Now that we’ve all seen “8 Mile” – anybody remember “Detroit Rock City” from 1999? Named after a classic KISS song, it told the ever-twisting tale of a teen garage band making the trip from Cleveland to Detroit to see their heroes live in concert. Set in 1978 at the height of the KISS frenzy, the comedy plays heavy on the rivalry between the disco and the rock scene as well as the fact that every possible authority will stand in the way of four pot-smoking, hormone-driven teenage boys trying to hear some good music and maybe meet some girls.

Fast forward to 2002, as Detroit rapper Royce Da 5’9″ pays homage to his hometown’s rock heritage (MC5, Stooges, Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent, Bob Seger, Mitch Ryder) by naming his debut album “Rock City” and fellow Detroit resident Eminem hits big with “8 Mile”, a drama about a white rapper trying to make a name for himself in the ’90s. The obvious irony here is that right around the time when rock fans were battling it out with followers of disco, a new music genre began to take shape, one that someday would sell more records than rock or dance music – hip-hop. Inspired by disco yet at the same time rejecting its narrow scope and glamour look, hip-hop began to spread from the Bronx across the entire continent. By 1978, hip-hop must have certainly had fans in the Midwest. But the big shows that inspired pilgrimages such as the one depicted in “Detroit Rock City”, were still put on by bands like KISS. Turn the pages to 2002 and the musicians kids look up to are rappers like Eminem and Royce.

Somewhere on the long-winded road from rap fan to rap fame we find rapper Roast from Troy, MI, a middle class suburb of Detroit. You might almost call him Roast Da 5’9″ by mistake, once you notice the title of his album is “5’9″ and Rising”. But whereas Royce says in “You Can’t Touch Me”: “5’9″ is my height – if I was ever to grow / be our little secret – nobody got to know,” Roast counts on reaching the 6 feet mark sometime soon. Growing, in the metaphorical sense, is indeed mandatory for Roast, who hasn’t yet left his garage days behind. Something you can tell first and foremost by his album’s sound. As an MC who is apparently trying to do his own thing and doesn’t possess the illest skills on the planet, aiming for better sounding music should be Roast’s main concern.

Considering that Roast has been involved in two albums in between 1992-1995 with a local crew called The Lowlifes, there is reason to believe that this rapper will have a hard time trying to surpass his current stature. On the opening “No Joke” he gives off the impression of a rapper that graduated from the do-it-yourself school of rhyming, ca. class of ’92, but then failed to increase his knowledge. Excerpts like “I’m turnin’ mice to men / no wait, it’s vice versa when / I make a nice person curse at his wife and friends,” “from the Midwest, one of the best you’ll see / and I can still fuck it up on a West Coast beat,” or “other rappers listen up cause you’re bein’ ejected / don’t listen if you want your precious ego protected” don’t sound very 2002 to me. Instead, he runs the risk of having to eat his own words when he states, “you’re nothin’ but a fan that won’t make it / your style is played and your raps are outdated.”

“5’9″ and Rising” is not about that old school feeling either. Roast just seems limited on several levels pertaining to the art of rapping: his voice has no special quality, his flow won’t make anyone dizzy, and he doesn’t have anything new to say. To his credit, his topics are diverse enough, he can switch up his flow and occasionally there’s solid songwriting. “Same Ol’ Same” is a nice dedication to the perpetual monotony of the two and a half days that are supposed to be a break from your weekly routine. Roast and his friends don’t seem to mind that “it’s the same old shit that we did last weekend / same old crew, same brew that I’m reachin’ for.” Humor definitely serves as a catalyst here:

“I ain’t really all into the club scene
but when I’m fucked up it doesn’t really bug me
Matter of fact, these ladies lookin’ lovely
fine hoes dancin’ while Bubba singin’ “Ugly”
And it must be in the air or something
cause to me it looks like they’re wearing nothing
She’s been around, but if I don’t sit this glass down
I forget about her past and turn that ass out”

Regardless of its flat MP3-style sound, “What About Me” is a near-perfect marriage of vocal tone and sample melody, mainly because they both fit the song’s theme. In a melodic, conversational flow Roast reflects on his independent status and the flashy rap game. This one definitely deserves some fine-tuning. The folksy “Voices” on the other hand, is in desperate need of some engineering magic because the female chorus is almost unbearable. The cut still warrants a listen because it tells of the independent hustle first hand:

“Somebody said that opportunity’s knockin’
Well, I been watchin’ and ain’t shit poppin’
it may pass through but it sure ain’t stoppin’
when the market’s dead and the economy’s droppin'”

As a general rule, every single track on “5’9″ and Rising” is marred by flawed production. You might prepare yourself for a serving of punchlines on “I Might” (which is off to a good start with “I wanna be famous / like the gerbil that crawled up Richard Gere’s anus”), but the unprofessional production makes it hard to listen to Roast’s alleged “2002 shit” at all.

So yes, some cuts on this album are pretty awful, and some would probably be just as awful with good production (the “Candy Girl”-based “Every Night”). Some are pointless (“Raise Your Glass”), some too provincial (“Let Me Ax U Dis”), some formulaic (“Take Chances”), etc. Even when the beat is halfway aight, such as on “You and Ya Crew”, you still wish there was another CD in your player because the Souls Of Mischief quote reminds you of “93 ’til Infinity”.

Having repeatedly promised on “No Joke”: “Roast – funny name, but the skills no joke,” the man fails to live up to this or any other promise. His attitude may reflect years of experience, but his skills don’t. With an album smelling like the badly aired bedroom it was probably conceived in, Roast will learn how hard the respect he mentions in “No Joke” is to earn.

Despite it all, Roast and his partner Johnny Lawrence are more experienced than the band in “Detroit Rock City”, who had played exactly one gig before they set off on their journey to see KISS. But one parallel stills brings this review full circle: Like the big man, Eminem, Roast has issues with techno music. He even spends an entire couplet dissing it:

“This next one goes out to all you ravers
in the clubs with drugs, x-heads and lasers
DJ’s in the cut like a razor
with the *techno beat* across the fader
20 bucks get your ass in the place
to hear five DJ’s that all sound the same
Dirt-ass teens with low self-esteem
makin’ out with each other transmittin’ disease
they haven’t showered in weeks and if that wasn’t bad
I’m bein’ followed by a fag that’s dressed in drag
To hell with that scene, you can keep the techno
I’ll be drunk in a pub singin’ ‘Let me goooo…'”

If someone would actually claim that the rivalry between rock and disco has been replaced by hip-hop versus techno, then let it be known that hip-hop won that battle long before Em let Moby get stomped by Obie. Nowadays hip-hop is busy battling his inner demons.

Roast :: 5'9" and Rising