What is that old expression? “There is nothing new under the sun” â€“ something like that? I think it’s Biblical, but it’s entirely applicable in the modern context as well. At a certain point in any given genre, all the good ideas will have been used. You can dress it up however you like, even get 50 Cent to endorse it, but a James Brown sample is still an unoriginal choice and a rap game/crack game metaphor is as old today as it was ten years ago. The key is in how you present the same old stuff, whether or not you can put a fresh spin on it and give an old concept new legs.
This is easier said than done, but the better artists are continually able to recontextualize a genre’s tried and true themes, as Jay updated Big’s blueprint and Little Brother ran with the Native Tongues legacy. There’s no shame in the continued use of the gangster theme if you can do it with the wit and flair of Raekwon in his “OB4CL” days, but it’s a bit like beating a dead horse when every last rapper on the radio has something uninspired to say about his or her drug dealing past.
It’s a topic the Ashy L Bowz broach on the song “I Guess” off their debut album “No Lotion,” where they take on the OG posturing of the current crop of rap stars:
“(I guess) cuz we don’t talk about crack or coke
Our rhymes ain’t dope
(I guess) cuz we ain’t never cooked up in the kitchen
Our punchlines ain’t hittin’
(I guess) cuz we ain’t always with a hundred niggas
That makes us soft, how you figga?”
It’s an apt point and one that they make quite well on this song. The low-key production goes a long way toward making their point too, as the sleepy bassline and muffled drums keep it as down to earth as their rhymes.
“I Guess” works so well because the Bowz sound natural, as if they have nothing to prove and are content to let their emcee skills shine through subtlety rather than by beating you over the head with them. The same cannot be said of much of the rest of “No Lotion,” however, which struggles when the tag team of Deeno Snuff and Triple Incredible goes for over-the-top punchlines, as they do at the beginning of the album. They open their debut effort by bombarding listeners with never-ending attempts at clever wordplay and bizarre associations that mostly fall flat. On “Keep It Ashy,” they boast of having “styles that’s Libre like the Nacho man” and declare to opponents that “the way you suck with the rhymes I call you the Hoover man.” Later, on “Smoke Dat,” they inexplicably declare that they are “savage like Fred” in what might be the most random hip hop association I’ve heard all year. This particular song exemplifies the album’s problems, with a substandard beat of uninteresting electro nonsense and boring drums and an extended metaphor that doesn’t go anywhere beyond the initial recognition of the topic. Perhaps the worst example of this failed direction comes on “Ya Tu Sabe,” a collection of insipid Spanish guitars and horrible Spanish accents all centered around some truly atrocious singing about a hit-it-and-quit-it encounter. The play on the Latin theme is neither cleverly conceived nor impressively executed, and it consequently falls flat.
It’s unfortunate the L Bowz can’t find their comfort zone on their debut because they are competent lyricists with natural flows and a good sense of humor. When all this is on display, as it is on the more laid-back cuts like “Crime” and “Hood,” they display considerable charisma on the mic and connect with their audience. Sadly, the beats â€“ provided by A-Rod Grime, Maestro, Buzz, and ConvahSation â€“ do little to inspire them and are for the most part either tepid elevator fare or generic synthesized templates.
The Ashy L Bowz name itself is derivative as well, particularly of southern acts like Nappy Roots and Field Mob’s debut disc “613: From Ashy To Classy.” All use the idea of natural, unaltered physical aspects of blackness that are looked down on by wider society as a badge of pride. To succeed in playing this same card, the L Bowz need to do a better job of distinguishing themselves from the competition and find an identity that works for them rather than jumping all over the place for style and lyrical content because they often appear to be overreaching. If and when they settle on an artistic direction, they have the potential to deliver an entertaining album. Until then, this one is a less than satisfying exploration of their possible musical future and is mostly skippable.