References to crime and the ominous ‘time’ convicted criminals face are abound in rap music. Most of them have been around long before hip-hop made its first baby steps, one of the most widespread being “sent up the river,” a local reference that has become code everywhere for a prison sentence. Initially, the river in question was the Hudson and the upstream destination was the infamous Sing Sing prison. Hailing from the small community that houses Sing Sing since 1826, the four-man crew Hand Held Aspects steers clear of any exploitation of this illustrious connection. The only obvious reference is the title of their lead single, “Sing Sing”, though it should be noted that their hometown, Ossining NY, was itself called Sing Sing until 1901.
Given these circumstances, some ten years ago, a local record like this could have easily been called “Kingpins in Sing Sing”, its rappers bragging about living next to the legendary prison. Thankfully, the glorification of all things gangster isn’t the sole order of the day anymore, and independent rappers everywhere are seizing the opportunity to express THEMSELVES, rather than what’s expected of them. Or as one of the guys says in “Sing Sing”: “It’s a state of mind, so never mind the state / province or city, it doesn’t relate / when it’s time to elevate.”
Following up their first demo releases (“Distributed Dirt” in ’98, “No One’s Listening” in ’00) and a solo effort (Losaka’s “Duck the Norm”) with their first proper full-length, Hand Held Aspects (abbreviation: H2A) are sure to make noise beyond their city limits. The ticket that gets them there might very well be “From Point A to H”‘s rock-solid production. Let producer Hippo welcome you with a melodical guitar/bass centerpiece, covered with layers of mellow drum beats, strung together with rap quotes referencing Sing Sing (“Sing Sing”), taste his sampling of a rich rocksteady groove that undergoes subtle tempo manipulation (“Shorelines”), and for dessert, let him serve you the typical RZA-influenced indie joint (“One’s Perspective”). Other members serve production duties as well, such as Eibol, who makes good use of an instruction record on the “Looking for Freshness” interlude and handles a delicate string sample on “Ice the Pain”, or Losaka, who comes up with the two most emotionally charged beats of the album (“Exhibited”, “Privileges”).
While Hand Held Aspects earn top marks for their beats, their vocal performance leaves room for improvement. Since a rapper’s appeal is often based as much on the drone of his vocal tone as on his lyrics, their commonplace voices might prove a disadvantage. Unremarkable voices often get exposed when an established rapper’s voice is sampled, and it’s no different here. While it is almost impossible to alter one’s voice (unless there’s a wide range to work with), there are still possibilities for rappers to come across more charismatic than they naturally would, without having to forfeit a natural sound. Also, flow-wise, H2A sometimes try too much, going at speeds that they haven’t fully mastered yet or putting too heavy an emphasis on the rhyming words, other times lacking punch and energy, try as they might. Finally, there are still too many corny lines that need to be weeded out.
Nevertheless, the overall impression one gets from the raps on “From Point A to H” is a pleasant one, the rich musical background, an extended vocabulary, elaborate thought patterns and love for the artform all being extremely helpful in reaching this conclusion. Without undergoing major metamorphoses, H2A can switch from the simple fun of “Sing Sing” and “Shorelines” to more reflective and abstract selections like “Exhibited” and “Trenchmouth”. Matter of fact, an unusual marriage of simplicity and complexity seems to be what the crew is aiming for, resulting in tracks that will have you figuring what they are about first, but quickly becoming accessible for anybody willing to invest a small amount of time and thought.
Skeptics arguing that Hand Held Aspects must be a bunch of simpletons trying to look smarter than they are then, might want to look into a couple of cuts that should be able to dismiss any such notion. “One’s Perspective” talks about respecting different opinions, last but not least when it comes to hip-hop (illustrated by a cleverly incorporated Common quote). “Inertia’s Lament” (which can be considered the album’s secret title track) examines humanity’s urge to move forward, using the chorus to connect the common observations to hip-hop: “If an object in motion must remain in motion / why do so many acts sink in the ocean? / lack of devotion, or loss of inspiration / from point A to H, there’s no hesitation.” “Living Room” takes a hard look at the influence television exerts over our opinions and habits. Other noteworthy cuts include “Privilege” and “What it Seems”, even though they come across a smidgen too laborious. Simple yet effective is “Note to Self”, a message in a bottle addressed by Eibol and Stayinsane to their future selves to make sure they remember where they come from:
“Yo, what’s up big man, surprise, remember me?
You should, if not here’s a clue, the name starts with E
I see you have been diggin’ through stacks of old CD’s
found a copy of your crew’s second LP
bringin’ you to me in exactly the way we thought it would
Hopefully you’ve progressed and your health is good
Let me guess, you stay behind the boards, still producin’
You’d surprise me sayin’ you stopped cause skills loosened
So what’s the point of me writin’ what you just read?
Example: you got famous and a big head
Take these words as a needle to puncture, pop and deflate
cause when you started out you were very far from great”
Having left their early days in the rap game long behind them without quite being where they aim to be, Hand Held Aspects have the knowledge necessary to get there, as proven on this mature debut album.