VG Skillz :: E.X.H.A.L.E. :: Ill Dyalekt Records
as reviewed by Matt Jost

'Skills' was once one of those hip-hop buzz words that nobody can define but that sound all the more significant. Yet like so many popular hip-hop terms, the more frequently it was used, the more meaningless it became. A direct derivative of the 'keep it real' era of the early nineties, the term has lost most of its power and has barely survived in the underground. Still and all, if a rapper associates himself with the term, it means that he has set his mind on perfecting his craft. Not surprisingly, Houston rapper VG Skillz isn't part of the city's burgeoning Screw scene, but represents a marginalized hip-hop niche. So instead of slow-burning tracks and loose-knit freestyles, expect music of a more traditional hip-hop variety. Expect, if that means anything to you, skills.

In 2002 VG Skillz followed up his 2000 debut LP "W.I.S.D.O.M." with "E.X.H.A.L.E." In some way, this album is also a product of the worldwide web. Because it was over the internet that VG hooked up with the Swedish group The Narcs (now known as The Narcissists). Checking out each other's tracks online lead to Skillz appearing on their debut "Temporarily Forever". In return, Narcs producer Moonshine offered to furnish some beats for the Texan rapper's second joint. They ended up with a total of 11 tracks, VG recording his vocals in Houston and Moonshine mixing and mastering the tracks in Stockholm.

It is a intercontinental collaboration that definitely makes sense. VG's gruff, scrubby flow sounds good over bottom-heavy beats stuffed with the trademark underground arsenal of dramatic strings, classical pianos, and some stranger sound selections. There's a lot of choice beats to choose from here, from Excaliber's gloomy "Realize" to Surgeon General's physical "Hot Rhymes", and VG Skillz has no problem handling any of them. Since his delivery stays mostly the same, gritty but even-paced, it's correct to assume that the tracks as well rarely step out of their boundaries. It is this uniformity that makes one look towards the lyrics for unusual happenings.

Somewhere on "E.X.H.A.L.E.", Skillz swears that he'd "never ever sacrifice substance for the flow." Seems to me that he does just that, to some degree. The self-described "Blue Collared MC" works his flow like a pro, but actual substance, something that would stick with you, isn't exactly abundant, as the content of his lyrics often plays second fiddle to the construction of the rhymes. Add the fact that, caged by his fail-safe flow, VG's performance stays somewhat flat and his delivery becomes increasingly monotonous, and you find yourself missing something in this talented rapper's repertoire. On top of that, VG Skillz is not much of a battle rapper (he's got too many played out punchlines for that), yet routinely comes across as one.

Even more reflective offerings like "Love and Happiness", "The Silent War", "Realize" and "Troubles" may ultimately not satisfy those who seek for deeper meaning in rap songs, although the title track, or rather its opening ("Alpha") and closing ("Omega") versions make a strong case for VG Skillz as a MC with something to say. The album's dilemma can be best described when mentioning the two overused Mobb Deep samples it utilizes. Prodigy's "Take these words home and think it through" and "There's a war going on outside no man is safe from" both have become staples for battle routines and tales of survival. The original intensity of "Shook Ones Pt. 2" and "Survival of the Fittest" remains unequalled, and too often when you hear these snippets it only serves as a reminder of the masterpieces rap is capable of. It reminds you that for a battle rapper, VG is not nasty enough, and to be really felt, his writing lacks the final personal touch. Despite these reservations, "E.X.H.A.L.E." is a quality independent hip-hop album you should consider picking up.

Music Vibes: 6 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 6 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 6 of 10

Originally posted: May 20, 2003