According to its renaissance man of an author, MC and software engineer, Rashenal, “Human Block” is quite an ambitious concept album. Indeed, according to the MC, this self-titled album by the Human Block project, comprised of Rashenal and producer and fellow Wild Life Crew member Jelts, is a concept album “exploring the most basic forms of human connection and how human lives are shaped around these connections.” I would normally be fascinated by such sociological inquiries. The problem though, is that Rashenal is not a good rapper.
Rashenal lacks skills as an MC for two main reasons: his delivery and his rhyme patterns. Rashenal’s voice is monotone and anonymous. Neither of these traits is independently damning. Guru and Nas could each be accused of monotony, but it s a monotony that stems from either swagger or weariness. Rashenal’s monotony, on the other hand, is a product of the fact that he isn’t an adept enough MC to be both expressive and on-beat.
Anonymity is also not necessarily a bad thing. Dose One, on his works with 13 & God and Subtle, allows his hip-hop chants and growls to fade into the ether. But Dose One’s approach stems from humility, the feeling that he is a small part of a whole project. Rashenal, on the other hand, is wholly featured on “Human Block” but remains anonymous because he does nothing to create his own voice.
At the end of the day, Rashenal’s delivery suffers because he does not have a good grasp on rhythm. Instead of riding the beat, either fluidly or expressively, he mechanically traces each track’s percussion, stretching his syllables to ensure that he says the right words at the right times. His breath control is wholly adequate, and on “You Say This” he does show some ability to vary his pace, but his style lacks character and confidence. He needs an appointment with Doctor Weezy, or something. “Disabled Culture” is the strongest track on the record, as our featured rapper alternates between labored spoken word, sing-songy flow, and distorted fast rap. Still, even this track, features particularly un-inventive talk-singing which disrupts an intriguingly minimalist beat.
Our MC’s mechanical flow is magnified by his mechanical writing style. With, of course, some exceptions, Rashe tends to write in either an “AA/BB” or “AB/AB” structure, with little variation or internal rhyme. As a result, the tracks are largely vocally indistinguishable from one another.
From the rappers take on his own album, as quoted above, it seems that, in the mind of the artist, the content of the lyrics themselves is “Human Block”‘s redemption. Lazy as this may sound, I never got that far. Don’t get me wrong. I listened to the record many times all the way through, but I never found myself caring much what this Tempe Arizon b-boy had to say. His delivery never captivated me enough to spark curiosity about his message. I am not willing to make some grandiose statement about form over substance or vis-a-versa, but what I will say is that, sometimes, when either form or substance is sufficiently lacking, the other one doesn’t much matter.
What is particularly a shame about the lack of vocal form, is that the production is actually pretty decent. Jelts is not necessarily an innovator, but he is certainly able to lay down consistently subtle and melancholy beats, interspersed with space-age dissonance and satisfyingly familiar samples. “I Am” features adeptly mixed rapid fire strings and a catchy, sped up vocal sample. Indeed, through “Human Block,” Jelts has a knack for choosing samples and altering them in a way which at once preserves the appeal of the originals but also fits them to the track. It is tempting to say, for example, that Jelts sticks too closely to Cake’s original riff on “Four Letter Word,” but such a criticism would prioritize sheer originality over aesthetic sensibility, which seems to define pretension. While his drums are an overly stock boom-bap, which lack variety from track to track, Jelts’ melodies and samples effectively garner intrigue at the top if each track. The rapping itself, however, consistently defeats Jelts’ efforts.