Hip-hop music is far more outwardly competitive than any other genre. The art is more or less based on shit-talking, but even the most vicious battle-rap is an expression of a simple statement: I am better than you. Even those who shy away from battling are still in direct competition with the artists surrounding them, and the driving forces are almost always pride and the desire to be the best. Of course, there are people who exist in the game solely to creatively express, but I promise you that they don't come along too often. That said, what it always comes down to is making the best music. If you can do it better than everyone else, you can get paid, you have the respect of your peers, and you can walk down the street with the confidence of someone who has found their niche in the world.
Forge & Amen do not make especially unique rap music. Their formula is no different from the norm, they just hook the beats up and rhyme over them. Such an ordinary formula is botched far too much for me to sit here and tell you it's easy, but I am consistently surprised by the struggles that artists have sounding fresh. Forge & Amen know that it's not that hard. Here's how they manage. Forge lays a dope beat down, and Amen rips the track with an appealing flow and thoughtful words. Add a hook that doesn't take too much from the foundation, and shake. That's it, folks. Stack an album fifteen deep with this type of material, and you're in business. Just give it a listen; you'll understand.
The record starts out poorly, with a horrid skit that serves absolutely no purpose. Three minutes later, though, Amen kicks into gear. He sounds immediately comfortable over a slick, inauspicious beat from guest producer Jony Fraze, but the most immediately evident element to his rhymes is honesty. He speaks about his "Growing Pains," and instead of gloating about his lifestyle, he is spreading caution:
"See when most of these rappers was spitting their little fables
I was drunk, doing coke off the fucking kitchen table
And no, I don't condone this snorting of white lines
Wanted a life story, I thought I should write mine
And that includes all the issues, mistakes, and regrets
'Cause we all have a day that we wish we'd forget"
"Star" is on some typical gloating swagger, but Amen's passion on the mic sets him apart. He crows about being a star on the chorus, but he actually sounds driven to become one. Forge's beat is heavy on horns and sped-up vocal samples, and is severely catchy. Forge's style is very unified across the disc, marked by a variety of vocal samples and grandiose loops. 9th Wonder comes to mind, but Forge's production is much fuller and less defined by drum patterns and naked samples.
"Lifestyles of the Broke & Shameless" starts out a bit slowly. Each cut towards the beginning is pretty nice, but somewhat nondescript. "Out of Reach" marks the beginning of a remarkable ascension, though. The featured L.E.G.A.C.Y. lends an amusing verse, and Amen has no problem adjusting his flow to the slower production. A magnificent beat pushes "Fifth in the Console" along, and guest Logic tags alongside Amen in playing with an amusing concept. Yes, in case the title is too vague, the song is about drinking and driving. It's not necessarily the most morally sound subject, but the amusing rhymes and fantastic production makes it one of the best songs on the album.
"Tear to Your Eye" continues the remarkable production work with a whiny loop from guest Analogic that effortlessly intertwines with Amen's rhymes. Throughout the album, Amen is consistently engaging, and this track is no different. He never steals the focus of the song, but he delivers thoughtful, humorous, and swaggering raps effortlessly. "Flaws" shows him at his most honest, outlining some of his problems to the listener, but the entire record is his own personal storybook. He is multi-dimensional, speaking insightfully throughout, but he never loses track of the cockiness that brought him to the mic in the first place.
The only real problems with the record are the unfunny bookend skits and a slightly excessive length. Eighteen tracks is a bit much, even though there are no sub-par tracks. The exploration of the record as a whole is a task, and a little trimming could have made the album much tighter. In an age when every album seems either too short or stuffed with filler, however, "Lifestyles of the Broke & Shameless" is a rarity, because it can be played entirely through without inspiring boredom. This album mixes humor and traditional rap music values with mostly exceptional production and hooks that actually enhance each song. This is conventional hip-hop done very well. It reminds me why I love this music so much because it reinforces those conventions in a fresh manner. Check it out, and it will do the same for you.
Music Vibes: 8 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 8 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 8 of 10
Originally posted: November 1, 2005