“Polymer” is the grand culmination of a project that began with the “Glutton” EP back in 2013. Tone had the grand plan to release four smaller albums over time, and then like the design implied by the album’s artwork, combine the individual parts into one larger molecule as tough and resilient as the artist himself. That’s not hyperbole or a brag from his press sheet — it’s my own assessment of a self-published rap artist who founded a label back in the 1990’s that is still making and releasing music today. This is independent hustle that pre-dates Bandcamp and Soundcloud, and almost pre-dates the rise in popularity of the MP3 format to the point that “song” and “MP3” started to become interchangeable terms. The point is that Tondeff has been doing this for a long time, often to critical acclaim, regardless of whether or not it generates a substantial return.
By virtue of being savvy about the music business, only signing and selling like-minded artists to his label, and never trying to be the biggest and baddest on the block Tonedeff has survived where others failed and maintained his cult following among hardcore hip-hop heads. At one point a friend in Florida almost turned me off to Tondeff through his unabashed membership in the Tonedeff fandom. He’d routinely tell me Tondeff was the greatest rapper nobody knew about (even though I already knew about him) and critique the fact RR hadn’t covered more of his work. I almost thought he was blind considering our Extended F@mm review, one of many side projects Tone has had over the years, but I tried to let it slide as he continually praised the emcee as greater than Nas, Tech N9ne, Common, Supernatural, Eminem and The Last Emperor put together. Ironically it made me tone deaf about Tonedeff. I started to tune out. I knew Tone was good but I didn’t need to hear it from his #1 fan if I gave a critical review so I asked other staffers to step in. Somehow “Glutton” was the only write-up that came up after all this time — until now.
Now just for the newcomers who are not familiar with his work, Tonedeff is Cuban-Colombian, born in Chicago but spending his teenage years in Miami where he first began to create music. (I think his stint in Florida only furthered my friend’s fandom but I digress.) It was his time in Queens though that furthered his reputation and bonded him with peers like PackFM and Substantial. Being a capable producer and label owner as well as a fluid emcee and visual artist, Tonedeff seems to spend as much time on other people’s projects as his own, which accounts for the spread of time between 2013 and now for the “Polymer” project to become a fully bonded molecule of music. Officially this is only his second full-length album though as previously mentioned Tone was always out’chea via singles, cameos and other QN5 releases. He never really went anywhere — he just bided his time until releasing this musical statement.
Now even though I think my Floridian friend has finally calmed down about his Tonedeff hype I still have some reservations about my next sentence. Regardless it has to be said — I’m just not a fan of hearing Tonedeff sing. It’s not because he’s singing badly. In fact as rappers who want to sing go Tonedeff is anything but tone deaf. He doesn’t need to AutoTune to mask any of his deficits as a crooner. I wouldn’t compare him to late R&B singers like Michael Jackson or Prince by any stretch of the imagination, but I wouldn’t compare him to late hip-hop legends like Guru either. The point is that he’s exactly in the middle as a songbird. Tonedeff sings well enough to not be terrible but not well enough to be fabulous. Since he’s such a gifted wordsmith and arguably one of the fastest verbalists when he flips the gift (easily comparable to Twista) it feels to MY ear like singing is a waste of time when I could hear his true talents shine. It’s his artistic choice and I have to respect it but songs like “Phantom,” “The Things You Don’t See Coming” and “Filthy XXX” are just skippable for me.
Another unintentionally challenging thing about “Polymer” is that the songs on this album are often REALLY long. “Control” is nearly ten minutes long. The rapid fire rap of “Competitive Nature” is great but at 7:18 you might want to use the bathroom and grab a snack before pressing play. There’s only one song out of 16 under 3 minutes in length (“And They Watched Him”) and nine songs over 4 minutes in length. Once again I respect the artistic choice but this “Polymer” is definitely synthetic meaning it’s not easily digestible. Thankfully there’s some sucralose in the make-up, such as the show-off track “Demon” that features a high energy rap and then uses his singing to GOOD effect to calm things down for a while, before ramping it up again for the big finish. At 3:35 it’s exactly the right length for earbud enjoyment. (The YT version is a bit longer.)
Songs like “Five Sisters” are where Tonedeff reaches his musical and lyrical peak. Over his subdued track Tone carries you on a cinematic narrative that unlike most of his contemporaries is not about himself until the line “I got five sisters and six mothers indeed cause each one was a mother to me.” It’s personal and it’s gripping to connect with Tone on this level, where he’s not showing off how fast he can flow or how skilled his wordplay is. He’s just sharing his life with all of us through song. That’s why “Polymer” is a worthy endeavor, because of the man behind the name making himself real to the audience through personal and powerful tracks.