As someone who didn’t really sign up to review mixtapes but albums, I’ve learned to take them as they come. I get frustrated, however, when they come more frequently than albums and when every mixtape acts as a teaser for an album. With so many mixtapes getting distributed, when are all those announced albums gonna roll in, folks? This is not so much about established artists who engage in a legitimate side hustle because their contractual situation won’t allow them to eat, it’s about relative unknowns who think they can’t release an album without first dropping a mixtape when they’re at a point where the quality levels of album and mixtape might not even differ that much. Why not concentrate your efforts on one release?

Chicago native Keith Masters could be said to be on the right track, dropping an ideal mixtape with “Masters of the Universe,” particularly as it’s available free forTerror Firma”), as well as as a soloist with the release “Bioluminescence,” the artist formerly known as Stretch Nyce runs through 20 tracks, mostly accompanied by original production. The mixtape starts out traditionally enough with “About to Drop,” promoting the upcoming “Ghost City” full-length over Jay-Z’s “Show Me What You Got.” With a warm, enthusiastic voice, Masters presents himself as a “naturally selected” MC, engaging in the typical “I’ma be your host for the evening” and “You know I had to get on this track” talk.

What follows is a collection of sketches and fully fleshed out songs, revealing a rapper that won’t let himself be boxed into a category. “How you want the flow, son, thugged out or spacey?” he asks at one point, and “Masters of the Universe” puts him in the comfortable situation of not having to choose – just yet. Come to think of it, Keith Masters is neither thugged out nor spacey, he more or less has internalized the intonation of a modern, all-purpose MC. Lyrically, however, he purposely walks the line between wanting to please and needing to disturb. “Throw it Up!” is the CD’s most underground track, which alternatively encourages listeners to throw up their hands and empty their stomachs. This reeks of self-made hip-hop with no real purpose, a surreal beat sabotaging Masters’ intention to “leave my words in the room like them Bibles placed by Gideons.”

Much more convincing is “Weight,” a clever response to trap rap over Juelz’ “Oh Yes.” After extensive weed dealer boasts, he suddenly switches to a broader perspective, addressing substance (ab-)use in general:

“Everyone’s sellin’ somethin’, illegal or not
Believe me when I tell you that Medicare’s just as hot
as that strange brew boilin’ in the pot
In this consumer society, medicine for anxiety
Addiction by variety, drug wars and rioting
Commercialism; TV’s, commercials in ’em
Hold up (wai-ai-ait), this is heavy (wei-eight)
So I’ma sell the industry dreams
Lace ’em with some hidden themes
I’m only black, I only know rap and crack
What? (Wai-ai-ait)
No… (Wai-ait)”

The East Coast resident comments on the shooting of Sean Bell in “NYCops,” attempting to paint “vivid images of a war declared on blacks,” unfortunately over a badly stitched together beat that potentially lessens the poignancy of an observation like “There’s a lotta David Dukes in the office, Jim Crows in the law.” “Mighty Dollaz” fares better with a horns- and strings-laced beat by Bond and stinging lyricism:

“Ready to sin over dead white men
And some might murder they kin right then
at the chance to ascend, it’s frightenin’
knowin’ that we can’t back up like some hypemen
I strike like ( *lightning* ) but never in the same place twice
And it’s crazy how criminals believe in Christ
The same hand sworn upon a Bible
might be the hand takin’ lives from your rivals
Survival’s not liable, we animalistic
Darwinists with theories of natural selection
The weak seek redemption from germs and infection”

Naturally, the CD’s thought-provoking tracks are more liable to catch the critic’s attention, but even when he’s just rhyming, Keith Masters drops noteworthy lines and just generally keeps things interesting. “The Sweetest Thing,” set over a soulful beat by Bronze Sun, is a despite-of-it-all declaration of love to rap music, with soundbites that are sure to get stuck between your teeth: “My dentist hate my lyrics cause they lack the flossin’.” Belief’s beat for “Let’s Get It,” a stomping composition with an exotic touch, is hard to mess up, and Keith rides it effortlessly with a charismatic flow. Together with co-producer AKIR he creates a western theme for “Sundown,” lyrically sticking to his social realism. Bond laces “Stand and Deliver” with graceful orchestration, creating the kind of music that takes you on a journey. Fittingly, Keith Masters raps, “For now I gotta hustle and bustle gettin’ my grind on / Feels like I’m losin’ more hours like switchin’ time zones / I was young with Vaseline dreams gettin’ my shine on / never dreamed I’d see what I’ve seen gettin’ my rhyme on.”

As is the case with most mixtapes, the sound quality is not that of a professional product. Because of that, it is hard to tell how well Keith Masters really flows. He’s comfortable on the “One Blood” beat that backs “Ready! Aim! Fire!,” but with many of the exclusive beats coming across underproduced, it all just becomes too indistinct. He claims that “there’s no rhythm that I couldn’t bend into submission with precision,” yet lacks the punch required for the pugilistic “Sweet Science.” Also, there’s a segment in “Shoulders of a Giant” where he rocks an Eminem cadence but lacks the mic presence to pull it off. “Crew Run” awaits him with a challenging, jazzy beat, and while Masters’ performance is smooth and crisp, it’s still not smooth and crisp enough. To his credit, the flow is generally solid, and in some cases, like on KastUno’s Billy Joel-sampling “CraZier,” even rock-solid.

If Chi-Town comparisons are needed, the rapper who says, “My pops is hip-hop, second moms is the streets of the Chi,” has a bit of Longshot and a bit of Lupe Fiasco in him. The delivery is not yet there, but with personal and political content, Masters’ game has a good chance of getting recognized. If “Ghost City” will have equally engaging song and beat material as “Hell Down Here,” “Sacrifice” and “Mighty Dollaz,” yet presented on a professional level, Keith Masters will continue to be on the right track.

Keith Masters :: Masters of the Universe
6Overall Score