though, it doesn’t quite measure up to Uprok’s previous track record. But then again, those are high standards for anyone to try and meet. Regardless, this is still a solid release that definitely deserves a listen.