“Let him speak, he’s so misunderstood
Let him speak, the new voice of the hood
Never had the hype, always had the heart
Keep it simple and sharp, then I land on the charts for the FAME”
These few lines from “Fame” on U-God’s new “The Keynote Speaker” album say a lot about U-God’s approach and rap career. Well I’m not sure if he’s been misunderstood, but in my opinion he’s certainly been under-appreciated over the years, although his “Mr. Xcitement” and “Ugodz-Illa Presents: The Hillside Scramblers” albums didn’t help boost his reputation amongst hip hop fans (his solo debut “Golden Arms Redemption” wasn’t regarded so well against other Wu-Tang Clan solo member debuts either). It’s also quite true that he’s never really been surrounded by any (positive) hype; quite the contrary in fact, as since early on he’s been regarded by many as the Wu’s least appealing member.
I’ve always liked him. Yes I acknowledge that he never really made a great album until “Dopium” (okay it wasn’t “great” but it was pretty good â€“ aside from the strange inclusion of a trio of dance remixes), but the main thing for me has always been his voice and flow i.e. “simple and sharp” as he states. I can see how that simplicity in his technique has possibly contributed to him being viewed in a lesser light against the likes of Ghostface Killah, Raekwon and RZA, with their deeper wordplay and more complex lyrics, but his elementary style and deep vocal tone has always appealed to me for its catchiness. He has the kind of delivery and voice that would have been at home in amongst old school crews such as The Furious Five, Cold Crush Brothers etc. Whilst that might imply that he sounds dated, I actually find it quite endearing, as it marks him as unique and refreshing in amongst the voices we’ve been hearing over the last two decades.
“The Keynote Speaker” feels very much like a continuation of “Dopium” in both overall feel and quality. At first glance it presents as a more ambitious album with 19 tracks, compared to 11 (i.e. sans remixes) on “Dopium”, but in reality “The Keynote Speaker” doesn’t really play for as long as the track listing suggests; half of the tracks clock in at under 3 minutes with only one song over the 4 minute mark (and three of the tracks are very short skits). I would have preferred some of the better tracks to run for longer, as some of them seem to be over as soon as they start, but it’s not a major blight against the album.
After a not particularly original mock radio station greeting welcomes us to the album we’re hit by the energetic sounds of the title track. It’s definitely in the pocket of the “classic Wu sound” and features a punchy beat and powerful horns that play triumphantly to herald the arrival of U-God. It’s definitely a superb opening to the album. I’m instantly reminded of “Train Trussle” and “Stomp the Roach” from “Dopium” with the next couple of songs, a fact aided by the presence of the sensational Jackpot on them (i.e. Jackpot AKA Scotty Wotty AKA Jackpot Scotty Wotty – take your pick). Whatever you want to call him, “Mr. Wotty” blew me away on “Dopium” and on “Heads Up” and “Fire” from this album he’s just as impressive (a full album as a duo with U-God wouldn’t be a bad idea). More impressive than his semi-regular sidekick though is U-God himself, especially on “Heads Up” where he rides the beat in such a way that his flow undulates, almost following the melody of the sample underneath the beat; it’s a nice little nuance which is reminiscent of the way old school emcees harmonised on some songs and it adds more character to his verse. The song also features a livelier than usual GZA, but I’m a bit concerned that I’m starting to hear some age creeping into his voice (something which takes some gloss off Chuck D’s vocals these days too). “Fire” also includes a nice fine detail, where the chimes and sirens in the track replicate the sound of a fire alarm, which might sound lame in writing but it really comes off nicely. Method Man also features here, and all that does is make me want another solo album from the man ASAP (it’s been a while).
“Fame” is the last guest assisted track for a while, which isn’t a bad thing as I want an MC to show his strengths (and weaknesses) by going it alone as much as possible on his own album. Actually, based on the video clip you’d probably think I was hearing things talking about guests, but the album version DOES feature a verse from Styles P, who is anything but the “ghost” his nickname implies as he seems to be popping up everywhere these days. The typical “I let the hammer blam for niggaz” verse from Styles is rather irrelevant to the track though, as the main theme is U-God talking himself up as the legend he is (or “thinks” he is depending how you view him). It’s another track that should please those Wu zealots who insist that anything from the Wu collective must adhere to a certain sound, although the moody loop behind it is of a rather generic nature:
The song also touches on a couple things that make U-God the quirky, almost unhinged (or misunderstood?) character that he sometimes portrays to be. One of those is the grandiose boasting, which is often so far-fetched that I’d like to think he’s displaying tongue-in-cheek comedy rather than being serious. For example, a rapper claiming “Fame” is expected, but we have a song called “Mt. Everest” where U-God tells us things like: “Oil paintings of me displayed up in gallery”, “Presidential cred, eating steaks that’s tenderest” and “First class ticket to the Moon only cost 50000”. Or in “Journey”, where he leaves the Moon’s orbit and comes back down to planet Earth with more grounded, yet still not totally convincing chorus boasts of “I’m the talk of the town”, he mentions the exact same thing in “Fame”, and similar sentiments are delivered elsewhere also. Then on “Heavyweights”, your assumptions are correct if you guessed he’s telling us about his supposed lofty status in the hip hop scene, although in this case his claims of greatness are also aligned to the Wu-Tang Clan in general – and their status in hip hop can not be denied. I personally don’t think U-God has really ever had the admiration in the hip hop world that he talks about, as I’ve heard mostly negativity about him over the years, to the extent I think many people were quite shocked by how good “Dopium” was (the same people that might also be pleasantly surprised by “Keynote Speaker”). I can’t deny though that I am glad to see he has a confident and steely resolve to keep powering on despite (un)popular opinion about him.
The other thing that really stands out from him are the “odd” lines that he comes up with, which you will either be amused or annoyed by (I’m the former). Back to “Fame” again, we hear “Pass me my suitcase, you skinny pants fruitcake”, or on “Room Keeps Spinning” he’s describing a woman who is “acting like a functioning retard”. There are quite a few similar lines that make you think “did he just say THAT?!”, and I quite like that he phrases things in ways rarely heard from many other rappers (Freeway is one who has similar tendencies). After all, it’s all typically colourful U-God type of lyrical content and he wouldn’t hold the same appeal for me without it. “Days of Glory” shows that it’s not all exaggerated boasts and strange lyrics though. Well yes he does he remind of us that he’s still capable of inexplicable randomness with “In my backyard, that’s where I bury kings, I stay clean, Dynasty Ming”, but more importantly lines such as “I had it, lost it, had it again, in my heart yo I had it to win” and “Don’t live with regrets, I learnt from mistakes” are remarks that speak to me as more sincere than the talk of his bargain tickets to the Moon.
Historically, the music behind U-God has probably been an even bigger gripe for the man’s detractors, but overall I don’t think he’ll upset too many people with what his producers offer on the album. Seeing the name RZA listed as executive producer and in amongst the production credits of a few tracks isn’t going to rub anyone the wrong way. His three tracks on the album are quite different to each other. “Be Right There” is Wu-Tang does modern day Dirty South, complete with standard “hey” chants (it will make sense when you hear it) behind the tracks and the chorus, and U-God rapping along in an appropriately faster way (by his standards). It’s not my usual cup of tea, but I’m not compelled to skip the track as it’s a rather more electronic, almost sci-fi version of a Dirty South beat that (thankfully) retains a harder edge. Coming from a totally different angle, “Get Mine” is what I think of as Tarantino movie soundtrack RZA. It’s a slow, blues laden, soulful track which shows a combination of a slow flowing U-God, paired with him actually singing parts of it. In all seriousness he has a decent singer’s voice with a deep tone that is reminiscent of blues artists from bygone days. Ultimately though, I prefer to hear U-God as a straight-up MC, and the other track by RZA called “Room Keep Spinning” is a nice display of the story-telling aspect of the MC art form. U-God details a couple situations where his mind gets messed up by things such as alcohol, women and popping funny coloured pills, tales which are matched appropriately to RZA’s production which has a fresh psychedelic vibe to it.
The rest of the production is handled by various producers such as regular U-God collaborator DJ Homicide, plus names that are less familiar to me such as Steve Reaves, Leaf Dog, Teddy Powell and Blastah Beatz. Curiously, DJ Homicide provides both the best and the worst sides of the album. The quality “Heads Up” is his, and he also bring us “Skyscraper”, where the feel of city life and lights is translated perfectly into music via Homicide’s work and U-God’s verses:
Not all the DJ Homicide tracks fare so well for me though. Not only do “Zilla” and “Tranzform” sound similar to each other with guitar fuelled aspects to them, but they both sound like “Mr. Xcitement” leftovers, another album which Homicide provided a few beats for. They aren’t wack but they do rate as lesser tracks on this album, and neither is helped by very weak choruses (it’s something which has often been a problem for U-God and it’s apparent on a few tracks here also). “Stars” is probably going to get the most hate as it’s a very commercial track, but for me it’s saved by the energetic way U-God rides the beat. U-God’s mic style also keeps “Golden Arms” from drowning in its mainstream feel. It’s laced musically by J Serbe & J Reynoso Jr. and has touches of commercial sounding beat programming, plus another synthed up chorus ready-made for the clubs, but the performance of U-God is impressive.
Blastah Beatz channels 90’s RZA mixed with Deltron era Automator on “Mt. Everest”. It’s one the best productions on the album, and features nice little change-ups where the various samples drop in and out, with drums so clean that you could eat dinner on them. The presence of an inspired Inspectah Deck on the track reinforces the classic Wu vibe, and once upon a time Slum Village member Elzhi doesn’t disappoint either. The other track worth mentioning is “Journey”, more for reasons of its curious collaboration than anything else. Here’s a clue: U-God raps “Not Cedric, but I’m an entertainer” – any takers? The older heads would probably have caught onto the Ced-Gee reference there, which is a nice hint from U-God that The Ultramagnetic MC’s are in the vicinity, although it’s not Ced-Gee in the house, but the one and only Kool Keith. To be honest though, my build-up for Keith’s presence here isn’t really justified, as neither his verse nor the production from Teddy Powell is particularly interesting (and it’s another track that suffers from a silly chorus). Funny how time changes things, I used to flip over Kool Keith back in the day but nowadays he’s quite “ho-hum” to me (thanks to too many bad albums from him over the last ten years or so).
There is little doubt that U-God will never attain the popularity of Ghostface or Method Man, but it seems he’s proud of what he’s achieved, where he is now, and where he’s headed, and he’s not shy to let us know about it on “The Keynote Speaker”. Rather than just talking about himself for the majority of the album I wouldn’t have minded touches of social commentary also (similar to what Cappadonna showed on “Eyrth, Wynd and Fyre”), as he’s getting older and wiser, but then maybe U-God is simply never going to be that kind of rapper. After all, if his music maintains this level of high quality he can be telling us he walks on water and I’d play along with it, I just hope this album convinces a few more people to pay some deserved attention to his solo work.