Some of the more optimistic among us see a new horizon dawning on hip-hop music: the commercial viability of so-called "conscious rap." Recent successes by Kanye West and Common, along with uncharacteristically nuanced work from artists like Jadakiss, point to a real change in the art. While no one is naïve enough to dismiss gangsta rap out of hand, there certainly exists the possibility of a return to the type of hip-hop rappers like KRS-One first championed. Maybe, just maybe, the world of urban music is hurdling over the obstacles that caused Jay-Z to admit "dumbing down" his music to increase profit. Or, as underground sensation Immortal Technique put it recently, "The bling-bling era was cute, but it's about to be done."
One gets the feeling that Middletown, New York's Al-Amin is looking for the type of recognition given to artists like Technique. His promo material brags that he's been censored and banned by the Saudi Arabian government for the "religious and political" content of his songs. Even his adopted name speaks to radicalism: Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin was a 1960's era Muslim cleric and political activist charged with the murder of an Atlanta police officer. His arrest and subsequent incarceration have been called a "government conspiracy." Plainly put, this Al-Amin fancies himself a revolutionary, albeit one who hasn't quite achieved the status he would like.
So, so far, so good, right? I love radical hip-hop, I love conscious hip-hop. And I love rappers with real and demonstrable talent, which Al-Amin indisputably possesses. But to be a "conscious rapper" with his mind on "real issues," one has to actually address those issues, not just yell a few buzzwords and then rap about guns. And there lies the problem with "The Masterpiece": it's a bipolar disorder of a rap record, unsure of whether it wants to "dumb itself down" or attack controversy with fangs bared. The result is an uneven mishmash, at times catchy and daring, but often repetitive, cliché, and yes, tritely gangsta.
Al-Amin's voice sounds like a bizarre combination of Big Pun and Biggie, but usually without the emotion and wit of the latter, and the frantic syllable orgy of the former. He's somewhere in the middle, this Al-Amin, able to firmly control his flow and entertain, but unwilling to change it up for the sake of variety. The album begins with "I Am Hip-Hop," (Or "I'm A Hip-Hop," depending on whether you check the CD booklet or the back of the case), a catchy and extremely promising cut. Talk of "politicing with Arabs and Palestinian cats" sounds downright rebellious over the bouncy, danceable beat. We're off to a good start, and Al-Amin follows with "Knock Knock," featuring a Mobb Deep-style beat and that nerd-rap style you either love or hate ("too futuristic for you vintage lyricists," etc.). So we've got great openers and an obviously talented rapper. What could go wrong?
Actually, nothing much goes wrong for the album's first half. It's banger after banger, with a few definite stand-outs. "The Game" tackles the uglier side of gangsta living without glorifying it, telling us about former Gs turned junkies, all over a chick singer and happy "Juicy" strings. On "The Big Gangsta," we continue with Al-Amin's focus on the inherent lack of dignity in much gangsta living. Here, he claims one can't be a respected recording artist and a gangsta at the same time. It's a brave message, delivered with a precise, if slightly monotone, flow. Another brave message emerges on "The Artist," this one reveling in braggadacio about being, yep, an artist, not a gangbanger. The beat (provided by Messiah, who provides some of the best music) is urgent and fierce, driven eloquently by a piano. Al-Amin again manages to flow nicely, despite the creeping feeling of repetition. At this point, basically the album's middle, every word is beginning to sound like the one before it. Switch up your flow, Al-Amin!
Okay, so remember the beginning of this review? Where I lamented the lack of focus on "The Masterpiece"? Here's where that happens. Midway through this album, the tides turn so fiercely that I can only think someone scared Al-Amin into thinking he would never blow up with songs berating the street thug lifestyle. Because we switch from doing just that, to boasts about being "the only conscious rapper kicking those hardcore joints." First of all, where does Al-Amin suddenly grab the label of consciousness from? He's barely touched those issues, save the subtle messages of songs mentioned above. Most disappointing, "Good Stuff" opens with dialogue borrowed from Menace II Society, one of my favorite movies, but never even attempts to lyrically dissect the sample's mentions of Islam "saving the black people." Maybe Al-Amin was disturbed by the film's conclusion, and there I can sympathize, but that's really no excuse to forget about religion after using a sample to introduce it. ("Shareef! No, man!" God, that was some shit.)
And so go the remaining nine tracks. "Crome Meets Crome" (it is beyond me why nobody spell-checked the liner notes) tells an ultra-serious street thug story, but leaves behind the wit and detail that allows artists like Jay-Z and Lloyd Banks to make this type of cut work. "This and That" consists mostly of violent threats, all with a Dr. Dre-style "been there, done that" attitude. This is the most maddening cut on the album, because Al-Amin chooses to throw some "love for my brothers in Iraq" and protest the "Homeland Security Act," but he never gets any deeper than a quick mention. It's incredibly frustrating. He wants the credit for being aware, for being "conscious," but he never puts in the work. Anyone can yell the word Islam, but it takes a talent like Talib to expand and build. Al-Amin, despite his obvious talent, is being either lazy or cowardly here.
For a self-released underground album, production on "The Masterpiece" is often impressive. Producer Burton laces the best tracks, and a highlight is the ungrammatically titled "To Greedy To Share," a track boasting crunchy electric guitars and a rock chorus, so although Al-Amin might have 99 problems, this bitch ain't one. Alas, some of the other cuts are sort of problematic, and the obvious low-budget beats and dismal production bring down already tepid flowing. As a rule, one shouldn't hold cheap production against super-underground efforts, and I'll stick to that here. But I can't help but think that better production and higher work ethic might create an ACTUAL masterpiece for Al-Amin.
On "Studio Killers," Al-Amin lays down a great line that really shows his promise: he's "building the Underground Railroad with every track laid." Although this album as a whole isn't anything to freak out over, it's a nice introduction to someone who could prove to be a true talent in the years to come. Next time, let's hope for better production, a more varied flow, and some actual revolutionary dialogue. Or, at the very least, a spell-checker.
Music Vibes: 6.5 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 5.5 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 6 of 10
Originally posted: August 23, 2005