L.A. rappers Custom Made have had their share of trials and tribulations since entering the rap game in 2002. They’ve had members leave, members incarcerated, and their former label sat on “Hi-Def” for over a year before the group got it released by NY label Coalmine. Custom Made haven’t let any of these setbacks get them down, however. They’ve slimmed down to a trio of  Bluff, Element, and Scoobs, and have kept releasing mixtapes in the interim. “Hi-Def” is their third official album, coming three years and a mess of label drama since 2008’s “Original Dynasty” on Babygrande.

Their sound could be described as O.G. L.A. street rap. They come off like veterans who are weary from the life of streets and the life of a hip-hop artist. They are getting it from all sides: when they aren’t dealing with shiesty club owners and labels, disrespectful crowds, and the grind of touring and recording, they are dealing with the daily drama of the streets, ex-girlfriends, and soured personal relationships. There is a constant battle in their lyrics between wanting to live a good life and the temptation of the streets. Maybe that explains their low-energy delivery, a combination of defiance and resignation that permeates the album. It’s like they know the game is rigged against them, but they are going to keep on keeping on, even if they know it’s not going to end well. “My main mission is to avoid prison” they rap on “Touch A Pen,” while on “Easy On Yourself” they describe the moral dilemma where

“My left side still telling me ‘Do it’
My right side says ‘think, that’s a felony, stupid'”

Production is handled by THX, Abstrakt Soundz, Jayem, Animoss, and Terminall. The overall mood is mid-tempo and pensive; there aren’t a lot of bangers or club joints here. The best tracks on the album have a slow-burning, bluesy groove. Tracks like “Gravel Swag,” Don’t Leave Me,” and “Touch a Pen” are built around moody guitar loops, and capture the sense of moral ambiguity and struggle that permeate the disc. It’s as if the producers are sampling the old-school tapes that Custom Made have playing in their systems as they cruise the urban jungle of L.A.

One negative side-effect of this mid-tempo, melancholy vibe is that “Hi-Def” can get be a bummer. It’s lacking in energy and joy and drags at points. Custom Made get props for keeping it real and not indulging in any of the aspirational fantasy that typifies a lot of rap music, but they keep it a little too real. “Hi-Def” is a raw, uncut look at a group trying to make it in a dying industry while avoiding lengthy prison bids. It can be a tough pill to swallow, but it is worthy of a listen.

Custom Made :: Hi-Def
7Overall Score