If you missed any of the new reviews this past week including J-Zone's "Peter Pan Syndrome" then do yourself a favor and check out this week's edition of the (W)rap Up!
J-Zone :: Peter Pan Syndrome
Old Maid Entertainment
Author: Steve 'Flash' Juon
"J-Zone unofficially retired. He had already written his swan song from the rap game, an expose entitled "Root for the Villain" chronicling his own successes and failures in underground rap. Much like professional boxing though, retirement never sticks. There's always that lure to get back in shape and get in the ring one more time to see if you've "still got it" as a fighter. Many of those same hopefuls end up tasting the canvas at the hands of a younger and often unheralded fighter who was itching to make his name, although now and then a George Foreman proves you can still be a champion at any age. In many respects rap returns from retirement are less brutal than boxing, but take it from J-Zone, there's no shortage of hard work involved. If you're going to be your own producer, manufacturer, publicist and distributor, there's ten times as much. J-Zone had every reason to retire, because the mountain of work that a struggling underground artist faces is far from glamorous to climb. Even worse is that no peak will ever be high enough - as soon as you reach the summit the fans expect you to repeat or exceed your previous feat for their entertainment. There's no resting on your laurels, and though Zone has more than most indie artists, he's still got to go out there and hustle like every album is the first he ever made. The dangers of creating a tired and uninspired album with so many obstacles placed in your way certainly exist, but on "Peter Pan Syndrome" J-Zone has managed to either hurdle them or run straight THROUGH them, dragging them along behind. In explaining this album's philosophy, J expressed a desire to inject the RAW HUMAN ELEMENT back into hip-hop - the same kind of gritty dirty rap sound heard on early Wu-Tang albums. You can feel free to agree or disagree, but in J's view an album is better with mistakes. If you hit the rim shot when you meant to hit the drum head, leave it in. If the SP-1200 didn't play back the samples right, don't re-record it - keep the busted loop as is. This ain't no joke - just listen to the end of "Molotov Cocktail" and you'll see he's proud of leaving the errors in."
2 Chainz :: B.O.A.T.S. II: Me Time :: Def Jam Records
as reviewed by Jesal 'Jay Soul' Padania
"The last 2 Chainz album was so bad it had people questioning whether English was his first language. As I wrote possibly the harshest review of all, slicing it to shreds with my Chainzaw, it delights me to say that his follow up is much, much better. "Based On a T.R.U. Story" was an unlistenable mess, but the sequel "B.O.A.T.S. II: Me Time" actually sounds like a decent and well-rounded modern rap album. Considering how poor this year has been for commercial hip hop, that may well be damning it with faint praise, but it's most definitely a compliment. The 2 Chainz ceiling is pretty low as it is, but while he couldn't even reach it in 2012, he's definitely climbing the ladder this time round. First things first, the production has stepped up massively, with contributions from Mike Will Made It, Diplo, Pharrell, J.U.S.T.I.C.E League, DJ Toomp and Mannie Fresh, amongst others. Last year, Chainz was receiving 'B' beats from A-list producers, but the sequel brings a more consistent level throughout. It's not overflowing with classic instrumentals, but they are pretty much all solid and never drop below an acceptable level. It makes for a good background listen, with certain bangers like "Fork", "I Do It", "Where U Been?", "Netflix" and the more thoughtful bonus cut "Live & Learn (I Will)" proving surprisingly pleasing to the ear. The final section of the album has much more depth to it than the '12 version of BOATS, with "Beautiful Pain", "So We Can Live" and "Black Unicorn" showing alternate sides to Chainz, with the rapper giving something of himself. Lyrically, let us not sugar coat the situation and pretend that he's some sort of Pulitzer prize winner in waiting. But in conjunction with the upgraded music, 2 Chainz has definitely put more work into his punchlines and it is most welcome. "
Alpha Blondy :: Mystic Power :: VP Records
as reviewed by Patrick Taylor
"Ivory Coast artist Alpha Blondy has been making his take on reggae for thirty years. He may be sixty, and his output may have slowed some in recent decades, but he's still going strong. His latest album, "Mystic Power," was in July. Alpha Blondy is a perfect example of what diversity looks like. His mother was Muslim and his father was Christian. He sings in French, English, his native Dioula, Hebrew and Arabic. He grew up in the Ivory Coast but studied in New York but has also called Paris his home. His music is a mix of African music, reggae, and rock. His music is joyous and angry, often at the same time. "Mystic Powers" manages to successfully meld these diverse influences. Many of the songs combine driving rock guitars with a lilting reggae beat. The guitars give the songs a hard edge, while the reggae rhythm smooths them out. "Bye bye America," he sings on "American Dream." "I'm going back home to Africa/My American dream turned to be a nightmare...I'm living from hospital to hospital/I don't know what's wrong/I don't belong." It's a sad song that describes the downside to the American dream that few people talk about. He tempers the fire and bitterness of that song with the hopeful "Reconciliation." There is a heavy Bob Marley influence in Alpha Blondy's music, from his songwriting to his lyrics to his voice. This is made especially clear on the French cover of "I Shot The Sheriff," but it's not hard to imagine Marley's voice over the gentle skank of "Ouarzazate." Of course, Marley never sang in French or Dioula."
Aspektz :: Academic Probation 3 - Last Day of Class :: DatPiff
as reviewed by Steve 'Flash' Juon
"As much as I object to Wikipedia's draconian "notability" policies, and their practice of accusing anybody who objects to a call for deletion as "sockpuppets" (as though disagreeing with their holier than thou decisions somehow makes you a mindless drone clone), I did have to wonder if Aspektz really deserves the entry he's got. I take nothing away from his accomplishments - not many rappers have a MBA, have done an album for HBO to promote Kenny Powers, or have had their music featured live on air during coverage of the Olympics. On the other hand not a single one of his albums to date has received CRIA or RIAA certification for moving units, and to my knowledge he's little if at all aired on the radio outside his native Toronto. In fact when I looked at his zip file in my "unreviewed albums" folder, I couldn't even remember who he was. No offense meant to Aspektz, just real talk. I gave Aspektz "Academic Probation 3" a fair shot just like I would any other emcee, but my enthusiasm was immediately tempered by the fact he's not rapping over original beats. I know that's the hallmark of well over 50% of mixtapes available at DatPiff or anywhere else, but the "Teach Me How to Dougie" beat has been so played out by now that "Progression" was dead on arrival - even if he was the greatest emcee in the world I wouldn't be enthused. The DJ he has scratching him in and out of songs and doubling back on his vocals is no worse than the typical late night program on Shade 45, but certainly not any better. An exhaustive search of the 48 minutes of "AP3" for some next level rhymes was for naught. Even though he's from the T-Dot, you could easily mistake him for a rapper from New York, New Jersey or Massachusetts. There's not much culturally distinctive about him, with songs like "Richard Branson" just bragging about his wealth. Yawn."
ethemadassassin :: Soul on Fire :: Veteran Assassins
as reviewed by Zach 'Goose' Gase
"If you spend any time on the Internet over the past few years, you will undoubtedly come across some sort of meme or photo referencing popular culture from the 1990s. Between snapbacks, a Boy Meets World spinoff and Michael J. Fox returning to television, the 90s has made a major resurgence in American popular culture. Hip hop is also fond of that decade, as it has been fascinated with the 90s basically since they ended. So it comes as no surprise a rapper would release an album with dusty samples and a song called "80s & 90s." If North Carolina rapper ethemadassassin set out to make an album that sounded like 1990s hip hop, he undoubtedly succeeded with his third album, "Soul on Fire." The real question is, is this album an homage to "the golden era" of hip hop or derivative of it? I've had an issue with "throw back" hip hop for the past couple of years. There are some artists whose style is solely based off of music from the mid-90s, and it usually comes off very dated. In 2013, I don't think it's necessarily a good thing for your album to sound like it came out 20 years ago. Sure, there are ways you can salute some of the best years of hip hop music that we've ever seen, but to make a whole album dedicated to it, or even base your whole sound around it, is simply not interesting to me. And that's my main issue with ethemadassassin and his album "Soul on Fire." ethemadassassin himself is not a bad rapper at all. Vocally he reminds me of early Jay Electronica (especially from the "Style Wars" bootleg EP), and he is pretty strong lyrically. He flexes his lyrical abilities on tracks like "Sparta," "Nothing's Gonna Stop Me" and "Fight Music." On "Can't Get Enough" he compares his love for hip hop to an addiction – a topic that has been done countless times, but he manages to make it into a pretty solid track. He also gets personal on two of the album's best cuts "Letter to Mommy" and finale "Gratitude." Overall there's some quality rapping on this record on every track, but the overall product could've benefitted from more guest appearances. "
L'Orange & Stik Figa :: The City Under the City :: Mello Music Group
as reviewed by Steve 'Flash' Juon
"Stik Figa is the prototypical example of an emcee who would be better known if he wasn't from the Midwest. I don't like writing that because it's my own stomping grounds, but I truly believe if he were from Los Angeles or New York instead of Topeka, Kansas more people would be riding his dillz. Even adopting rap mainstay Memphis as his second home hasn't brought more attention his way, nor has becoming a focal part of the Mello Music Group roster. "The City Under the City" aims to change that. L'Orange is one of those rapper/producers who HAS benefitted from where he lives, coming from the hip-hop hotbed of North Cakalaka. His soundscape has been favorably compared to everybody from J Dilla to Pete Rock, and he's been building up an impressive resume of collaborations with artists like Legacy, Hassaan Mackey and yU the 78er. For Stik Figa there could be no better fit - an up-and-coming rapper needing more exposure building with an up-and-coming producer who has a reputation for digging deeper than most. The result is delightful songs like "Decorated Silence" featuring Open Mike Eagle, which horn breaks that sound like they come from a swinging 1930's jazz club. Over the soft layers of sound on "Blind Tiger," Stik comes out swinging. Stik is a thoughtful and meticulous rapper, carefully constructing his points for maximum impact, and if you had to hold one and only one thing against him it's his occasional tendency towards monotonal delivery. Thankfully guest appearances shake things up - Rapsody on "Before Midnight," 7evenThirty on "One of Them" and Has-Lo on "Stone Like Me" just to name a few. Throughout the album L'Orange pulls vocal samples that sound like movies that came just after talkies pushed silent flicks aside."
Nutso & DJ Lowcut :: In the Cut :: Rugged Records
as reviewed by Grant Jones
"Nowadays, Europe seems to be the place for underground rappers to search out that "New York sound". Has New York really lost its identity that much that emcees are more likely to log on to their PCs and laptops to find producers that provide the thumping, hardened style the Big Apple is renowned for, rather than make connections in their own neighbourhood? Are these overseas beatsmiths charging less than Americans? Or is NYC moving on from the standard street sounds it used to be the market leader in? Given the current lack of a relevant mainstream rapper that hails from the city (Jay-Z excluded), Kendrick Lamar was right in his message to New York's scene. The emergence of Joey Bada$$ and A$AP Rocky has been great but they aren't quite making the money their names may suggest. Long gone are the times of LL Cool J, Nas, Biggie, DMX, Mobb Deep and countless others, where hardcore rhyming was part of the appeal to the public. Yet despite the constant stream of hardcore rappers emanating from the city, a good deal of production is now handled by Europeans. The likes of Endemic, Alterbeats, Snowgoons, Shuko, DJ Soulclap, DJ Brans, The Returners, Beat Butcha and now DJ Lowcut, all provide much of their work to New York emcees. It's no secret that Europe is still in love with the New York sound – you only have to look at how regularly 90s rappers tour there – but despite the fact many of these producers have skills, there are inevitably some that feel like copycats. DJ Lowcut is similar in ways to DJ Brans, who produced Wyld Bunch's latest effort "Unbreakable", in that he can often provide a genuinely hard, thumping backdrop for an emcee, but it does all get a bit samey. This is in part down to Nutso, an average emcee at best who spends his time on the mic constantly throwing down cocky statements of how gangsta he is. I'm a firm believer in hip hop with content, despite having an unhealthy affection for some straight up headnod shit, but the problem with Nutso's rhyming on "In the Cut" isn't so much in the delivery (although this is often scruffy) but in the hollow threats that encompass every song."
U-God :: The Keynote Speaker :: Soul Temple Records
as reviewed by Jaroslav 'Czechone' Lavick
"Well I'm not sure if he's been misunderstood, but in my opinion he's certainly been under-appreciated over the years, although his "Mr. Xcitement" and "Ugodz-Illa Presents: The Hillside Scramblers" albums didn't help boost his reputation amongst hip hop fans (his solo debut "Golden Arms Redemption" wasn't regarded so well against other Wu-Tang Clan solo member debuts either). It's also quite true that he's never really been surrounded by any (positive) hype; quite the contrary in fact, as since early on he's been regarded by many as the Wu's least appealing member. I've always liked him. Yes I acknowledge that he never really made a great album until "Dopium" (okay it wasn't "great" but it was pretty good – aside from the strange inclusion of a trio of dance remixes), but the main thing for me has always been his voice and flow i.e. "simple and sharp" as he states. I can see how that simplicity in his technique has possibly contributed to him being viewed in a lesser light against the likes of Ghostface Killah, Raekwon and RZA, with their deeper wordplay and more complex lyrics, but his elementary style and deep vocal tone has always appealed to me for its catchiness. He has the kind of delivery and voice that would have been at home in amongst old school crews such as The Furious Five, Cold Crush Brothers etc. Whilst that might imply that he sounds dated, I actually find it quite endearing, as it marks him as unique and refreshing in amongst the voices we've been hearing over the last two decades. "The Keynote Speaker" feels very much like a continuation of "Dopium" in both overall feel and quality. At first glance it presents as a more ambitious album with 19 tracks, compared to 11 (i.e. sans remixes) on "Dopium", but in reality "The Keynote Speaker" doesn't really play for as long as the track listing suggests; half of the tracks clock in at under 3 minutes with only one song over the 4 minute mark (and three of the tracks are very short skits). I would have preferred some of the better tracks to run for longer, as some of them seem to be over as soon as they start, but it's not a major blight against the album."
Wordburglar :: Welcome to Cobra Island :: Wordburglar/URBNET
as reviewed by Steve 'Flash' Juon
"If you wanted a celebration of the campy Sunbow cartoon series version of G.I. Joe, complete in all its "YO JOE" and Sgt. Slaughter glory, you were probably disappointed with the big budget slick Hollywood movies that came out in the last few years. All the action provided by Channing Tatum, Christopher Eccleston, Bruce Willis and The Rock couldn't bring back the rose-tinted memories of the cheesy "knowing is half the battle" morals, or the over-the-top voice acting of the Cobra Commander provided by Chris Latta. (Side note - this man DEFINED my childhood - he was also the voice of Starscream in The Transformers.) Wordburglar's "Welcome to Cobra Island" is the more fitting tribute to that era of 1980's cartoons, when we all sat in front of crappy standard definition TV sets, with only the channels you could get over a pair of rabbit ears. The animation looks cheap now, but with fuzzy reception, they seemed like Real American Heroes (and villains). Our protagonist SJ goes out of his to work from the background music and loop it to rap over, which gives you a chance to appreciate it in a whole new light. What might have been an incidental set up for a recon mission in the jungle now becomes the spooky backdrop for "That Guy With the Disguises," thanks to the expertise of partner-in-crime Savilion. Given the album's title it's not surprising that the baddies are so prominently featured on "Cobra Island," and to be fair they were always more interesting than clean cut babyfaces like Flint and Slip Stream. You might cheer for the Joes, but without larger than life enemies like Destro, what would you have for them to do? "From satellites plants that grow to massive heights/Got what you need, and always get my asking price" quips Wordburglar on "Call Destro," which is exactly the kind of sales pitch he needed on the show."
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