Occasionally an album intrigues me before I listen to a single note. The re-release of “Above the Clouds” by Moon Blazers was just such an album and there are four reasons responsible for it: (1.) The album’s title references an all-time favorite hip-hop song of mine featuring Guru and Inspectah Deck, (2.) The name sounds like a sketch from Aqua Teen Hunger Force about pot smoking video game aliens, (3.) The digital album came to me courtesy of D.J. at last EP. You may have gleaned from previous reviews that Domination is one of those labels I have a tough time hating. Their intense focus on art over commerce often makes me wonder what keeps the light bill paid at their offices, yet when album after album of highly skilled “backpacker rap” in the best sense of the term is the result they tend to get an automatic spin over other free downloads that pile up. With respect though the press release coming with this album may set new standards for pretentiousness not seen since the earliest days of Rawkus Records:
“Experience a vivid music-filled dream saturated in a mix of pastel and earth tone rhythms. Pass through layers of raw freshness… like lyrical waterfalls thundering numbing calmness. Emerge changed, as if restored to a desired state of equanimity. Moon Blazers (album) Above the Clouds is strung together like a seamless script through hip-hop’s golden age. The Moon Blazers effortlessly recreate the beauty and synergy of jazz rap while staying connected with the listener through eclectic introspective verses about everyday life.”
Okay, seriously? “Raw freshness like lyrical waterfalls thundering numbing calmness.” The more times I read that, the less sense it actually makes. It’s as though a beatnik poet who lived all the way through to modern times was given a tab of acid and told to write the first thing that came to mind. It’s actually quite contradictory – you can’t THUNDER calmness and there are quite a few raw things that aren’t as refreshing as a waterfall. Raw meat comes to mind – it may be FRESHLY butchered but I’m not eating that summa’bitch until you throw it on the grill. The funny things though is that the press release actually suits “Above the Clouds” almost perfectly in that it’s a perplexingly contradictory album. There’s no definitive sound musically on this 14 song release – Dianetics produces 5 tracks, Katrah-Quey produces 4, No Alias (not to be confused with No I.D.) handles 2 and the others are laced by DJ Crumbum and Moka Only. Sometimes different producers can have a consistent sound when working with an artist that has his own preferred sound and style, but the musically evolving cast of emcees can’t seem to figure out what they’re aiming for. The closest you get to a style definition is the opener “Feels Like,” where they aim to be modern day Tribe:
“This verse must recline like a feline
Jazz cats, obsessed with raps, obsessive compulsive
Impulsive my motives are folded like origami
It’s intricate, I’m into it, anything less is stupid shit”
Some songs manage to fall into Native Tongues territory while some orbit so far away they could be in another galaxy. Orbiting nearer to the epicenter is “RFS,” complete with a crispy drumbeat Ali Shaheed Muhammad would approve of and a sung chorus befitting a smoothed out track. The George Carlin samples are abrasive by comparison but highly welcome, although the last rap verse certainly isn’t. When the closer says “what’s with your rap, it sounds whack, it’s flat” at least you can’t argue he’s not perceptive – every word of description rings true. “Isn’t It Strange” is on that smooth R&B sample tip, and a jazzy saxophone backdrop keeps the song somewhere between Earth and Mars. “Pineapple” takes us further out towards Jupiter, with a minimalistic sound that might be closest in style to the late J Dilla – so it’s still at least cousin to Tribe. “Ice Queen” finds us all the way out at Neptune – nothing remotely jazzy about it. The topic is a bit cliche too – cold hearted female won’t warm up to the suave advances of the rappers within. Unfortunately nothing here is as charming or witty as Pharcyde’s “Passin’ Me by” so this chick wasn’t at all mistaken.
“Hope she ain’t an Ice Queen
I mean a pattern of heartache for the whole team
But willin to go down swingin, serenadein like Cyrano de Bergerac
Like Roberta Flack she’s got me singin, clingin to every cadence
Got my head so far in the skies, think I was a space cadet
Got me goin old school, I’m talkin tape cassette”
Perhaps that last line would be witty from the right rapper under the right circumstances, but here it seems awkward, cornball and forced. By the “Above the Clouds Remix” we’ve gone straight past Pluto (sadly no longer even recognized as a planet) into the vastness of the cosmos, though more than a few songs before that do steer closer back to their ATCQ aspirations – the seductive Katrah produced “Here We Go” and the soft strumming of his work on “Dusty Trails” among them. Perhaps if more of the album had been left in Katrah’s hands the overall result would have been greatly improved, but it’s as much or more the fault of the emcees. Only one of the fatal four (Suo, Dyno, Pensive and Diddy Quest) is out and out whack, but at least as noted earlier he has the good sense to recognize he’s no good (though why rap if you’re that aware of it). The rest are often just guilty of trying too hard, which makes it all the more perplexing that they look up to Tribe, whose greatness came from the natural and effortless way Phife and Tip flowed over Ali Shaheed’s beats. For Domination Recordings this is a rare miss – certainly not a TERRIBLE album but one that definitely underwhelms.