Although his official debut was released in 2003, Vakill already had a good album’s worth of material more than a decade prior â€” stuff on “Kill â€˜Em All” dates back to 1991, which already makes this compilation, at the very least, interesting for its clockwise novelty. So, much sounds like the annals of multiple eras: mid-90s end-stopped rhythm, sample-rich production, as well as newer styles up to 2001. But, quality counts above all â€” is it, all novelty aside, any good? In fact, it’s probably Vakill’s best work, an excellent album that jogs the obvious: rappers (like most artists) tend to deteriorate, track by track. Grab almost any modern classic, and smell the formless rot: subtle, but slowly getting there. Regardless, Vakill, despite some missteps, has much to fall back on. A good debut, and perhaps the most polished compilation of odds and ends in all of hip-hop. So, the talent’s there, but perhaps the will to replicate it all is not.
“Flows You Can’t Imagine” opens things up quite well: an obscure, looped yell, scratches, a brief-chord (i.e., battle-rap-ready) keyboard, and a few expressive drums that drop/stop according to the strength of Vakill’s line. Basically, it’s one of the better Molemen beats, before they exchanged great atmosphere for parenthetical lushness. And the rap:
“That shit your mouth lacin’
I ain’t havin,’ either â€”
You better grab a breather â€”
KILL in the fuckin’ house, like cabin fever!”
Can you detect a problem? It’s Vakill’s gifted corpus in that verse â€” wit and rhythm, but I dare say “little else.” In fact, his flow (well-loved, known, etc.) is actually monotonous, a strange flaw considering his penchant for an occasionally twisted or difficult set of lines. Still, I suspect it’s more reflection of his monotonous subject matter than the level of innate talent (after all, there is much of the latter). In short, his conceptual material has never been as good as his more aggressive stuff, but it doesn’t prevent a couple of interesting inclusions here. “A Chi-Ago ’91” is a short, lo-fi nostalgia piece… Vakill must be 16, or 17, and sounds exactly like Rakim. But, it hasn’t aged too well â€” lyrically, it’s dull, and not very impressive musically â€” but retains its historical value. “Check Me Out ’95” is better:
“Cause ain’t nothing out here, but inhales and whips
And smells of spliffs, and homicide tales and myths
And that’s the kind of life you live, or observe a crime
If I ain’t signed, I’ll be dead or serving time!
I’d rather my records sell weight, than wind up with a cell mate
In jail waitin’ to die and go to hell’s gate…”
Again (another stipulation!): it’s technically sound, but original? A typical, mid-90s flow, a penchant for those “rap game/crack game” dichotomies, a jazzy (again, a mid-90s relic) beat set against the speedy, dense delivery, and so on… it’s been done before, especially the theme. It’s hard to write a memorable verse on the evils of the music industry, as rappers tend to dwell on this clichÃ©, and all its implications, instead of inverting it. “Tiz the Seizin” â€” as Vakill notes, “Smoke niggas so bad/ They’ll have to switch from Parental Advisory stickers to Surgeon General warnings,” which is probably one of the best battle lines ever penned. In fact, the entire verse is excellent, while the Molemen set an appropriate (but unimpressive) piano-driven amtosphere. “Amen (Original ’95)” is better, partly for a sharp and unexpected violin sample, partly for an intense delivery:
“To fly heads straight into Venus â€”
And who I wishin’ intervene us
Gettin’ hooked up to an intravenous!”
If “Dungeons 2 Rooftops” isn’t Vakill’s best track, it’s way up there with the rest of them. But, I’ll argue the former, and probably correctly. Consider: battle raps usually work best when they’re not one-dimensional, or explicitly one-sided, but full of thematic and stylistic variety. It’s so easy to get it wrong â€” monotony (in every respect) is the obvious problem, and it’s something Vakill has always struggled with. In short, it takes a lot more skill to pull off a consistently brilliant, ever-changing (and surprising!) song than a string of punchlines or flashy non sequiturs. So, consider what the song does right:
“I’m the shit; shit happens â€”
Sorta does, now I caught a buzz
And niggas know I’m nicer than they thought I was
I flow for rhyme voyeurs, avoid wars
But if you’re bringin’ it, ain’t no biggie
Like Puff Bad Boy tours
You givin’ pounds, and huggin’ a nigga though
And lovin’ a nigga flow
But is it nice enough to buy instead of dubbin’ a nigga
No? It’s how so many dope niggas came and went
I’m sure it wasn’t their main intent â€”
Rap legends without a remaining cent”
Loosely conceptual, stylistically diverse, and lyrically memorable â€” that’s about as good as an MC’s contributions to a great song gets. But, to go a bit deeper for some concrete examples… as a multi-dimensional battle track, the effect of a line like “Ain’t no biggie/ Like Puff Bad Boy tours” is impeccable: at once, it’s able to satisfy both the bragging and the introspection.. that is, concision works. It also helps the line is clever, even beyond its subtle context. “Rap legends without a remaining cent,” in its laconic but apt simplicity, is a great way to tie (and summarize!) the loose threads throughout. Musically, it’s also a genuine highlight: an urban siren, some nostalgic keys, and obscure samples that really bring out memories of hip-hop, for Vakill, as well as for a romantic listener like myself.. and as always, there are better beats “as instrumentals” on this album, but, alas, it’s silly to break art into pieces, and expect it to be critically or analytically useful as a “bottom line.” It’s not, but “Dungeons 2 Rooftops,” as a sum, is technically â€” in its music, its lyrics â€” great, and substantively tough.
Really, the rest is quite good, too. “Something Terrible ’94” is one of Vakill’s best pure battle tracks, “Am I Dope or What?” is full of punchlines and makes great use of the title in refrain, and “V.A.K.I.L.L.” is not far behind. Nothing matches the heights of “Dungeons 2 Rooftops,” in variety, or otherwise, but it’s all solid. Some of the remixes are unnecessary, but it’s a compilation, after all. I’ll judge it accordingly.