The five-man L.A.-based crew Custom Made has been having some success moving units on the regional level, with seven mixtapes in circulation and a brand new deal with underground-friendly Babygrande Records. "Sidewalk Mindtalk" is a bridge of sorts, as the official release will be a compilation of their best moments on the mixtapes, in addition to a handful of new joints (official warning: I am reviewing a press advance, which only has ten tracks and clocks in at less than 37 minutes. I assume the official release will be longer). With comparisons to similar crews such as Jedi Mind Tricks and Mobb Deep, they expectedly deliver solid material over even more solid beats.
Lyrically, the five-man crew of MC's is unified in their inspiration, sound and hunger, spitting agile yet unremarkable verses about struggle, hustle and self-assurance with full-blown competence. Which is to say, the uniformity is occasionally unstoppable (as when they chin-check with straight verses and no chorus a la Wu-Tang), but can also drown each MC's voice in the bigger stew, making them virtually indistinguishable from one another. To be honest, no one's gonna mistake these cats for Rakim, or even W.C. But what they lack in fresh detail and originality they make up for in craftsmanship and skill.
Throughout, violent narratives with no pity for weaklings are peppered with self-empowerment ("through my recital/ its evident I'm vital"), and hunger like Ghostface, where you can actually hear the urgency in their shortness of breath, spitting every verse as if it might be their last. Again, with five MC's all vying for space, the proceedings occasionally sound crowded, but the unified attitude and subject matter are enough to keep things moving nicely. Although for me, straight tough-talk gets pretty old after a few joints. Thankfully, the project is saved from blandness by the occasionally infectious flow riding the beat perfectly or a rare glimpse of love and introspection (or even, egad!, self-doubt and remorse). To be honest, Custom Made would be doper if they sprinkled a little more of that type of thing into the mix, because playing hard/perfect/pimping all the time only works well when you have the personae to pull it off (big up Jigga).
The project is a winner, fortunately, because Custom Made seems to realize that with the type of dope beats in their arsenal, it's OK not to kill every track; it's enough to simply compliment them with proficiency and swagger. Call them a poor man's Beatnuts. The relaxing and somber repetition on much of the boardwork tries its best for 3-6 hypnotism and jazzy Tribe vibe (and usually succeeds), but occasionally feels more like blunted mid-90s Premier throwaways. But yes, for mixtape joints, these jewels are polished. With plenty of straight heaters, a party jam or two, and some soulful ground shakers to end the album, there's just enough variety to keep things interesting. All of which makes me excited to see what Custom Made can do with a full-length product. The possibility for greater structure and mood is balanced by my fear that their redundancy and overall lack of charisma and originality will drown their full-length in mediocrity. My advice: peep this five-man crew in the future and hope they stay hungry (it wouldn't hurt to hope for more great beats, either).
Music Vibes: 7.5 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 6.5 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 7 of 10
Originally posted: August 29, 2006