It’s common knowledge how hip-hop arose from its party origins to become the voice of the oppressed, to fight the power and say f*** the police. Anger and frustration have often been channeled through beats and rhymes to create timeless music, but more often than not, it’s one of the most potent styles of music to let loose some aggression. Vinnie Paz is as aggressive as it comes, but he’s an emcee who has proved interesting, divisive, contradictory, and most importantly, memorable. Early flirtations with a diverse vocabulary, and an alias (Ikon the Verbal Hologram) that blended vivid imagery with intense delivery, eventually saw Ikon reform as Vinnie Paz, a vicious assault of a rapper who preferred to deal in violence and intimidation but still took time to show an introspective side (particularly on his solo material). The Jedi Mind Tricks album “Violent by Design” remains a cult classic and is a fine showcase for how rich the underground scene was in the early 2000s, benefiting from some grimy Stoupe production that was promptly dropped for a more cinematic, orchestral sound on subsequent JMT albums. The side-project Army of the Pharaohs (headed by Paz) – a supergroup combining emcees from Philadelphia with Demigodz members – felt like an underground hip-hop head’s wet dream, particularly as they utilized a more New York boom-bap style of production. “The Torture Papers” had its moments, but it always felt like an idea that wasn’t fully realized, but I mention it because this new Vinnie Paz album sounds more like an AOTP album than any of his previous material. And that’s a good thing. As predictable as Paz’s verses have now become, he’s opted for the best production he’s had in years.
Kicking off with “Pistol Opera”, Vinnie continues his infatuation with firearms over a wicked Abraham Lilson production, including 7L working the ones and twos. It’s the inclusion of scratches though that give much of Vinnie’s best songs the additional vicious je ne sais quoi, most obviously demonstrated on the album’s highlight, “Killshot” with M.O.P.
This is a litmus test for hip-hop heads – if you don’t start wooing like Ric Flair when the beat drops, then you ought to check your pulse. It’s not an incredible song, but for self-confessed Billy and Fame stans like myself, it’s precisely how to do an M.O.P. track with Vinnie Paz. The beat from Vic Grimes is tailor-made for Brownsville’s finest with the stomping horns – I can’t get enough of it. The guestlist is defiantly 90s, and you get the impression the Philly emcee has looked back more than on any of his previous albums. You’ve got Geechi Suede on “Heroin on a Harpoon”, Ras Kass on “Winged Assassins” and Thirstin Howl III on “Loro Piano Robes”. Method Man comes through with another slap to any rap fan dismissing him as one of the greats, supplying his trademark flow that is still one of the best things in hip-hop. Mef in full-flow is a beautiful thing and much like Snoop Dogg and Busta Rhymes, proves he’s lost none of his star quality. While production often harks back to a different time, Vinnie does demonstrate a willingness to sing, which is something I never thought I’d say. Vinnie Paz singing?! Yep, and while it’s not likely to challenge Drake’s throne, it does work when used sparingly. His gruff style means its more along the lines of Ja Rule’s hoarse tones – “Faith Healer” is far grimmer in tone and delivery than either of those chart-toppers, and it’s a bit dreary for my tastes, particularly with the heavy bass and the dirty south snare rolls. But if anyone’s going to warble “It’s Murdaaaa” believably, it’s Mr Pazienza.
I admire Vinnie for at least trying something different because he had grown stale in the past few projects despite still knowing how to craft menacing aggressive hip-hop. Unfortunately, his rhymes still lack the invention or wit that built his brand of over-the-top imagery twenty years ago, now relying on unnecessary catchphrases dressing up verses that are unlikely to catch on. Vinnie is shouting “stupid” to the listener throughout “Tortured in the Name of God’s Unconditional Love”, along with his most irritating trait – continued laughing at his own bars. I get it, it’s now part of his identity but it does distract from the content rather than enhance it. There are even numerous Westside Gunn impersonations on the DJ Muggs produced “A War Chest and a Propaganda Machine” which indicates where this influence has emerged from.
Aside from these minor grievances, I can’t deny the strength of tracks like the Oh No-produced “3 Levels of Hikmah” or the haunting atmosphere of “Be Wise as Serpents”. These are examples of Vinnie shit-talking to dope production, and it just feels like a fuller, more consistent listen across what is now regarded as a lengthy hour-long run time. On the other single, “Slight Rebellion Off Madison”, Vinnie returns to singing with a more playful approach that does just about work but isn’t particularly easy on the ear.
Big Twins and Vinnie vie for the last pack of lozenges on “Spoils of War” as their larynxes lash against the mic to a Beatnick Dee beat that’s straight out of the dungeons of Queensbridge. You’ve also got Goretex (now known as Lord Goat) reuniting with Ill Bill on “Father Yod” and he steals the Heavy Metal Kings’ shine with his ‘mouthful of saliva’ attack on the microphone. The end of the album is solid, boosted by the wicked “Loro Piana Robes” with its AOTP-styled production from H. Potta, and as it concludes with the somber “Zafiro Anejo” you’re left with a Vinnie Paz album that plays to his strengths but shows some rare moments of experimentation too. It’s not without its flaws and lacks the consistency of earlier JMT albums – it’s also unlikely to convert listeners if Vinnie hasn’t won you over previously with his vitriolic venom-raps, but I enjoyed this album more than I expected. Just as I was growing tired of his recent solo offerings, he makes some slight tweaks to the formula and reminds me why I reach for a Vinnie Paz record in the first place.