You know, it’s a real wonder that hip-hop with live instrumentation hasn’t caught on- you would’ve thought that The Roots’ ascent to mainstream visibility would have spawned a host of copycat ensembles intent on exploiting the spontaneity and dynamism that live instruments can afford. Bafflingly, rap has stuck doggedly to its 1200s and synths guns, opting for sampled basslines instead of bold, rich uprights, hollow, ductile electronic drum samples instead of the organic musicality of real hi-hats, kicks and snares. Thankfully, we have, over the years, witnessed pleasing exceptions to this mindset, with the likes of Dujeous and Soulive defiantly bucking the trend to offer a wholesome alternative to sample-oriented rap music. Enter The Square Egg, an adventurous ten piece outfit who strive to marry the sweltering sensuality of Motor City Soul, the soporific ethereality of Donald Byrd synth jazz, the urgent hip-jerking groove of funk and the exquisite neck-tugging piquancy of Native Tongues rap, a heady proposition that is, unfortunately, alternately inspiring and insipid.
Two rather large gripes to mention here. First, it must be said that frontman Lee’s vocal delivery is both the primary strength and shortcoming of the Square Egg. Exceptionally fluid and melodious in spots, awkwardly disjointed in others, Lee’s performance manages to be simultaneously consummate and amateurish. At times, Lee’s rambling, train-of-thought execution is perfectly appropriate, considering the free-flowing spontaneity that such an endeavor means to achieve, at others his delivery feels rigid and drab, incongruous with the sultry strains of his backing band. For the most part, Lee lacks the rousing charisma, as well as the metrically impeccable finesse of a Black Thought (but then again, just how many emcees can really match such a prodigious talent?).
This sense of “rigidity” manages to plague the band, too- while they delve into a pleasing array of styles, the playing throughout is, for the most part, disappointingly lackluster, the drummer exhibiting a frightful aversion towards fills, swing or inventive beats, his work dwelling entirely in boring 4/4 territory. This isn’t the groovy, stirring, subtly nuanced and profoundly musical playing of ?uestlove, that’s for sure. The bassist and guitarist don’t fare too much better, as each track resembles a loop-driven rap number more than a spontaneous, progressive composition. This grim uniformity is even more culpable when one reads Lee’s socio-politically relevant lyrical matter- why should the music be so sedate and subdued, when some of the messages are so militant and indignant? A glance of The Square Egg’s press bio suggests that the ensemble are inspired by the Rolling Stones, yet the sweaty, sexual, raucous r’n’b of Jagger N Co. have had little bearing on the material on offer here.
That being said, I cannot dispute the fact that this record has its share of great songs. “Woman” is an upbeat slab of Tito Puente flavored spiciness, one which exhibits considerably more exuberance and energy than most of the fare here. The 8 minute epic “Feelin” is a soporific, ethereal, somnambulistic masterwork, conjuring images of late nights and incense-scented bedrooms with its sleepy-eyed rhythm and lurching, whispering bassline. “Pardon Me,” while a bit stale in its “rap ain’t what it used to be” diatribe/rhetoric, boasts a huge hook, a VERY tasteful use of horns in the chorus and a rich, velvety upright bassline. Ultimately, however, these brief changes in tempo fail to revive what is otherwise a rather trying affair, one which fails because the gap between theory and practice is far too large- the band fail to revive the ghosts of their supposed influences, and Lee’s spotty delivery doesn’t do justice to the vivid insights of his lyrical musings. A very uneven record.