You’d almost think this was an Abbott and Costello routine. “Say Napoleon Maddox, what’s the name of your rap group?” “Iswhat?!” “Exactly, I want to know what it is.” “Iswhat?!” “That’s the question I’m asking you! What is it?” “Iswhat?!” “AWWW FORGET IT!” In all seriousness the Iswhat?! crew may be one of the most unusual and interesting rap groups I’ve come across in a while. Jack Walker plays the saxophone and flute, Matthew Anderson plays bass and scats when needed, while the aforementioned Napoleon is their lead MC and human beat box. They hail from the sin city of Cincinnati, an often underrated hip-hop scene that gave rise to artists like Blueprint, Hi-Tek and Mr. Dibbs.
It would be cheap and easy to look at Iswhat?!’s preference for live instrumentation over sample loops and compare them to The Roots, but it would be just as much of a mistake to listen to a Roots album and compare them to Iswhat?! For starters Napoleon Maddox is clearly on his own shit, and that shit is not always hip-hop, and no it’s not Napoleon Dynamite either – this group was formed in 1999, years before that movie hit theaters. If you had to compare Napoleon to anybody at all it would be Saul Williams, since both are just as comfortable rapping as speaking in freeform poetical styles. Rhyming to a beat often takes a backseat to simply being BEAT, as illustrated by the song “Lies”:
“I’ma go down the street and get some sausage y’all
Next week I’m goin to mass and I’m gonna confess
Everything that I’ve ever done wrong to another person
And I I’ll feel totally forgiven
I got plans to do bodily harm to people that’s done bodily harm
to my people and.. and I’m feelin
that bodily harm will, replace the psychological harm and then
You know, I wish that
Every person walkin down the street had a car
And no bikes existed, and, that, the plates
The solar plates on top of cars, where people would
drive solar powered vehicles and – I wish that never would happen
When Iswhat?! come to the studio
Our sounds be like… nahh, so-so, y’know?
Cincinatti is a place where I feel totally liberated and
The indians that’s on reservations deserve to be there
Check it out uhh – how many lies have I told today?
And, what truth did I neglect to say?”
Simple ain’t it, but quite clever. Just when you’re about ready to hate Napoleon for being a total asshole, he flips the script on you. It’s not always that easy or obvious to discern Napoleon’s meaning though. Like a true Beat Generation poet he can hide behind multiple layers of meaning and leave you standing there trying to pull away the smoky veil only to be left with handfuls of smoky air. Now if this were all spoken word Iswhat?! might get relegated to the same critical acclaim and lackluster sales artists like Saul Williams often deal with, but with Jack Walker and Matthew Anderson keeping him grounded “You Figure it Out…” is both hip and hip-hop. “Fables of Faubus” sounds like the crew got together for a jam session and spontaneously decided to remake Pumpkinhead’s “Dynamic” remix, getting lost in freestyle jazz in the process. Guests like John Doe and Michael Barnhart on “Trust” help Iswhat?! turn a bass melody drifting out of a dark House of Blues into vibrant hip-hop soul. Sometimes the title itself says it all “Thump, Loop & Scratch” really needs no other explanation.
There’s no question that Iswhat?! intended a very literal meaning when they titled this album “You Figure it Out…” They purposefully blur the lines between several genres of music, expecting the listener to draw their own conclusions on whether it’s rap, poetry, blues, jazz, hip-hop, pop or all of the above. Even concluding the album with a DJ Spinna remix of “Cold Hands” doesn’t settle the issue, as his reinterpretation of the track is one of the most musically ambiguous of the whole album, although still fresh as hell to listen to. This reviewer would actually like to suggest that “figuring it out” might actually be a mistake – this is one of those albums where sometimes it’s just better to stop thinking about it, flip the lights off, and soak aimlessly in the musical vibes. If there’s anything one can figure out from listening to Iswhat?! it’s that whatever they are is GOOD MUSIC.