If you've ever seen a group of hearing impaired people communicate in sign language, you've probably witnessed a dynamic interaction you wished you could follow. While the deaf engage in many a lively debate among themselves, communication between them and the rest of the world is often rendered difficult. This is where someone like Clayton Call steps in, who can hear but also masters sign language. By day Call is a professional sign language interpreter, but by night he turns into Arhythmatik, an Avondale, AZ-based rapper/producer who runs his own label. We're often oblivious to the dayjobs our indie rappers have, sometimes we even ignore that they might have jobs at all, and so when I heard of Arhythmatik's profession, it came as a real revelation. Hip-Hop so clearly emphasizes communication skills that knowing a language as different as sign language must undoubtedly bless him with special insight. Upon being asked, Arhythmatik reveals that having access to the deaf community has not only provided him with a different perspective, it also influences his choice of words as a rapper, as his inclination to think in sign language often means that he will conceptualize a special feeling visually before he finds a way to express it verbally.
Ultimately, it would be impossible for us to pinpoint where Arhythmatik's first job influences his second one, but it's easy to see that his professional and personal background (his sister is deaf) result in a different approach towards words and music, strikingly visualized by the peculiar spelling of his label Modurn Languaj Asosiashun. Not completely unrelated, the EP's "Intro" gives a short lecture on the healing power of breath over a soothing combination of new age flute and tribal rhythms, definitely an appetizer for things to come. In just under half an hour Arhythmatik shows himself to be an able producer. The archaically soulful grind of "Mind & Heart" possesses the appeal of an Alchemist beat, a strong rhythmic backbone with a lot of boom sustaining the epic horn samples. "Polynomials" (with Pickster One on the cut) has the throwback appeal of a Paul Nice production, a layered, percussive groove laced with funky horn stabs and Roxanne Shanté scratches. Flipping the script once again, "Square Roots" evolves from the standard, rather simplistic way acoustic guitars are used in hip-hop into a veritable concerto, each melody playing adding to the mood of the song. "Southwestylez" is centered around a cello getting crunk, resonating with familiar underground vibrato. The only unfavorable beat is "Absolute Values," where Arhythmatik does the classical strings thing but ruins the experience with token vinyl static and an unrefined rhythm track. He redeems himself with the Asian-flavored "Factoring" and the closing "The Cause," which is on some next shit with a soundscape straight out of an '80s movie soundtrack or something.
This may be just an EP, but considering Arhythmatik is responsible for beats, rhymes and artwork, he may have dedicated more time to "Pre-Algebra" than many major label artist to an entire album. Lyrically, Arhythmatik makes it clear where he's coming from and finds simple but compelling ways to verbalize his values, but with a voice lacking natural grace, the lyrics don't quite have the effect as when a Masta Killa would recite them:
"I speak with the plants and eat with the ants
read with my hands, breathe in a meditating stance
as I seek to elevate, conquer and advance
I channel the power of one glance
the pain of a lost chance
and the wisdom that life grants
into a form the layman understands"
Surprisingly, Arhythmatik succeeds at this enormous task to no small degree. He isn't able to wrap up the world in just one line the way the game's greatest sometimes are, but he has a knack for structuring his philosophy into worthwhile observations. Check this excerpt from "Absolute Values":
"Death is a lesson we all learn too late
We don't learn to give, we learn to take
and we don't learn to act, we learn to wait
and we don't learn to love, we learn to hate
I say we learn to change, man"
It's when he puts forth his wholesome attitude that "the half-breed cat with the light-skinned complexion" in his late twenties has the best chances of setting himself apart. If it wasn't for this kind of lyrical seasoning, "Pre- Algebra" would be reduced to its relatively bland flavors of bragging and battling. By now we've seen many projects ripe with hip-hop nostalgia, but not always has incorporating the old into the new reached the level of Missy Elliott or Jurassic 5. In Arhythmatik's case, you're never quite sure if he's paying hommage (in his own words, not by biting), or if he's simply anachronistic. Put as many rhyming words around it as you want, they don't render a line like "I stomp on MC's like my name was Hercules / very unmercifully, so yes, take it personally" any less basic. There are instances when you want to tell Arhyrhmatik to pump his brakes in his sometimes overzealous attempt "to bring some of the best music you've ever heard." It takes an unhealthy dose of naiveté to think a line like "Stepping up to me don't forget your four-leaf clover" will please even the most forgiving listener. These backward antics contrast with statements such as "Your rhymes need work on their real-life relevance" and "As hip-hop is aging we should be maturing and changing."
Vocally Arhythmatik comes up with varying flows and vocal tones but ultimately can't escape being typecast as a typical underground rapper. He ain't about to cuddle up to you the way most mainstream rappers are, you can hear how he wants to be a thorn in the side of the guys who got fat while everybody starved on the street. But with all the effort he puts into his delivery, he lacks the effortlessness of established artists. His hooks however are uniformly great, from the chilling "It's time to make some noise / stand up and raise your voice / take back what once was ours / our music, minds and hearts" of "Mind & Heart" to the countrified chorus of "Southwestylez."
While "Pre-Algebra" isn't particularly nerdy, the nerdy impression album and artist name might give off is reinforced by occurrences of scientific speak. You wish he'd instead elaborate on personal issues touched upon in lyrics like "La calle is my home / I grew up all alone / with a heart of stone / so many cold nights will turn a heart of gold" and "Me is what happened when two cultures collide / nobody really knew me cause nobody really tried / I grew up a screw up / but somehow always knew what / the right thing to do was."
While he doesn't quite have the power to make us see how exactly "hip-hop died and [is] back with a vengeance," it's evident that Arhythmatik is serious about "changing the mess of rap to rap with a message." You believe him when he describes himself as "a soldier for my culture" and "a true hip hop activist." You have to applaud him for trying to "make a decent record without sex and swear words," for trying to "give back to this culture I love / cause we're more than thugs / we're husbands and fathers / wives, mothers and daughters." So while "Pre-Algebra" isn't up to the highest standards, it's still a considerable feat from an original rapper and a solid producer.
Music Vibes: 7 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 6.5 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 7 of 10
Originally posted: August 9, 2005