Think of every MC that you've heard rated as a diss champion, king of the freestyles or incredible hip-hop lyricist. Those making a short list would probably include the likes of Eminem, Chino XL, Ras Kass, Gift of Gab, Jay-Z, Aceyalone, Nas, Black Thought and so on. Unfortunately for Virginia native Skillz, his name often gets left off the list and out of these discussions for no good reason whatsoever. As a hip-hop journalist it's hard to imagine 15 years of dopeness not to mention an eagerly anticipated yearly "Rap-Up" song that Skillz would still be an unknown quantity to the masses, yet at the same time I must recognize that out of the eight names mentioned above the only widely recognized ones would be Jay-Z, Eminem and Nas. Being a great freestyle MC and all around lyricist can make you a household name among the hardcore fans but it leaves album after album gathering dust at Tower or Sam Goody. The mainstream only care about hits, which is ironic given that as a "Ghostwriter" Skillz has probably penned more hits for more rappers than will ever be fully disclosed.
No title could be more fitting for Skillz than "The Million Dollar Backpack," as a rapper with a book of rhymes that made everybody rich while still leaving him relatively obscure. If you had any doubt that's what Skillz intended he makes sure that the intro and title track addresses the concept head on. Over a scratchy slamming and slapping bass sample laced up by DJ Jazzy Jeff, Skillz gets mad about the fact both he and his backpacks are misunderstood as nerdy.
"Q-Tip rocked his live on Arsenio
Buckshot was the first one to put his in a video
MC Serch dropped a flow with his on his back
On the last episode of Yo! MTV Raps
I'm on topic, I rocked it when it wasn't that cool
I'm grown homes but it looked like I'm goin to school
And as far as accessories, they second to none
Every DJ in the world'll have his records in one
When you in the club with one, you might get stares
Can tell a lot about a person by what's in theirs
All kinds of lines, all kind of designs
And I ain't sure what's in yours, but my dreams are in mine"
Fortunately for the Richmond, VA native he doesn't have to worry about having the respect of his peers, because Chicago's own Common joins him to spit bars over a smooth Joe Money beat on the slamming "So Far So Good."
Skillz: "If you fail to prepare, you preparin to fail
And it's hard to see a heaven when you livin in hell
If you lookin at it different, you'll see a way out
How you gon' see money? You can't see your way off your couch
If opportunity comes, I'ma see what its bout
You can see it in my swag, I done figured it out
If you see doubt, I'm thinkin that y'all better re-route
Cause I'ma walk these dogs till Mike Vick get out"
Common: "Precision of a Chicago street apostle flow
Allowin me to go to places only God would know
Travel the land, witnessin the battles of man
Goin up stream with paddle in hand
Young dreams to master a plan
So I could make enough to hit my uncle Steve if he asks for a grand
It's been a journey, as far as universal laws
I'm the attorney, had to learn me
Just to burn me up, holler to the world to turn me up
As the game change y'all, I let my words re-up"
There aren't any points in the song where both artists aren't on point, but the best braggadocious line might be when Skillz says "If y'all nice, I got to be EXTREMELY POLITE." That's the level Skillz operates on, and that confidence comes through and makes him "above par with every bar" in his raps. As yet though Skillz has been unable to break out beyond the backpack set and star in Hollywood films like his "So Far So Good" co-star. "The Million Dollar Backpack" is filled with pleasant surprises though, such as Kwame (yeah that polka dot kid) makes a hype beat for "Sick." Skillz brags that he was ill "before Run and Flav was TV stars" not to mention "when Teddy Riley was swingin with the new jacks" and he was even "spittin this sick back when Bill Gates was broke." The song has an unexpected and funny ending too but I won't spoil it here. Black Thought links Philadelphia up with Richmond on "Hold Tight," as Arkatec produces and ?uestlove REDUCES to dopeness. That's exactly how it's described in the liner notes, and that's exactly how it works - there's no way those drums would be as crispy and nasty without a little ?uest in the mix. Bink needs no hel on the pipe organ dopeness of "I'm Gon Make It" though, nor do Ivan 'Orthodox' Barias and Carvin 'Ransum' Haggins for the Freeway and Skillz collaboration "Don't Act Like You Don't Know." This song is FIRE.
There's no question to me that Skillz has been nice for a long long time now, going back to the days when "Mad" was still his first name and when being a ghostwriter was his biggest claim to fame. In my heart I want to believe "The Million Dollar Backpack" is finally the perfect storm arriving to flood the airwaves. The rhymes are as strong as steel, the beats are a solid concrete foundation, and the guest stars and producers on each track give the whole building a little extra shine. It's true Skillz would be a dope rapper even without guests or a beat (and he's proven this before) but in a marketing scheme it's the whole of the presentation found here that will move asses in masses to the store... or will it? There's no doubt they've built a great house here with nothing more than the rhyme book coming out of Skillz a milli a milli a mill-ion dollar backpack, but the real estate market collapsed in 2008. They say people don't buy music like they used to any more, and everybody wants to blame the internet for it. Do me a solid - if you DO bootleg this album and like it, you owe it to Skillz and to hip-hop to spend $12-$15 on a copy. Walk to the store if you can't afford the gas. Order it somewhere online that offers free shipping. Skillz may do just fine writing other people's rhymes but "The Million Dollar Backpack" is his best album to date and personally I hope it sells well enough that it won't be his LAST.
Music Vibes: 8 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 9 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 8.5 of 10
Originally posted: July 29, 2008