This might be the most helpful cover art to come along in a year or more – it instantly identifies who every single member of the Pseudo Intellectuals is without my having to lift a virtual finger. If for some reason you’re using an image blocker yet still reading this review (I’m ponder how or WHY you’d want to do that) it reads Tone Atlas, DJ Cutler, VJ Brown, 25 Metro, Nick Zero and A.L. Third from left to right. There’s not much to tell about it besides that – it appears to be a photo shot through the window of a tourist trap with a six lane highway running underneath it. Everything is filtered through a green lens to give it an otherworldly look, even though the scene itself is probably repeated a hundred times across interstates of the United States.
In a previous review Susan ‘susiQ’ Kim called the Pseudo Intellectuals “a group like no other.” Kim lauded their use of clear sonic landscapes that were uncluttered by overproduction and compared their style and sound favorably to the Typical Cats crew from Chicago. Listening to “Dope Grindwork” it’s not hard to see what she was getting at. Before we go any further though let’s clarify who plays what roles in the crew. Tone Atlas is responsible for all of the beats. DJ Cutler handles all the scratching save for one track (“You Don’t Know Me”). Nick Zero is ostensibly the third man in the trio then and now, even though they’ve clearly expanded to allow the others listed above to join in the fold. This means you can hear rappers like A.L. Third on tracks like “What’s Crackin'” and “The Elmwood Attitude.” I’m not sure if crediting them on the cover makes them permanent additions, but I wouldn’t object if they were.
Over 15 tracks that clock in at a surprisingly short (and easy to consume) 42 minutes, the Intellectuals riff on hip-hop both figuratively and literally in a way that uplifts the art even while casting a sly grin at it. Mobb Deep fans will obviously recognize the jazzy samples and the titular reference found in “Think Away the Pain,” but there’s no Q-Tip joining into the mix here. Instead the second verse is a rapid fire slew of movie references declaring “Tom Hanks a punk and Forrest Gump’s a chump.” It would be too easy to call this parody or a cover – it’s more akin to a loving reinvention of song the PI crew clearly feels is a classic. Other tributes to hip-hop are more subtle, such as the scratched in samples of Common on “You Don’t Know Me.” They contribute to a groove that’s easy to fall into. The album wraps around you like a Guru Jazzmatazz record, also similar in the diversity of voices and artists presented over the jazz-infused tracks.
There’s a playful humor found throughout “Dope Grindwork,” even on short interludes with titles like “We Blow Up Mixers,” where a mournful saxophone gets scratched until it quacks like a duck. It may be a hip-hop album, but it’s not all about the rap. “Ginterlude” is exactly what it implies – a little bruised around the edges, but fly when put into a mellow moment where you taste the salty hint of an olive and survey the tuxedo’d throng. There’s elegance hidden between the taps of the snare and hi-hat, and a feel of beatnik poetry slams giving the calm music a harrowing intensity. A “Night in Spain” is the opposite – unapologetically hard punching the moment the sample gets flipped, turning a barbershop quartet into a horn filled melody they never intended to croon – smashing head long into a jam session over drums James Brown could shout “HIT ME” on.
If anything the conclusion one reaches on “Dope Grindwork” is that the Pseudo Intellectuals are ALMOST too hip for the room. This is a funky, jazzy, breezy and snazzy little gem of an album that at times is borderline to pretentious, but it manages to keep its own ego in check by letting you in on the jokes instead of zinging them over your head. The traditionalists out there might prefer an album with more actual rap and a little less free form jazz improvisation, but for this review at the least the Pseudo Intellectuals can keep dancing on the fine line between two urban artforms for as long as they feel like it.