Writing this review is a bit of a paradox. Although the album came out in 1999, the first I’d ever seen or heard of this crew was in 2002 when Silent Records sent me a package in the mail. I must confess, the group’s name and the liner notes insert lead me to believe this was an underground rap group on some ol’ backpack Anticon/Def Jux/Rhymesayers type shit. This genre of hip-hop, as most of RR’s faithful readers will know, is simultaneously one of the most beloved and reviled in the whole game. At their best, these artists are pushing the creative boundaries of what MC’s, DJ’s and producers can do past what was traditionally consider rap music. At their worst, they come off like overly scientific eggheads rhyming to beats so obtuse they’d make better abstract art than music.
Nevertheless this really doesn’t qualify as a “Back to the Lab” entry, and not just because it’s new to me, but because of the fact it doesn’t delve back into yesteryear’s forgotten artists, golden beats, and fondly remembered sounds. Even in 1999 they were out of context with their contemporaries, so actually in 2002 this album doesn’t sound at all dated; this works to the Artfull Dodgers advantage. The Flint, MI crew of Jackpot and B.Gozza deftly flip verbals over a variety of beats provided by Mr. Slate, Phizyx, Bangtown, and B.Gozza himself among others. Of the two rappers, Jackpot proves himself not only the star but very aptly named to boot – his wit and tongue dexterity show he is a winner. Just peep a small sample of the included freestyle from 92.7 FM on their dial:
“Ring around the hoe-sy witcha girl I’m gettin cozy
She’s havin my baby – OOPS, I’m the mack
Fatter than Albert so kiss my confidant crack
My big bang theory leaves you flat on yo’ back
It’s an, emergency so dial 9-1-1 – and call the cops
The one that’s wreckin mics at a show, gettin props
I rock around the clock, but my +Days+ ain’t +Happy+
Fools wanna battle on the mic, it’s fatality
Imagine if you can, the dopest white rapper
that didn’t fade out, like all them other actors! Uhh..”
B.Gozza plays the yin to Jackpot’s yang, giving his verbal ballistics balance with a deeper voice and less esoteric rhymes. The two have a natural chemistry that at their peak over the right kind of beats lead to pure musical satisfaction. Teaming up with Astronimical and D-Madness on “Doper We Get” (the more we feel broke as shit) over a simple and highly effective piano loop is the perfect example of underground dope. The immediately following track “Juggernaut” is the complete opposite: a track which includes three guests (including D-Madness again) but plods along over a mediocre beat which tries to use bass hits for emphasis to cover up how bland it is. “When it comes to the wire I’m on fire like Mark McGwire, call me sire.” That’s clever? I don’t think so.
The only real problem with Artfull Dodgers is their inconsistancy. They’re certainly capable of hanging with any of their underground contemporaries when they put it all together, as songs like the superb “Love Changes” and the slow flowing, fast scratching, drawn out rock and bass sounds of “Check it Out” prove. Jackpot could be an indie rap star with or without the Dodgers, but teamed with B.Gozza and put over the right beats they become a dominant team. Hopefully this is not a one-shot “double or nothing” record for Artfull Dodgers; because by polishing their flows and releasing a CD with less weak tracks, they could join the upper echelons of underground hip-hop.