“Defeat your leader we the best, see the rest is just clones
Hip hop drones, singin’ the same old songs
Fuck with this, you can’t go wrong”
Two summers ago, the four-headed beast that is Slaughterhouse dropped its self-titled debut album in an attempt to steer the hip-hop game back on the right track. Joell Ortiz, Joe Budden, Crooked I, and Royce Da 5’9″ felt that hip-hop was in a sad state, with garbage music populating the radio and skilled underground emcees going largely unnoticed, and collaborated to drop one of my personal favorite albums of 2009. Two years later, Random Axe has set out to follow in Slaughterhouse’s footsteps and release an album that kicks mainstream influences to the curb and instead sticks to the hardcore roots of hip-hop. And just like Slaughterhouse, the chemistry between Sean Price, Black Milk, and Guilty Simpson is evident throughout the album, as Black Milk’s hard-hitting production style meshes seamlessly with each emcee’s flow. Simply put, I couldn’t have said it any better than Simpson; you can’t go wrong with Random Axe’s self-titled debut.
The album opens with “Random Call,” which features a deep brassy bassline, a catchy grand piano loop, and a smooth vocal sample atop a raw set of drums. The track acts as somewhat of an introduction for each emcee, setting the stage for the lyrical content of the rest of the album. Simpson starts things off on the first verse, rapping the opening lines:
“I’m chemically imbalanced, you’re no challenge
I eat hot emcee’s like cold salads
I’m so valid, trust the word
Find me in the ghetto, puffin herb”
Sean P gets on the mic next, spitting, “You could call me one dimensional/ but ain’t too much talking when the slug get into you,” and as Black Milk closes things out with his final verse, I was left with high expectations for the rest of the album. Indeed, I would not be disappointed.
Black Milk’s production is on point for nearly every song, and while he maintains a fairly consistent style throughout, there is enough variation and creativity to keep things interesting from the first track to the last. “The Hex” pits a driving electric guitar and a foreboding piano over heavy drums, as the group pays homage to Hex Murda, who manages Milk and Simpson, with aggressive and inspired rhymes. “Understand This” is the definition of sparse but effective production, with no more than an authentic-sounding drum kit, a funky electric bass, and a few scratches thrown in here and there. Black Milk adds some west coast flavor with “Jahphy Joe,” which features a high-pitched g-funk synth and rolling bassline that are reminiscent of a Dr. Dre beat. On the other hand, Milk goes with a smoother, albeit still hardcore, approach on “The Karate Kid,” with shimmering piano keys over a simple drum loop, and Sean Price handles the one-minute instrumental with authority.
While Black Milk succeeds in creating a unique vibe by contrasting gritty old-school drums with electronic basslines and spacy synths and piano chords, it is not just the beats but also the hardcore rhymes that make “Random Axe” such an enjoyable listen. All three artists, despite their success in the underground rap game, have largely failed to make an impact in the mainstream market, and all three of them could care less. Rather than selling out, Random Axe focuses instead on keeping hip-hop pure and putting wack emcees in their place, and the lyrics reflect this realness. Black Milk delivers one of his best verses on “Monster Babies,” beginning with the proclamation “If hip-hop’s dead and out/Black Milk just gave that bitch mouth to mouth” and ending with “I got niggas in hip-hop sick, wheezing/gasping for air, not breathing/ Sean P, Milk and Guilt, the playing field’s not even.” And on “Everybody Nobody Somebody,” the trio comes through with meaningful rhymes over the gliding reflective synths and a catchy drum loop, as Simpson raps:
“Somebody needs to take the blame
These dudes throwin’ rent money up just to make it rain
Frontin’ for a broad that don’t even care about ’em
She don’t even love herself, she fuck for wealth”
At this point, it’s clear that Random Axe is not your run-of-the-mill supergroup, and this should come as no surprise to those who are in tune with the underground hip-hop game. There are countless emcees in today’s day and age who claim to save hip-hop and bring it back to its roots, but few actually deliver on their promise, and it is refreshing to hear a group of well-versed emcees that clearly cares more about making real hip-hop than making millions. The album isn’t perfect; although the sparse production on several tracks allows for a greater focus on the lyrics, I wouldn’t mind seeing a little more depth to some of the beats. The bottom line, though, remains that the chemistry on the mic between Sean Price, Guilty Simpson, and Black Milk overshadows the few shortcomings, making the group’s debut one of the more enjoyable rap albums of 2011 thus far. You won’t hear it on any big name radio stations, but “Random Axe” is exactly the breath of fresh air that hip-hop needs.