I suppose it shouldn’t surprise anyone — me as the writer or you as the reader — that I finished one Hand’Solo release and immediately got sent another. This is how life is on the periphery circles for both indie writers and indie labels. The labels depend on you for the kind of coverage they’re not getting from major publications. The writers depend on them for an influx of promo copies to review to keep their overhead costs low. Some might call it a symbiotic relationship, some might less kindly call it an insular one, but such is the life of a hip-hop website OR label without a major publisher like Vox Media or Sony Music providing the budget in the background.
Mr. Thomas Quinlan assured me there was “no pressure to review it” when I got my copy of Psybo’s “Wherewithal,” so in theory I could have simply skipped this one altogether and broken out of the cycle. Why would I want to skip a release from a label that persists in making better-than-average rap albums though? Let’s put the emphasis on the word RAP here. That is the name of the website, and that’s what I’ve been singularly obsessed with since the age of nine, but so much of what gets made and sold as “rap” or “hip-hop” music in 2018 is barely identifiable as such. I could easily fall into the gray haired cliche of “they did it better in my day” but which day would that be exactly – the 1980’s, 90’s, 2000’s or early 10’s? ALL of these eras had more “rap” in their rap music. To chart these days so-called rappers spend more time singing than spitting, and those that do have bars can barely bust a verse without mumbling, stumbling, and tripping over their own tongue.
Psybo is thankfully a “rapper” in the traditional sense of the word. He’s a founding member of the London, Ontario rap collective Toolshed — a crew that included Chokeules and Timbuktu — but Psybo’s life took him to Vancouver to start a family and along the way a solo album he recorded got unintentionally shelved. Quinlan paints himself in a heroic light for “tracking down the masters and the original artwork” but I don’t know if it involved that much detective work or if he simply called Psybo on the phone to find out if he still had everything. If I’m being honest I don’t actually care how he came to acquire the original recordings and I’m betting you don’t either. All you want to know is if Hand’Solo held up to their standard of releasing rap albums that feature rappers actually rapping and not mumbling mushmouthed poorly sung lines.
We can easily declare “Wherewithal” a success simply by virtue of being 38 minutes of microphone mastery from start to finish. The short length and short number of tracks (10) reminds me of an early Das EFX album, but I wouldn’t say Psybo is straight from the sewers. He’s not a grimy rhymer at all. If anything he’s almost TOO clean. The diction is clear, the breath control is precise, and his timing forms a rhythm that syncs perfectly with the percussion. The thing that gives Psybo grit is the production courtesy of the aforementioned Timbuktu (who also cameos on three tracks) and Fresh Kils, who produced 60% of the non-cassette version (which comes with a bonus track produced by Cormiez). “Thin Air” is an excellent example of how Kils layers up different elements into a cohesive whole, making you want to mentally reverse-engineer where each piece comes from even while you’re paying attention to Psybo’s rhymes. Uncle Fester provides the scratching on this and any other tracks where the DJ gets wreck.
Make no mistake though that Tim’s 40% is equally fresh behind the boards. I have a particular affinity for hip-hop tracks that use the low end piano theory, creating a uniquely funky bass from those lefthanded keys that fall anywhere between 1-22 in a set of 88. To me it’s just like hearing a jazzy musician slap a bass guitar – it just creates an inner feeling of joy that unconsciously makes your head nod and fingers tap. “Hello Ello” covers all of those areas easily and breezily.
What about Psybo as a rhymer though? Well he’s a versatile cat who is capable of flipping up his style to accomodate any beat. He jumps into an uptempo high-energy flow that for some odd reason reminds me of Gym Class Heroes on “Blastoff,” but he just as easily handles a loping and laconic flow on the “so mellow it’s stoned” album finale “Satiated.” As for the verbal content of his bars, Psybo always keeps his head “Above the Water” and never drowns in a deep ocean of high expectations and lives up to his billing as “Mr. Emcee” in constructing thoughtful wordplay.
“For all the dollars, pounds, francs and yen
I’d pay three times over just to see him again
One stage, four men, and a handful of seconds
Rest of my life had an instant direction
We’re smooooooth, like a jazz quartet
Change of pace my planet in a day like a comet
Who knewwwww, it was casual sex?
Could’ve sworn I was born as something deeper…”
Chill Psybo, you were indeed. I wouldn’t rate him as highly in skill as say a J-Live or Jay-Z, but I wouldn’t rate him down as low as a Gucci Mane or a Gillie Da Kid either. He’s neither to the point you’re going to memorize every bar because of how dope they are or at that level where you have to hit FF on random skip because you’d prefer a more skilled artist. He’s just “good,” not “the greatest,” but nothing about this previously lost album suggests to me that it ever should’ve been shelved. I’m glad Mr. Quinlan found what once was lost.