It often takes me longer than expected, but I’m a reviewer who likes to get to the point. The point in this case is sound quality, or even more to the point, quality period. I’m always willing to cut indie rappers some slack in regards to engineering and mastering, and I’m well aware that hip-hop has its own audio aesthetic. What may sound low and muffled to others, sounds loud and clear to us. But that doesn’t mean we accept any random combination of noise. In fact, we hold production values in high regard. We know, for instance, that different beats call for different levels of refinement. And that’s where “The Cirrcus” has it wrong. Any keyboard-based beats that intend to create anthemic or dramatic moods better sound like it. Without a potent enough sound, you’re all too soon approaching mimicry. You could pick almost any track on this CD and would encounter the same disparity between an ambitious soundscape and a poor mixdown. Personally I rather listen to some bedroom producer’s wacky sonic experiments than this kind of pseudo-professional sound. It’s like pulling a plastic cover over your couch, it cheapens everything.
Since the vocals could be better produced as well, the fault may not solely lie with the producers. If this stuff was ever up to scratch, somewhere along the way it lost its shine. The best overall efforts are Mike Lowe’s “Heyyo,” a slow and simple but funky beat/guitar combination sparsely interspersed with slight touches of strings and things, topped by singer Bradd’s inviting stylings, and Ray Contour’s body-movin’ “Bring it Back (Woohoo),” which contrasts dry percussion with a bass vibrating at high voltage during the break. Feeling more at ease when bringing out the clowns, the Catastrofiks also sound inspired over Mike Lowe’s circusy title track and the breezy “Prolly Was Me,” which both evoke comparisons to D12. “Spin It” lives up to underground hip-hop standards, or else you probably wouldn’t see The High & Mighty’s Mr. Eon star on it, whose partner DJ Mighty Mi alone usually puts him in another league. We’ve certainly heard better Latin-tinged tracks than “Bonita” (featuring the JuJu Mob’s State Store), but within the context of “The Cirrcus,” it adds a welcome touch of class. The rest of the tracks pretty much all show the symptoms described above. Another problem being the highly unprofessional song endings.
Vocally and lyrically, the trio of D-Rellz, Rook and Vision put ample effort into their performances, which are often laced with wordplay, ranging from simplistic (“Get my Cher like my name was Sonny Bono”) to multi-layered (“Ain’t got a legal degree but I passed more bars than sightseers in New Orleans”). They introduce themselves interacting intricately on the opening “The Conception,” their frantically pledged allegiance to flowing (“Flowin’ is in our nature”) appropriately ending in a DJ Bongo Herman scratch finale. They continue down the same path (maybe with less intensity) on tracks like “Comin In” and “Raw Flows,” presenting themselves in varying combinations but always giving consideration to diction, breath control, volume, tempo, etc. That’s more than you can say about many of their peers, but it’s also a very general observation that should tell you that despite their efforts, technically the Catastrofiks don’t really stand out much. As so often, it comes down to flavor and flair, to character and charisma, the possession of which being the reason seemingly limited rappers like NORE and The Game are so entertaining, and the lack of which being the reason for many a short-lived career. There are numerous rhymes on “The Cirrcus,” some serious, some less serious, that just don’t get the proper attention and (not just virtually) end up getting lost in the mix.
Whether it’s “O.E.O.” announcing, “This is the start of a voyage uncharted,” or the motivational “Get Up,” most aspirations are cut short by the unfinished appeal of the production. “I pour my soul through these vocal chords,” D-Rellz claims somewhere. You couldn’t tell from the sound of it, really. Conceptually, the Catastrofiks rely more on rhyming their asses off than on providing content. The most notable exceptions being the paranoid-political “A.O.L. (America’s On Lockdown)” and “Summer in the City,” an alternative city tour to the not-so-sunny side of their hometown Philadelphia. Apart from “Summer in the City” and the handpicked guests, the Philly flavor is not easily detectable on “The Cirrcus,” but that could be an outsider’s problem because it’s such a local release. Where else would you find a crew that names an entire track after the Jedi Mind Tricks sample they use?
The Greatest Show on Earth it is not. But Catastrofiks’ “The Cirrcus” shows a three-man team determined to have fun and willing to touch on more serious issues at the same time. Too bad the translation to music is rather messy. Since it’s important to know where you came from to know where you’re going, they’re politely invited to listen to The Goats’ “Tricks of the Shade” album from 1992, which is pretty much the alpha and omega as far as carnivalesque Philly hip-hop goes.