Self-described as “one of California’s best kept secrets”, the tandem of Grand Opus (Fresno rapper Joc Scholar and Oakland producer Centric) decided not to keep their work a secret any more with the late 2018 release of “High Power.” To coincide with that coming out party the duo also released a video for “The MC” which reflects the duo’s California roots plus love of hip-hop music and culture. What really strikes me is not the lovingly shot Oakland scenery and graffiti murals but the fact that Grand Opus seem to be battling THEMSELVES for at least part of the video.
Arguably this isn’t the first single from “High Power” though. A few months back Grand Opus purposefully leaked “The Drug” before the album dropped. Now why would they go and do a thing like that? Famed Brooklynite “BDI Emcee” Buckshot is the featured guest star on the song. I suppose if you’re a “best kept secret” and you don’t want to be considered a secret any more, that’s the way to do it.
With or without these two songs Grand Opus will not be a secret any longer off the strength of “High Power.” Even though they are a California based group, you could easily hear a more Wu-Tang Clan sound to tracks like “The Master” and not just because of “levitating on top of the mountain” lyrics or Kung-Fu samples. In truth it boils down to one thing — Joc Scholar sounds like U-God, but he flows like U-God 2.0. While Lamont Hawkins has a charmingly staccato delivery, Joc Scholar is a much more fluid bar spitter, drawing long breaths and pushing out entire bars with a similarly gruff vocal tone. It’s easy to get hypnotized by his rhymes as they “reverberate like an earthquake” over Centric’s beats.
Unlike so many hip-hop releases in the late 2010’s, “High Power” is a true ALBUM in every sense of the word, clocking in at over 45 minutes long with a dozen songs and no skits or filler. Where would there even be time for filler with guest stars like Buckshot and Skyzoo? The latter appears on another of the album’s (many) standout tracks, the “bang this in your whip while feeling the Cali breeze” style anthem “Surf’s Up.”
One thing that I’m a little unsure about though is the seemingly Luddite bars of “Technology God.” He seems to equate the internet era and the “new ways to win wars” to be something “like Oppenheimer after making the bomb”. This feels especially contrarian to me given the target demographic of any “best kept secret” rap artist or duo tends to be the internet savvy consumer first and foremost. These are the people who will buy your album first, will praise its virtues first, and who will promote it to their friends and fans on their blogs first. I’m not sure I would set a strident anti-technology tone to those people, but as I used to say on rec.music.hip-hop back in the day, “You’re bitching about internet rap… ON THE INTERNET… so who’s the keyboard warrior here?” You can’t have it both ways.
I don’t consider this to be a fatal flaw for “High Power,” just a weird left turn along what was otherwise a very long and scenic road. From the heavy piano riffs of the boom bap rap “Way Up” to the African influenced rhythms and drums of “Be Free,” there’s a consistent quality of both lyricism and production that makes Grand Opus a very effective team. While I can’t rate either one as the best to ever do it in their respective fields (at least not at this early point in their careers), there’s a definite emphasis on substance over style that makes “High Power” worth your while.