various artists :: How the Midwest Was Won :: Sharp as Razor Records
as reviewed by cornerstone

You know I never quite understood why the 'Midwest' had its name, given that as far as I can see, it's pretty much situated in the North-East of the continent. But maybe that's 'cause I'm English; perhaps if I were a stateside native it would make some sense. Nonetheless – irrespective of geography – Sharp As Razor Records have put together this compilation with the intention of claiming Midwest Hip Hop as their own and giving an introduction to the artists on their fledgling label, and here's how it goes…

Determind and Anonymous of Rhyme Related join forces with Bop 'Em Down for the comp's first full track, laying down their Midwestern allegiance on the predictably entitled "Midwest". All three come thick with Louisville, Kentucky drawl on what was apparently a local street-hit, showing love for them and theirs and giving a decent idea of what to expect from the Sharp As Razor crew. The baton is then passed to Anonymous for his "We Don't Want That" solo cut, which takes the southern-bounce-esque, synthesised vibe of the "Midwest" production to the next level by throwing in a shaking beat, hand-claps and some strings on the hook.

Later on in the tracklisting, "Life's Funny" gives a proper introduction to the man who might just be the brightest star of this Midwestern line-up – James Wright AKA Big Cheef. After laying down a verse on "Mic Pimps", Big Cheef's lyrics on "Life's Funny" give the compilation it's first taste of a level of considered thought:

"Shit get deep as the ocean as my mind keep coastin These niggas and bitches got my heart straight frozen
Rollin' under ghetto lights at night
A thug mental so shady I'll kill yo mama; it's just that simple
For the papers I was taught 'By any means necessary'
Holidays spend repentin' at the cemetary
Shed tears on my birthday 'cause I shouldn't be here
I'm consoling other mamas 'round this time of the year
If I make it one more, would that mean I'm a survivor?
Rollin' on deuce-fours and getting' even higher
Tell my daughter I lover her, if this verse make it beyond me
Daddy was a soldier, not the US fuckin' army"

Big Cheef comes with a more relaxed, more confident flow than most of his Sharp As' counterparts, which perhaps results from the fact that he pressed up and put out two full-length albums on his own before joining this particular label. Lyrically, he doesn't differ a great deal from the other Sharp As' rappers, but his delivery makes him sound much more comfortable on the mic. On "Life's Funny", Cheef rides the ticking notes and bumping bass of the track with no drama, while Determind's more erratic flow seems to be in danger of leaving the beat at times.

Other moments of greatness in this Midwest diatribe are "Pain", which re-uses the synthesised piano and string chords method, and "Life Lesson" on which Anonymous and Big Cheef compliment eachother perfectly by spitting a solo verse each and then combining on the third. I find myself quoting the Cheef again as he rolls in a similar vein to that of "Life's Funny" – stepping away from the happy hustler persona for a moment of introspection:

"Split the blunt, crack the fif' let's get it poppin
I'm a merciful soul with nowhere to go
Finding refuge in the drugs but it takes its toll
The average life of a thug doin' what it takes to roll
Sad songs when you're gone, unreplaceable
Memories in my life. I have to face 'em though
Vivid description of pain infliction
Personal prescription ease the pain, leave the drug addiction
Heated friction in the game because the love is missing
Carryin' on my father's name is my only mission
Rappin' on for months about how I miss him
Damn, how my mindframe change with reminiscing..
Hard to explain though how the pain is real
Whether you bust lead with a pencil or the stainless steel
Block it out for now, but what remains is real
What's done is done in life and you can't change the deal"

At the other end of the spectrum, "How The Midwest Was Won" finds some real low-points; most notably the Rhyme Related "Pill Song" and the Rhyme Related/Big Cheef collabo "Clowning", although other tracks such as "Fuck" rank as both dull and uninspiring. Starting with the "Pill Song", although the production and deliveries may not be the finest the compilation has to offer, it's neither of those that make it a particularly bad song; it's more that Determind and Anonymous chose to waste four minutes of our time glorifying a pill-popping life-style. "Clowning", on the other hand, utilises both an annoying track and a grating chorus to produce the most sonically-offensive track on the album. Again, the choice of lyrics and flows of the rappers concerned don't do particularly badly, but they are unable to save this ill-conceived track from itself.

A more fitting title for this compilation might have been "Wins and Losses In The Midwest", given that it offers a broad range of music from the good all the way down to the very bad. Be it Weightless from Ohio, the Justus League from North Carolina, or Sharp As Razor from Kentucky, it's always a good thing when new geographies throw their hand into a game that's historically so centrally concerned with the East and West coasts. For that reason alone, "How The Midwest Was Won" deserves some recognition. And that's not even considering the potential talent that these KY and IN musicians show. Sharp As Razor should concentrate on developing their abilities to produce more music along the lines of the thought-out tracks on this comp and building upon their pseudo-southern yet musically varied sound. They should also endeavour to stay clear of throwaway, cliched tracks like "Money", on which their subject strays dangerously close to 'ignorant' ground.

If they manage to do this, then very soon they may well succeed in their efforts to lay claim to the Midwest. And beyond that, who knows? I'm still confused by the geography though.

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

Originally posted: February 3, 2004