On the intro to Elzhi’s solo debut, a compatriot exhorts him to “show these motherfuckers what a classic is.” It’s quite a lofty tag to apply to an album that hasn’t yet begun, but over the course of “The Preface” Elzhi raps his way to damn near classic status, and he does so with an ease and fluency that makes it all look effortless.
From his early days as a solo artist on the Detroit mixtape circuit to his emergence with a revamped Slum Village, Elzhi has always been known as a rapper’s rapper, one who is smooth as silk in his delivery and possessed of fierce MC chops. Whereas fellow Detroiter Royce da 5’9″ sounds as vicious as the lyrics he spits, often literally spitting the words out at you, Elzhi seems to barely break a sweat, nonchalantly gliding his way around the track and leaving you to shake your head and belatedly say, “Daaamn.”
The retrospective mixtape “Witness My Growth” has had heads buzzing over El’s masterful wordplay, and the “Europass” mixtape further upped the ante with its stellar production line-up, but with “The Preface” Elzhi has truly come into his own. While his earliest work was impressive, his voice and flow on much of “Witness My Growth” bear an eerie resemblance to another Detroit MC of the melanin-impaired variety. And while “Europass” was darn good, it felt very much like a mixtape rather than a cohesive album, more a collection of hot tracks than a group of songs brought together for a reason. “The Preface,” on the other hand, works from beginning to end. Produced almost entirely by the masterful Black Milk, the music quality is almost astonishingly consistent without ever sounding repetitive or boring. What’s more, Black Milk has broadened his sonic horizons since his debut “Popular Demand,” relying less extensively on sped-up soul samples and easily creating particular moods with his beats. The chemistry between these two is exceptional as well, as Elzhi sounds completely at home over the Black Milk production, often bringing out certain facets of a beat with his rhymes.
This is apparent from the opening track, which is more than the typical worthless introduction in that it finds Elzhi rapping about the album to come over some jubilant vocals and cymbal crashes. “The Leak” follows on its heels with triumphant strings and thumping bass as Elzhi declares, “Every time I drop somethin’ hot you hear the sirens peak / It makes the water in the hose on a hydrant leak.” One of the album’s best is up next in “Guessing Game,” where Elzhi puts on an absolute clinic for all the lesser MCs out there, finishing each line with the beginning of a word and leaving it until the next line to resolve the tension and complete the meaning. It’s a stunning display of lyrical craftsmanship, especially when he incorporates sly double entendres and writes his lines in such a way that they make sense in both their complete and incomplete forms. It’s hard to do this one justice without actually hearing it, but it’s worth a shot:
“Check, this girl was peckin’ my neck
She knew this one minute man who used to bust in one sec-
-retary; it was a dude named Kev
He went to church on a Sunday and turned his back on the rev-
-olution; bet, you caught on yet? Okay
Your dogs turn scaredy-cat when they facin’ the vet-
-erinarian; because they not this slick, I keep a chick
lost for words, that’s why she hop all on my dic-
-tionary; I don’t be givin’ a fuck
This line goes to each and every critic that thought I would suc-
-ceed; but peep the line before last, it’s breathtaking
It has your favorite rapper sounding as-
-thmatic; I keep the rhymes strikin’ ’em
Cuz I sparkle like a diamond, and shine like a gem-
-shoe; not carin’ who I offend
I ain’t believe in none of y’all thug niggas livin’ in cin-
-emas; I had this girl in my bed
And every time she opened up her mouth she was givin’ me head-
-aches; now since the day I got bread, I could spread
I know quite a few of my friends has gotten fed-
Add to that a swaggering beat of staccato guitars and some ridiculous drums and you have one for the ages.
From there, things continue at the blistering pace set by the opening tracks. “Motown 25″ featuring Royce da 5’9” is the first song on “The Preface” taken from “Europass,” but its inclusion is definitely merited on the strength of the two MCs’ incredible performances and yet another Black Milk banger. Elzhi lets loose on “Brag Swag,” dropping multisyllable rhymes left and right over a drearier cut by Black Milk.
The remarkable thing about Elzhi’s lyricism is his ability to craft intricate, meaningful rhymes while also developing a song’s conceptual framework. He does this on the aforementioned “Guessing Game” as well as “Colors,” which uses a straightforward concept and is less related to Ice-T than you might think, and “D.E.M.O.N.S,” where Elzhi expounds on numerous possible meanings for the acronym to the accompaniment of some truly ominous, chant-style vocals on the beat. He further illustrates his versatility on the stream-of-consciousness dreamscape “Talking In My Sleep” and the straightforward narrative of “Hands Up.” The biggest surprise, though, comes in the form of the DJ Dez-produced “The Science” featuring Fes Roc, on which El gets existential about the pitfalls of life in the ‘hood, showing a side of himself that has rarely been glimpsed on his other projects.
I could go on listing the stand-out tracks, but I’d end up naming them all, because there’s not a bad song on the album. T3 provides some sugary goodness on the beat for “Save Ya” and trades raps with Elzhi about the limits of their involvement with some women; El explains the artistic process on “What I Write”; and the requisite posse cut, “Fire (Remix),” is a head-bobbing affair as well, with Black Milk, Guilty Simpson, Fatt Father, Danny Brown, and Fat Ray all dropping by to spit heat with the man of the hour.
So is this one a classic as promised? It has all the right parts in place, but in the end it misses that mark by a hair. The first slight knock against it is that a number of the best tracks â€“ “Motown 25,” “”Talking In My Sleep,” “Transitional Joint,” and “Save Ya” â€“ were on “Europass,” which dulls their effect by the slightest margin. Additionally, while Elzhi’s rhymes and flow are technically perfect, he doesn’t leave you with the emotional connection that classic albums achieve, rendering “The Preface” simply an amazing album â€“ no more, no less.