This is one of those reviews where I’m unsure whether to start out on a positive or on a negative note. Since this is a typical good news/bad news situation, both would require me to end the review on the opposite note. So which beginning is fairer to the record, the positive or the negative? What does the reader want to hear first, the good or the bad news? Well, why not start with the stats. “The Unknown” is the debut album of Oregon crew Animal Farm consisting of rappers Hanif Wondir, Gen.Erik, Fury and Kenny Wilson. These Portland and Eugene representatives have previously been engaged in local groups such as Cleveland Steamers, Soundproof and Money Shot but have been focusing on this new project for the last couple of years, having already shared the regional stage with notable national artists.
The four emcees easily find common ground in the genre of simile-driven rhymes over sample-based beats. They get right down to business on the opening “We Came to Rock,” where they take quick turns over an upbeat track that is alternatively anthemic and jazzy, joining each other for the self-explanatory hook “This is for the heads, not for the fakes / for the scratches, blends, and for the breaks / not the fashion trends, it’s for the greats / We came to rock.” The nostalgic vibe still lingers in the air by the time “Ragtime Gal” comes on, where they take it really back, all the way to the Roaring Twenties, complete with vintage slang and swing sample:
“Make my way to the joint down the Alley of the Tin Pan
Lookin’ to make whoopee and drinkin’ out my tin can
Gettin there snazzy, I know I got my pick
So I dance and jig up to the bar and talk to this chick
Like… ‘Hey little birdie, ya got a name?
All these seedy gangs be actin’ all the same
Not your everyday rag-a-muffin fresh off the train
Not here to bump my gums, not a chump, not a lame
I be frank with ya, ma’am, I’m on the lam
We could shoot the moon, baby, I got a couple of plans
The coppers is after me, ya see?
Since that bank caper back in ’23′”
Conceptually, this is where Animal Farm already run out of fresh ideas, but they manage to cover it up with a series of rock-solid efforts. “Move It” is one of those songs that you wish found a bigger platform because as a party tune it really does everything right. Not everyone might relate to the throwback theme of the lyrics (“Give rap a facelift, back to its true roots / back to One Love, windmills and Troop suits”), but the inviting beat and the excellently employed background singers are hard to resist. Things just fit together on this one, from the playful, body-movin’ beat to the animated flows. “My service is to keep the party right like conservatives,” one Animal Farmer proclaims, and combined with their upholding of (assumedly) traditional values, they indeed give Sarah Palin a run for the money.
Regarding foreign affairs, however, they are clearly more competent, as evidenced by “War,” which tackles the topic from different angles, but openly criticizes America’s role in current armed conflicts. Musically, the track is heavy going and very different from the rest of the album. As such it’s a predictable effort that comes across forced, the crew trying too hard to musically and lyrically match the severity of war. Admittedly, a song about peace comes much easier, even considering that, as Large Pro once put it, “peace is not the word to play.” Animal Farm certainly don’t play on “Peace,” on which they are assisted by none other than KRS-One (who frankly failed to find beats this nice for his latest). Kris’ veteran emceeing compliments the hosts’ more complex lyrics, one of which welcomes the guest with the flattering line “My philosophy – KRS combined with Socrates.”
“Peace” also brings us to Gen.Erik’s performance behind the boards. Handling the bulk of the production, he does a competent job with solid to superb sample-based beats. There are some great finds in terms of samples, and the ease with which he uses them is a strong argument for continued crate-digging. He also succeeds in more modern beat programming in one case (“Idol Chatter”) and really only messes up with the completely unnecessary pop background for “All Out.” “Peace” is a beautiful arrangement of satin soul with a Latin touch. “Mean Streaks,” where they let their inner demons run free, would make The Beatnuts proud with its nose-thumbing track topped by comical lyrics (“I used to be very calm but now I got hairy palms / ever since I took that trip to BALCO with Barry Bonds / carry on obnoxious with anabolics / I mean I’m clean, it’s just a cream for my jock itch!”).
The guest producers hold their own as well. DJ Cade adds a symphonic touch to the headnod groove of the motivational “The Show Must Go On.” The Universal DJ Sect-laced “Last Call” makes it seem like yesterday when hip-hop was partying to drinking songs from “Tap the Bottle” to “Only When I’m Drunk.” Animal Farm also call on Italian beatmaker Mraxai for three tracks. “Crying” is a fittingly heavy orchestration for the truly touching sob story of a boy left to himself in a cruel world. “Hollywood Squares” is exactly what a harsh indictment of glamour and glitz needs, an intelligent but unforgiving mixture of strings, horns, and a loud rhythm section. A special treat however is “What’s Next,” not just because Mraxai lends his own relaxed Italian flow to the smooth ska-tinged track but also because Animal Farm create a cypher atmosphere that easily could go on much longer.
If “The Unknown” has a distinct flaw, it’s that it’s too often neatly packaged. A full-grown MC doesn’t need a seperate track to exhibit his mean streaks, he’s able to convey his full, complex personality in every single song. It is clear that Animal Farm are no new jacks, but they play it too safe, faithfully following the true school party line. With its extended hooks and various other familiar features, the not-so-apty-titled “The Unknown” is a backpack journey through a (late) ’90s hip-hop reservation. Yet it largely lacks the element of ruggedness that made the ’90s such a prized decade. On “Hollywood Squares” they for once sound genuinely pissed, but the immediately following “Rookie of the Year” ruins the impression with a goofy beat and self-important clowning of “pricks that know nothin’ about hip-hop.”
Another problem is that none of the rappers and none of their rhymes stand out. The three guests provide the top three notable performances. Even on “Hollywood Squares” it is up to Nightclubber Lang (Hanif’s older brother) to display the amount of personality that makes you take notice of one rapper out of a whole bunch of ’em. What’s more, throughout their debut, the Animal Farm members fail to identify themselves by name, which is either a luxury veterans can afford or a mistake rookies make. Still, if your backpack has gotten lighter lately, there’s worse candidates than “The Unknown” to fill up the space. It offers a diverse 15 tracks from a fresh-faced crew who from the get-go is very clear about its intentions, its very first words being, “Forget these shiny new rims, let the rhymin’ begin.” Musically, “The Unknown” isn’t necessarily music to bump in your ride or to get down on the floor to, but neither will it resist such treatment.
Although it seems like an uncomfortable position, I like riding the fence. In my opinion it comes with the job of a critic. I listened to “The Unknown” both in the role of a critic and outside of it. I listened not just because I had to, but also because I wanted to. As a mere listener I could skip the occasional track, as a reviewer I had to absorb all of it. When it comes to hip-hop in general, the glass is always half full for me, but as a critic, I tend to look at it as half empty. That explains that while I approve of various aspects of this album, there are others that for me jeopardize the effort. Ultimately Animal Farm, by trying to live up to some hip-hop ideal, neglect their own identity. Simply offering a “Northwest perspective” on familiar views and scenes is just not enough.