More than often, independent hip-hop comes across as either too cheap or too cerebral. Jay Allen out of Harrisburg, PA has chosen another route. One that, as it continues, seems to be paved with quality releases from quality rappers. Producing the astonishing "Da Ambush" compilation for Make It Happen Entertainment in 2000, he has now set out to establish his own business stronghold, Higher Realm Entertainment, presenting the label's first release, Penhead's "Paramount" album.
Handling the entire production, Allen manages to leave the annoying keyboards vs. samples debate behind and comes up with music that is enjoyable, plain and simple. This release isn't plagued by amateurish attempts at making music like so many others. Its beats never overpower the raps, yet they could easily stand on their own as instrumentals. "Penicillin" is made up of three or four different melodious elements of almost oriental quality, all gathering to hover over bottom-heavy beats. "Eyes of the Underworld" features some coldly chiming keyboard segments, interpreting their role very subtly. One thing about this particular style of production, the instruments used evolve beyond their designated role, up to a point where you can't tell what type of instrument was used. Almost magically, sounds collectively turn into music. Emotional but never dramatic, effective and never over-elaborate, these beats are a blessing for any rapper with a serious agenda.
A song like "High Velocity" sounds exactly like a song about the hamster wheel of hustling should sound. And "Paramount" really evokes a feeling of supremacy. "What's the Verdict" makes again good use of the keyboard, "First Tears, Last Laugh" offers a refreshing break with some old school beats (ca. 1990), "She Brings Jealousy" is a symphony of clear sounds strumming on your ear drums, "Get the Business" makes it seem as if the success story that Penhead and Jay Allen plan to write really is about to happen any minute, "Legendary" takes us back to medieval times, while "Kamakazi" pairs trickles of piano with a girl's wordless lullaby. "The Predicament" is slightly reminiscent of Wu-Tang, with its movie dialogue and the exotic, melancholic melody, but it's nowhere near the shameful jocking other producers engage in. There's only one selection that remains non-descript, which is "Sweet Agony". The rest of the production ranges from very solid to superb.
There's a certain coldness to "Paramount", but one that doesn't make you numb to its emotions. Again and again you marvel at the cold beauty of these tracks. Even a notch above the aforementioned beats are "Hostilities in Me" and "Revolt's Brainchild". The former is a superbly orchestrated track with sparingly applied strings, guitars, bass, etc. coming together to sculpt a musical body that radiates determination and depression at the same time. The latter is one of the best beats I heard so far this year. A hard but melodious bassline sets the guideline while in the background coolly sparkling sounds send shivers down your spine. Let's see what Penhead has to say about this:
"Half-dead crackheads slowly turn into zombies
With my third eye all I see is burning bodies
Wicked thoughts of a holocaust shows his face off
In the projects same concept as Adolf
Majority of the law enforcement's German Nazis
properly furnished with the most advanced technology
Helicopters equipped with night vision, trackin' system
Satellites regulate the outer limits
Religious beliefs, kissin a killer's cheek
Showin' loyalty to your six deep
Where morals are seen as felonies, guilty by association
convicted by a corporation of law makers
While the ghetto produce musicians and ball players
with a large percentage incarcerated
or in the graveyard decayin, prisons overpopulated
So many lies documented in history books
Picture me shook to death, I look to set if off
The law sparks these rebellious thoughts
Cherish the art of war, offer no remorse in combat
This shit's beyond rap"
In Penhead, Jay Allen seems to have found a rapper who can handle his strong compositions. He ain't no Nas, but ever so often he will come up with a certain expression that still lingers about after he has moved on, things like:
"Reality has a fairytale effect"
"I gave the streets a wedding ring, we forever linked"
"Honesty is the key, must have honor among thieves"
"Empires collapse in back of what you said"
"No vaccines for this rap fiend, emceeing's a medicine"
"A broken angel wing caused me to be disguised as Penhead"
Sometimes coming off like a more pedestrian version of Killarmy, other times totally original in thought and style, Penhead is a diamond in the rough that won't annoy you with the bling-bling. Analyzing life and the game, he deliberately sides with the good guys. He may promote paper-chasing every now and then, but when he's by himself, he rather talks about "the sheer blasphemy of fame and wealth" that keeps him "in a humble state":
"I'd rather be a broke nigga than have to lie to myself
So many folks sell their soul for wealth
Lord forgive the drug dealers with no option
but to sling rocks on the blocks
with cops and fiends watchin' they dreams
dissolve in the concrete
It's beyond me, cats hustle for all the wrong reasons
thinkin' 'bout clothes and sneakers; it's deeper"
He admits to being "corrupted by the streets, still I don't preach poison / my words have been annointed," and even adds: "My hip-hop's a form of ministry." Not unlike a preacher, Penhead is one of those rappers that go on and on, but does so mainly because he +can+ go the length. Sometimes the statement seems to follow the rhyme instead of the other way around, and when it comes to hooks, he just completely sucks, and I frankly don't know why he keeps mentioning communism, but things like that don't detract from the fact that this guy is as original as they come. Original as in: being himself.
Penhead's noteworty contribution to the compilation mentioned earlier on was "Who Wants to Be a Terrorist?" - a song whose meaning was difficult to grasp and could really only be pinned down to a vague 'certain predicaments will make certain people do certain things' type message. A few months later global terrorism reared its ugly head and destroyed many innocent lives. It is understandable that after 9/11 a song called "Who Wants to Be a Terrorist?" would be received badly, regardless of what the song is really about or how rhetorical the question it raised may have been. That's why for the re-appearance on his debut album, Penhead changed its name to "The Predicament" and cleaned it of any mention of the word 'terrorist'. The rapper further explains that he wrote the song when he was 17.
Still, something seems to haunt this release. In another song, there's the line "The spirit of a [edited] lies within me," making it seem probable that the t-word had to be censored there as well. Also, in "The Predicament", he says: "My tactics were harsh, I had to get my point across, with the heart of Hussein" and talks about a "sheer butchery of your student body." In "High Velocity" he remains "patient as a sniper, move like a fighter plane," while a guest rapper on "Eyes of the Underworld" lets us know that "Bin Laden's on every street corner and Sadam's under siege." On top of it all, there's a song called "Kamikazi" on this album - which not only contains the t-word but also sees Penhead repeating the phrase "The sky's endless, I fear nothing but God / Kamikaze spirit, dying for a cause"...
With global terrorism seemingly on the rise, Osama Bin Laden still on the loose, the recent sniper/serial killer case in the Washington area, the many school shootings and an imminent US attack on Iraq, references like these are just too eerie not to notice. But all it really means is that Penhead's raps are not completely out of this world. In fact, what we have here is a reality rapper who gets out a positive, often personal but ultimately political message in a poetical manner.
Music Vibes: 8 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 7 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 7.5 of 10
Originally posted: October 31, 2002