Jarren Benton :: My Grandmas Basement
Author: Steve 'Flash' Juon
"The XXL Freshmen Class is an annual tradition of selecting rappers who are "The Next Big Thing" and celebrating them with a magazine cover and accompanying feature articles. If we're being frank about it this practice is just as much about the magazine as the emcees. They are young and hungry and undoubtedly deserve the honor - but the debate about who was and who WASN'T included sells out the newsstand and creates viral buzz for XXL. As social media has increasingly part of our daily life over the years, we've watchedFacebook and Twitter blow up every year around this time. This year's point of controversy was the inclusion of August Alsina and Ty Dolla $ign, who to some are seen as singers rather than rappers, but considering the current prominence of Future that's a non-starter for me. For better or worse hip-hop has embraced the singing rapper and the rapping singer - the line between the two now an obsolete notion. Lost in the debate about whether or not singers and rappers should share the same cover was the fact that upstart rap label Funk Volume found one of their artists on the cover for a third straight year. That's impressive given the L.A. based imprint has only been in existence since 2009 - they've come up from small and unknown to a large buzz in an unusually short amount of time. Co-founder Hopsin can be handed a large part of the credit, but it also goes to their careful selection of like-minded artists who are unconventional and original compared to the cookie cutter mold of the bigger imprints. Dizzy Wright, SwizZz and 2014 XXL inductee Jarren Benton all fit that bill. Benton was a little surprised when Funk Volume opened the door for him in 2012 given he was an underground rapper from Atlanta and the label's best known artists were from Nevada and California but his artistic creativity was a perfect match."
Big Meridox & RA Stone :: 7th Division EP :: OxIlla
as reviewed by Steve 'Flash' Juon
"Big Meridox caught my attention a few years ago with his "DeLorean Fuel" EP, in no small part due to the fact the car mentioned in the title was a product of the 1980's - and so am I. His ambition to be as famous (or perhaps infamous) as that car and its gull wing doors hasn't faded in the last few years, though if there's a reference to be found "7th Division" I'm not sure what it is. Sure there are 7 fingers up on the cover art, and coincidentally or not I'm reviewing this on Memorial Day, but I really doubt he's referencing the famed 7th Infantry Division that fought in the Pacific during World War II and the Korean War. It's more likely that "G is the 7th letter made" and the sample in the open of "Field Negro Rebellion" suggests I'm right. Here's what you need to know about Meridox though - he's a Tucson, Arizona based rapper known for a deep gruff voice. It's not as booming as Keith David or James Earl Jones, but few people ever born or ever will could match THOSE rich bass depths. He's still a baritone and one whose voice will catch your attention, as will his casual hip-hop homophobia on songs like "Rugby King." At times it can be mild and relatively inoffensive in quips such as "y'all some funny niggaz," but at other times it seems unnecessarily excessive. This doesn't necessarily take away from the RA Stone produced track, though info on this beat maestro is even harder to come by than Meridox's bio. He may or may not also be the DJ scratching the Wu-Tang samples on the hook, but I like his instincts in providing a Primo type break, and in his choice of R&B loop that says "GOT FRESHNESS... ALL I KNOW IS" repeatedly. It's just odd to me that twice now on two different EP's I've noticed Meridox being so effortlessly hateful. I think I hear hip-hop differently in my 30's than I did in my teens - it seems less easy to dismiss it as braggadocious shit talking."
Blitz the Ambassador :: Afropolitan Dreams :: Embassy Ensemble
as reviewed by Matt Jost
"First and second generation African immigrants increasingly contribute to American rap music and R&B. Artists as diverse as Wale, Chamillionaire, Tyler, the Creator, Nipsey Hussle, Oddisee, Phil Ade, K'naan, French Montana, Emmanuel Jal, Akon, Jean Grae, Earl Sweatshirt, Lil' O, Ohene, 88-Keys and Chiddy have an African parent or were born to African parents who at some point lived and worked in the US or they made the decision to relocate overseas by themselves. A native of Ghana, Blitz the Ambassador belongs in the latter category, his academic studies taking him to Ohio before he settled in Brooklyn, where he also started his rap career. What separates Blitz from most of the aforementioned is the intermediary role that he plays between America and Africa. It's a position he can assume more easily than others because he was born and raised on the African continent. On "Afropolitan Dreams" he continues his mission to bridge the Atlantic with music that draws inspiration from both sides, with the supporting arch of this 'bridge' made up of upbeat '60s and '70s soul and rhythm & blues informed by afrobeat and highlife provided by a cast of musicians who contribute to the classy, timeless sound overseen by Blitz and Optiks. "Love on the Run" has the three-dimensional shape of a classic Isaac Hayes production. "Dollar and a Dream" is built on guitars and flutes that shift between blues and funk. "All Around the World" has enough reverb to resound from Ghana all the way to guest Marcelo D2's home Brazil, creating another transatlantic connection by way of black music. The smoothly swinging "Success" is reminiscent of Jay-Z's "American Gangster" outing. On "Internationally Known" frantic drums and horn stabs make up a stripped down but turned up production that achieves a modern sound with real instruments. Meanwhile "Africa Is the Future" and "Make You No Forget" capture that African spirit with light-toned guitars and vocals, the former featuring an international cast of MC's, the latter Fela Kuti's son Sean."
Fel Sweetenberg :: The Invisible Garden :: Effiscienz
as reviewed by Grant Jones
"Wyld Bunch's "Unbreakable" was a record I enjoyed last year despite finally tiring of the endless swathe of New York-throwback clones that have swarmed underground hip hop over the years. Wyld Bunch was likable enough, and benefitted from strong production from DJ Brans while throwing in enough cameos from respected emcees such as Sean Price and Torae. Effiscienz have continued their "sound" with the Union Blak album "Union Blak Friday" and this, "The Invisible Garden" by Fel Sweetenberg. Sweetenberg may possess a name that belongs in a bakery rather than a CD rack, but ain't nothing sweet about "The Invisible Garden". It's so easy to brand this another modern example of boom bap, but it's not that Sweetenberg is a bad emcee, he's just not really got much to say. "Hyena's Den" is standard, passable New York hip hop that suddenly comes alive when DJ Djaz decides to savage some classic acapellas. "Power Stricken" is a similarly snappy track that will get your head nodding, but the verses just fail to leave a mark. It's not exactly bland, or necessarily bad but it's wholly unremarkable. Production from DJ Brans is predictable yet satisfying, full of crunchy bass and crisp snares that are brought to life by DJ Djaz's turntablism. If you've heard the Wyld Bunch album "Unbreakable" that was released last year you'll know what to expect, although none of the beats ever really stand out here like they did on Wyld Bunch's record. Thankfully at 10 tracks the record is digestible without ever getting tiresome. Saying that, "Shoutro" sees Sweetenberg embracing his sustainable side by just reading out a list of artists that he would like to thank or just 'shout out', something traditionally reserved for liner notes. It's one of those "I ain't ever gonna listen to this track again" moments that is an odd decision to include as the last thing the listener will hear on "The Invisible Garden"."
Mr Clean :: With a Vengeance :: Bandcamp
as reviewed by Jaroslav 'Czechone' Lavick
"I'm sure some of you have "that" rapper on your radar, your "Mr. Most Anticipated"; he's been in and around your local scene for years, you've seen him live a few times, he's appeared on a handful of other people's tracks and/or had a track or two of his own, possibly has been part of a short-lived duo or group, perhaps he's had a couple different rap nom de plumes too - all of this but he's never actually released an album himself. Well Mr. Most Anticipated for me is Mr Clean, who hails from my neck of the woods in Sydney, Australia. In the album's introduction Mr Clean refers to himself as a "2nd Gen spitter", which is a good call i.e. in terms of our local hip hop scene, he's not old school, not new school, but right in between. In fact, I've known of Mr Clean since sometime in the mid to late 90's; (if memory serves me correctly) I used to hand the much younger version of him my hard earned dollars when he worked in the one and only specialist hip hop record store in this city, before I ever knew of him being an MC. I then started seeing him at a few gigs as a support act, then when he appeared on songs with the likes of local hip hop luminaries such as Ear Infection and Celsius he caught my attention as being more than capable, with a very distinctive style; from then on I was hoping to hear more from the man. All was pretty quiet for a number of years but then a single called "Hard Yak b/w Closet" dropped a few years ago, which started getting me hyped with the promise of an album to follow. As usual for hip hop, that album was delayed a few times and seemed to take forever to come out - but FINALLY Mr Clean's debut album "With A Vengeance" has arrived. Straight off the bat I have to say that the biggest appeal of this album is that it feels fresh sonically. As much as I've always wanted my hip hop (Aussie and otherwise) to retain its golden era influences, the result is often played out beats and production styles which give me an unwanted sense of deja vu; this has been testing my patience in recent times. Throwback is all good, but when it takes the form of mimicry it becomes simply boring and the lack of creativity drives me nuts. However, the Clean album sounds rather different to your average underground hip hop release, thanks to the production by (primarily) Colord Noyz, with assistance from a couple others. "
Nocturnals :: 7 Sins :: Bandcamp
as reviewed by Patrick Taylor
"The internet has made it possible for virtually anyone with a decent computer and a little bit of equipment to record and publish a rap album. You'd think that the democratization of hip-hop would lead to a huge diversity of subject matter being covered in rap songs, and you'd be wrong. If anything, the subject matter seems to have narrowed to sex, drugs, partying, material possessions, and maybe committing crimes for money to fund sex, drugs, partying, and the consumption of material possessions. Even some of the so-called indie rappers mostly rap about how they don't rap about sex, drugs, partying, material possessions, or committing crimes to obtain the aforementioned items. If the trend keeps up, in ten years all rap songs will be different variations of the same twenty words. All of which is to say that there is room in the crowded hip-hop market for two guys to make an EP about the seven deadly sins, which is exactly what the Nocturnals have done. The Nocturnals are a Chicago duo featuring lapsed RapReviews writer MC Rota and producer Lucca. They've put out two albums since 2010 that straddle the line between cerebral indie rap and nerd core. Rota's nasally flow and neurotic lyrics make him a cross between B Real, Ad Rock and Woody Allen. However, he's working without Mike D, MCA, Sen Dog, or Diane Keaton as a contrast. Rota wisely makes up for this lack of straight man/woman by enlisting rappers Adrienne Nadeau, Gatz N Goods, Wizard Jenkins, Young General and Wax to share the mic on four tracks, and Sara and K-Sam to sing on two. The guests add variety and the EP is stronger for it."
String Theory :: String Theory :: Mic Theory Records
as reviewed by Grant Jones
"The duo of Hex-One and Tek-nition combined to form Epidemic a few years ago now, and while much of their work is fairly formulaic in terms of throwback hip hop, they were getting better with each album. Last year's "Somethin' For Tha Listeners" was a personal favorite that saw the guys embrace more humanistic qualities to their raps, rather than the standard theme of "I'm a dope rapper, listen to my dope rhymes". Epidemic are undeniably gifted emcees, utilizing multi-syllablic schemes and intricate flows to bring life to what is usually minimalistic production. I'm equally disappointed and intrigued by Hex-One's decision to go alone, as Epidemic members on their own may not possess the character to hold down a whole album on their lonesome. As far as this whole underground, New York boom bap shtick goes, Epidemic do it well. If it's not your thing then this review is likely of little interest beyond this point, as it's very much 'one of those' generic throwback records. Except, it's not quite as forgettable as say Fel Sweetenberg's release - Hex-One is a dope rapper for a start. He may not necessarily destroy microphones, or make you think about his rhymes, but he spits and spits and spits. And then spits some more. If you like hearing wordplay and complex rhyme schemes then Hex-One is going to find favor. "String Theory" isn't one of those albums that are trying to be intelligent with scientific references and what not, although there's certainly a science to how Hex-One delivers his verses. Initially I thought he was only using multi-syllabic words to get the tongue-twisting technique that's clearly present throughout his Epidemic work, but Hex just has one of those flows that while packed with words, does feel natural. It's never rushed, but more a nod to greats like CL Smooth and Mr Funke."
various artists :: Coalmine Records Presents Unearthed :: Coalmine Records
as reviewed by Steve 'Flash' Juon
""Unearthed" implies gems that have previously gone unseen by human eyes, but in this case it's just a clever pun for Coalmine Records on their 10th anniversary - or is it? The songs on this compilation have been commercially available for the last year and change, but they're given a new spin figuratively and literally by long time selector and mixtape impresario DJ Revolution. Giving him the chance to arrange and blend these singles does indeed expose them to new audiences for the first time - those who wouldn't have bought them individually can now enjoy them for the first time in this celebratory CD. For the purposes of this review our focus is on the digital edition that came out two weeks ago and is 22 tracks long. There's also a double disc "Untagged Edition" with bonus tracks, and out this week is an "iTunes Deluxe Edition" that adds even more to the mix. Is it overkill for a label whose very name implies their underground rap status to release this many versions of one album? Perhaps. You don't get to celebrate a 10th anniversary every day though so if you're going to go hard that's an ideal time to do it. One can say the same of the tracks selected by Revolution for this mix - there's a lot of killer and not much filler. The list of artists is likely to remind you of 1990's era Soundbombing compilations and if you're not familiar with them take my word for it that it's high praise - or don't and read a review of one for yourself. Pharoahe Monch is in fine form on "Get Down," vowing to "Get my people up out of the hood like Cus D'Amato [...] Just so there will never be another Amadou Diallo." Songs rarely feature just one emcee though - the rough and rugged Rah Digga teams with Fashawn and Reks on the aptly named "Never Back Down." Long time Stones Throw affiliated artists Wildchild and MED (Medaphoar) united on "Most Confident" (MED is no longer with Stones though). The Guilty Simpson and Small Professor album is revisited several times with songs "On the Run" and "I'm the City," the latter of which features guest appearances by Boldy James and Statik Selektah."
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