In hip-hop, label compilations have a place since Sugarhill Records put out the "Street Beat" double LP in 1984. Old school samplers like these, however, compiled by and large previously released material. It wasn't until Macola Records introduced the world to "N.W.A and the Posse" in 1987 that the compilation format became an opening act, and even that release mainly sought to profit from the popularity of Eazy-E's "Boyz-N-The Hood" smash. Nowadays, hip-hop compilations containing all-new material serve purposes as diverse as coming up with a convincing crew effort, upping the label's profile, or securing fan devotion. Frontline Entertainment's "Sine Language" succeeds at each one of these levels.
The Chicago-based label has gathered an impressive amount of local MC's and beatsmiths that make "Sine Language" an exemplary collection of independent hip-hop. The core of Frontline consists of the group by the same name, who released last year's "Overlooked" CD. But whereas "Overlooked" often stumbled when trying to find common grounds, expanding the guest list has only helped to make everyone more focused. The high morale is illustrated by excerpts from Al Pacino's locker room pep talk from "Any Given Sunday" and various participants giving their definition of Frontline Entertainment in the intro.
The CD then shifts into gear with B.a.N.N.e.R.'s "Get Live", where stage dialogue segues into a dramatic soundscape over which the rapper threatens to take the crowd hostage if necessary: "I'ma bring your punk-ass back in here until you straight up ready to wild out / this ain't for pretty boys, so you can be gone with those cinnamon Timberlands / this for cats that wear scuffed Lugz boots, get off on a rush of adrenaline." After this crashing of the gates, Fine Artz have a hard time convincing listeners that they really are "Light Years Ahead" with their traditional brew of mid-nineties East Coast beats and down-home flows, but they do make an important ideological contribution by manifesting, "true skills will be my bling."
The album's next phase deals with existential questions. In "Give & Take", Energy and jDoubleU define life as a perpetual balancing act, over an unpretentious track whose blueprint lies buried somewhere in the West Coast underground of the past decade. On "Eyes of Others", Qwazaar (assisted by H.E.L.L.S.E.N.T. and NOVA C.A.I.N.) contemplates his actions in light of how those around him see them: "I study my ways, my mind through the eyes of others / and I hope still one day that we'll relate to one another." The link to emotional, introspective hip-hop with a Left Coast vibe remains intact when Chauncie Gardner, Gras and jdoubleU sympathize with struggling souls through melodical flows and intricate lyrics on "Cry for Help".
"Sine Language" then abruptly takes a turn for a more tongue-in-cheek approach. First, Energy recounts his addiction to the female gender in the aptly titled "Females Are Dope". His dreamy drawl compliments the sweet lure he describes:
"Stronger than peer pressure I decided to wait
but everywhere I looked they were right in my face
Eventually the temptation was just too great
females are so delicious, I had to take a taste
but only one time, and then I'll back away
I'll never get addicted, what a fucking mistake
I hit it once just to feel what it's like
I hit it twice because the high was so nice
three times, now I'm a hype
Every day and every night I'm feedin' my addiction
cravin' a hit to treat my sickness"
In the second verse, the side effects of his costly addiction begin to show:
"Not long after that everything went wrong
I was broke, unemployed and my woman was gone
And before I realized what was really goin' on
I was breakin' into houses for some shit I could pawn
I hadn't had any ass for nearly a week
I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep and I was missin' some teeth
I had the shakes from withdrawal, I was about to collapse
I got the monkey off my back but then I relapsed..."
It's here that "Sine Language" starts to really grab your attention with clear-cut concepts. Take "Phobia". The slowly building, menacing track is bound to make you apprehensive of what's to come. Chicago veteran O Type Star as well as NOVA C.A.I.N., jDoubleU and Atlas all give examples of dreadful situations, from girlfriends demanding commitment to the rapper fearing he'll "mold to the shape / of no-talent-ass bums that I've come to hate," underlined by a haunting chorus sampled from OutKast's "Y'all Scared".
Unlike many of their contemporaries, the Frontline MC's don't content themselves with preaching to the converted. Their music is ultimately message-driven, and it's a message that speaks to all those who are willing to listen. Says H.E.L.L.S.E.N.T. in "Nuthin' New": "Why be underground when we can rule the surface? / I'm still writin' raps cause I wanna prove it's worth it." Worth, in this case, doesn't merely refer to financial value, but a greater worth that ultimately makes art priceless. You can hear it in B.a.N.N.e.R.'s haunting narrative about treachery and revenge, "Lost Souls", you can hear it in "Neighborhoods", where Chauncie Gardner, One Man Army, Illite, jDoubleU and Magestik Legend all attest to the power of the streets to corrupt young minds, you can hear it in the cautionary tales of Gras' "Life's a Gamble", and you can hear it in H.E.L.L.S.E.N.T.'s childhood memories in the soft-spoken "Child Support":
"That was the time of my life, y'all
Before I ever learned how to grab a mic, dog
or ride a bike, y'all
This is life scrawled on the backs of show flyers
Playin' video games until the break of dawn
I don't think anything can break this bond
like Joey broke his arm; it was sweet then
hangin' out with my cousins for the weekend
Now we strong, some of us was weak then
Playin' on the block I never seen sin"
What all these songs have in common is that the music corresponds with the words. For "Lost Souls", the chorus breaks into a melodious choir that doesn't feel out of place at all, "Neighborhoods" is driven by a piano loop that never stops like the activity on the streets, "Life's a Gamble" features light, almost careless guitar playing, while slight touches of piano and guitar give "Child Support" a dreamy air.
There's more to be discovered on "Sine Language", last but not least Qwazaar who turns in some very dope performances. But the conclusion can easily be drawn from the few songs mentioned, that Frontline as an organization and as individuals successfully dodge any typecasting and still managed to make "Sine Language" an album you can listen to from front to back. If they continue to explore their strength in numbers, Frontline Entertainment will definitely be a force to be reckoned with.
Music Vibes: 7.5 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 7.5 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 7.5 of 10
Originally posted: June 24, 2003