An emcee-producer collaboration is tough to pull off. The respective styles need to mesh at least enough to create cohesive music, which is especially difficult once each artist has already established a signature sound. In the worst cases, even if all the elements are there, the music still feels forced, and the artists' contributions are wasted. An artist is better off searching for someone who matches their musical ideals instead of one who simply makes good music.
With hip-hop quickly approaching universal status, rappers from the states are beginning to look overseas for assistance. The clearest example of this was on last year's "Connected," from the Foreign Exchange team of Phonte and Nicolay. This time, the international collaboration comes to us in a slightly different fashion. Maylay Sparks, a Philadelphia emcee, was residing in Denmark due to a performance-related mishap, and was sought out by the Masked Avengers, a Swiss production team looking for the right voice to extend their production. The "So Wonderful" EP is the result of this collaboration that seems to have been fated from the start.
The Masked Avengers bring a soulful, grounded production style to the table, which is relatively straightforward but never dull. Maylay Sparks is a slightly harsh, seasoned lyricist who holds nothing back on the mic. His delivery is just forgiving enough to mix well with the melodic production, and the production has just enough of an edge to be worthy of Sparks' tense words. A short musical intro opens things up, and then segues into "Small Time Thing." The Masked Avengers cook up a track with flourishes of strings and horns which is just simple enough to be catchy. On this track, Sparks demonstrates an impressive pen, and he is brutally honest in both his rhymes and the hook.
The brevity of the hip-hop EP is always an issue, and that is true here as well. There are six full songs, including two remixes of other tracks, as well as an intro, an interlude, and an outro. I would have preferred maybe six or seven songs without any dawdling with shorter tracks, but the interludes are not completely wasteful. The big bonus here is the instrumentals included on the tail end, which give the Masked Avengers a showcase they deserve. The instrumentals don't stand on their own terribly well, but there is no reason to complain about extra material, and they are all worth a handful of listens. Despite this, though, there are fifteen full tracks, and the buyer will probably find that only five or six have true replay value. A full LP would have been better, especially because the collaboration reveals few weak points, but I'll take what I can get.
Maylay Sparks does a serviceable job on the mic for the most part. He has a bit of trouble carving a niche for himself, because he isn't very distinctive in terms of lyrical content or his flow. On "Love Supreme," though, the Masked Avengers bring out his best with a great instrumental. Sparks speaks from his own experiences, rapping more forcefully as well, to match the excitement that the track exudes. There are moments in which he is far more than simply adequate, but there are also times at which he sinks to the level of merely satisfactory. If he can sustain the writing skill he shows on "Small Time Thing" and "Love Supreme," he will easily be able to make an entire full-length unequivocally riveting.
One of the two remixes, the "True Classic" remix, falls into the category of the earlier "Love Supreme," as the beat is riveting and Sparks seems to be having some fun. DJ Hands Solo works wonders bridging the two verses as well. The "Too Much" remix fares less well, because the Masked Avengers ease up on the harmonious production in favor of some boom-bap, and it feels out of place among the jazziness of the other beats. Sparks tries to carry the song, but he falls just short. The song isn't poor by any standards, but it disrupts the flow of the EP, which is quite important on such a short disc.
Aside from maybe one misstep, the Masked Avengers prove their worth on "So Wonderful," and Maylay Sparks is not far behind. This trio has clearly developed chemistry, so I hope they continue to work together to refine and unite their sound even more. This EP is a great start, but they seem to just be getting started. It's nice to see these artists thinking outside of their own countries, because this thinking is not failing them in the least.
Music Vibes: 8 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 7 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 7.5 of 10
Originally posted: April 5, 2005