There's a skit on this album that sums up Minus P's situation pretty accurately. Someone receives a collect call. He accepts and finds out Minus P is on the other end, apparently calling from jail. Surprised by the news, the call receiver is curious about details. Over the sound of weights being lifted in the background, Minus P relates how he's been meeting fellow locked up rappers Styles, Shyne and Tony Yayo. All of a sudden, he's interrupted by an upset female voice you soon find out belongs to his mom. His cover blown, an embarrassed Minus P apologizes, "I'm tryina build an image here."
How he can take the standard prison skit and turn it into a parody is not only a testament to Minus P's talent and sense of humor, it also sheds light on the insanity of today's rap game. Blessed be the rappers who know that their criminal record won't be the most important record of their career. In the case of Minus P, "Welcome to the Heights" undoubtedly is the most important record to date, because it's his very first one. Even without the mandatory prison stint and having since moved across the Hudson, the bilingual Minus P is more than apt to rep Nueva York, or more precisely, Manhattan's Washington Heights area.
The most northern part of Manhattan, once battle site of the Revolutionary War and later home to the famous Polo Grounds, remains a vibrant neighborhood, last but not least due to its large Hispanic community. Born in Puerto Rico to Dominican parents and raised in the Dominican Republic until moving to New York as a teen, Minus P is a very likely Heights representative. In best hip-hop tradition, he puts it down for his stomping grounds in a specific song which not surprisingly is also this album's title track. Easily one of the best selections here, "Welcome to the Heights" is nothing but bare drums and vocal hums accompanying the tribute to "the Heights, where Malcolm X got assassinated," "where fiends get served crack by packs and crack is feeding they soul," as Minus puts it. But the quotable goes to guest rapper Da Blackness:
"(The Heights) is my residence, duke, it's
what I represent, true, it's
the place to be, the first President knew this
The rudest, for pride of blood and love for the honeys
But none will get you killed faster than the love for the money"
"Welcome to the Heights" is in many ways a standard contemporary New York album. Or at least it starts out as one, as we meet Minus showing determination over anthemic keyboard stabs in "Stand Up (Intro)": "Yo, they told me I was crazy, I couldn't do it / my own boys said to not pursue it / but look how I break through it." But in tune with the aforementioned prison skit, there's one ingredient (today often the main ingredient) that this album lacks - tales of hustling. But what it does have is the street sense that tells you to stay on your toes when trawling through neighborhoods like the Heights. On tracks like "Best in da Heights," "You Scared," "Still Shining" and "Right Here," Minus P does his best to blend into the darker side of NYC. But whether it's his young voice or the lack of effective threats, by the time he boasts, "people wonder how the hell Minus got so thugged out," some objections seem to be in order.
See, Minus P deviates from the norm. He'd have to be much more thugged out to become an option for heads who like it thugged out. Minus P has more on his mind anyway. With the ambition to turn "thoughts into straight music / and great music for years," the "Dominican kid" sets the bar explicitly higher: "You want a punchline MC, then buy a mixtape / this is an album, better yet a work of art." With many solid beats and a handful of songwriting feats, "Welcome to the Heights" meets that work-of-art standard. Occasionally, it is held back by sub-par production and uninspired lyricism but you feel that Minus P strives for more than the same old. His boyish charm is all over "Slow Learner," wrapped up in a suave drawl gracing Snika's beat beaming with a bright soul glow. Not your typical mating ritual as P completely surrenders to his sweetheart, offering to "hold your hands when I'm in public / I don't gotta front in front of wanna-be thugs, I'm secure about myself, plus I know you love it," and promising to "be there for our child / we can share responsibility so you can rest more than once in a while." As rare as it is to have a rapper admit, "I may act like I know but I'm as dumb as they come," such sentiments are even rarer in rap songs that address the opposite sex. All the while, Minus manages to hold the sexy undertone. Clever.
In the same vein we have "The Cadillac Song" and "Sum'thing's in the Air," both commendable efforts, but both susceptible of improvement. The latter's soul samples stacked back to back overshadow Minus and guest singer Amanda D. It takes the confidence and personality of a Ghostface or a Jay-Z to pull off kitsch like this. The grimey "Best in da Heights" works because P adds a familiar 50 Cent lilt to his voice, but one needs only to fast forward to "El Ritmo/El Ritmo" to find out that Minus' voice and a snotty attitude don't necessarily go well together. The rapper's attempt to convey many different moods within his limited vocal range may be the main problem here. But the biggest blunder is the self-produced "Down South Bounce," which will have you wondering if it's a parody.
Also, I'd be more than happy to announce the arrival of a rap album that doesn't require parental advisory, but while "Welcome to the Heights" sometimes seems to opt for that direction, misogynist lyrics throw it off course: "If a bitch give you head she gon' treat you right / if she don't cook and clean, she gon' feed you lice / look man, I'm just tryina help a brother in need / tryina teach you how to get your broad down on her knees." "If my sense of humor bothers you I tone it down," Minus P offers in "Slow Learner," and while I think he's already toned his humor down too much on this album, that particular part bothers me indeed.
Unconditionally funny is "Fuck Da Club," which finds Minus making fun of clubs:
"Like I'ma pay 30 bucks to get in, ladies for free
like I ain't Minus, ain't no heffa here more special than me
Once inside dress professionally like this an interview
Some bouncer starts questionin' me - you want my picture too?
As for gettin' patted down and my ID scanned
Retina-reading and a mammogram
ain't enough? Well I'll be damned
2 Coronas 20 bucks?
Can I fuck the bottle once I'm done? I'm mean what the fuck?"
Towards the end, Minus P dares to go deeper. "Why Must I?" is nothing short of a declaration of independence as an artist, where Minus defends his decision to rap against his mother, his girl and an unnamed hater. It's hard to do this song justice with a mere description, but rest assured that it adds a welcome depth to this release. Likewise, "Remembering You" is a highly personal greeting to people and places in his past over a soulful soundtrack. When Minus P finally tries to bring this album full circle in the "Outro," you're willing to agree with him when he says: "I just do what I do, speak what I wrote and wrote what I'm feelin'." Where "Welcome to the Heights" is honest, it's truly heartfelt.
On the production side, things are looking bright as well. The odd cheap touch notwithstanding, most tracks have a potent and quite professional thump to them, often courtesy of New Jersey's OUTTHERE. "Best in da Heights" and "Still Shining" showcase better use of keyboards than many recent East Coast albums, and on "You Scared" Black Sabbath meets Ruff Ryders with a touch of crunk. The nocturnal "The Cadillac Song" is purely sedative. Against all odds, "Fuck da Club" has the potential to become a club anthem, the rumbling bassline and assorted keyboard riffs cued up by MATRAXXZ resulting in a good representation of gutter club tracks in the tradition of anything by DMX or Mobb Deep's "Got it Twisted."
As you may have noticed, this album is not easy to pinpoint. It's independent hip-hop, but has an up-to-date sound. Minus P tries to set himself apart from "wanna-be thugs," but claims thuggish tendendies himself. He says "Fuck da Club" but "can't wait till I make it in the latest Source." First it's "you want a punchline MC, then buy a mixtape," then "it's like rap punchlines and I'm nice with the hooks." He "ain't caught up in the macho shit," only to turn around to prove he is. He can be cheeky, he can be considerate. "Slow Learner" has Kanye West qualities, "Down South Bounce" is downright awful. With a forgiving ear, you'll view Minus P's lyrical diversity as a potential, if you're less patient, you'll see an artist who's yet in the making, who knows where he wants to go but isn't quite knowledgeable enough to get there. With only slight improvement in delivery and writing, with a bit of maturation overall, Minus P would be instantly recommendable. So far, he presents a varied but still cohesive package of professionally executed indie hip-hop.
Music Vibes: 7 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 6.5 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 7 of 10
Originally posted: November 30, 2004