Unless you’re relatively new to hip hop or your tastes in the genre don’t run very deep you’d be pretty familiar with the Hieroglyphics collective by now. At the very least names like Del and Souls of Mischief should mean something to you, and if you’re a more dedicated hip hop fiend you were already thinking of Casual and Pep Love as soon as you saw the title of this review. Despite Hiero’s existence for the past 20 years or so via numerous solo and collaboration albums, we’ve only had two albums from the crew as a whole (plus a few compilations) i.e. 1998’s “3rd Eye Vision” and “Full Circle” in 2003. After so many years are this veteran crew still cooking up lots of fresh treats or things have gone a bit rotten on their third album called “The Kitchen”?
I can’t help feeling that the group are a little over-confident in telling us “ain’t no debating they be waiting on Hiero” on “Immortals”, as I’m not convinced there’s a great deal of anticipation for Hiero’s music nowadays (except from those who are staunch followers of everything related to the crew). Recent solo efforts from crew members have generally flown under the radar and I wonder how many people are still closely paying attention to releases from within the collective (did anyone check out the fantastic “Fallacy Fantasy” album by First Light AKA Opio and Pep Love?). Sure, Del seems to have high levels of expectation with his upcoming “Deltron Event II” album, but I wonder who can name his five most recent releases without looking them up (he was quite productive for a while on Bandcamp)? I think the lack of recent hype is quite a shame as there have been some great releases from individuals in the crew in recent years and hence some quality music has been overlooked (Opio’s “Vulture’s Wisdom” albums in particular are gems). However, there have also been moments of less than stellar work from within the ranks of Hiero (e.g. A-Plus with his long-awaited but disappointing solo “My Last Good Deed”) so you can’t totally blame people for losing touch with them. The diminished pressure that results from the lack of overall expectation can go two ways; it can allow their creativity to surprise people and regenerate a much needed buzz for the crew, or it can leave them complacent, leading to substandard product. I’m happy to announce it’s mostly the former, but the release is not without some negatives.
With a group so large people will undoubtedly want to know how much representation their favourite crew member gets; Pep Love, Opio and Tajai appear on the album most frequently, each getting around two-thirds of album airtime; Del drops off after the first few tracks and isn’t seen again until late in the album; Casual is heard slightly more than Del; and A-Plus and Phesto both spend the most time on the bench with the least showings (Phesto doesn’t appear until track 7!). In fact, although it’s not actually the case, it seems like Pep Love is on every single song, for better or worse (reasons for which I’ll address shortly). This is possibly emphasised by the fact that he is the only one lucky enough to get a solo cut on the album i.e. the self-promotion of the Hieroglyphics label of clothing and merchandise on “That Merch”. Missing are the likes of Domino and Jay-Biz on production, instead we get Opio earning about 50% airtime for his music, with the remainder shared by Del, Phesto, A-Plus and a couple lesser knowns (to me) such as Gully Duckets and Unjust. Regardless of who produces what here, the production is generally quite cohesive on this release; always a good thing when it comes to multi-producer albums.
The album starts off really well, not only really well but F-R-E-S-H. The Del produced “Livin’ It Up” is really catchy with its prominent swing-era horns and superb DJ cutting in the break, and it’s brilliant in its liveliness. Perhaps it would have been appropriate to have all MC’s on the opening track but getting five of them on there isn’t bad. A virtual horn section also sits in behind the chorus of “The Mayor” but the track is a touch darker than the opener, possibly due to the Gully Duckets influence, as his other track “Gun Fever” brings the hardest feel on the album (as hard as the normally funky Hiero can be anyway). Speaking of Hiero funk, that’s exactly what we get on “Golden” with a funky, funky, funky guitar riff and it’s the other Del production here, which shows a nice reinvigoration to his beat-making after some dull self-produced beats on his more recent albums. The previously mentioned “Gun Fever” comes in next, and not only is it the song with the hardest edge here, it’s also quite a different vibe to the rest of the album. It’s not totally out of place, but isn’t particularly indicative of what the rest of the album is like lyrically or musically. Lyrically it’s actually a nice change for the crew as they are saying something with more substance than their more typical battle focused rhymes or rhymes about touring, girls, weed and hip hop/hip hop life in general. Here they step into the minds of gun toting fanatics (no doubt prompted by the recent gun issues in the US). I love the reggae undertones in this one:
The quality continues with “Indonesia” which signals the beginning of Opio’s section of produced tracks. Obviously they’re rapping about weed and not the country, and the track is appropriately trippy to match the blunted theme. In fact, it’s very spaced-out and quite unlike anything I’ve heard before. The MC’s all toy with their flows and Tajai is most impressive here as he alters the pitch/style of his voice to sound like three or four different rappers in the space of a few verses. Everything about the track is creative and almost experimental (in the best possible way) and I applaud the guys for trying something different and succeeding (even Opio’s semi-sung verses work). “wShores Galore” has somewhat of a “Hawaii Five-0” 70’s TV show theme feel and sounds like it would be quite appropriate for a Cali beachside day trip, and as it has Opio, Tajai and Phesto (at long last) I suppose the completists would have liked the addition of A-Plus on this one to complete the Souls quartet.
Smack bang in the middle of the album is where things get a bit weird, and it also signals the point where a few concerns about the album come to fruition for me, particularly where a couple of the MC’s seem to lose some form. “Nutrition” and “Indonesia Interlude” are too short and pointless to mention, but Pep’s solo “That Merch” is the strangest one here as it’s quite unlike anything the Hiero crew has done before. As mentioned above, the song is essentially a rapped advertisement for the Hieroglyphics range of products. Although it’s been done by others before (e.g. Wu-Tang’s “Wu Wear”), I can’t overlook the contradiction in the lyrics, where on one hand Pep Love is claiming us fans to be “A-Alikes” to him and on his level, but then he is “trying to get acquainted with your pockets”. The shame and irony of this track is that it’s the one that sticks in my mind most as being the catchiest track on the album. It has an addictive beat which sounds like it has a Calypso Steel Drum at its core, and a loop which is almost enchanting sits behind it, but the lyrical approach bugs me and it’s hard to ignore Pep saying things like “hot chicks, you can get a discount, when you meet me at my room you don’t want to miss out”. Maybe I’m just mad that I didn’t get a discount on the Hiero shirts I’ve bought because I’m not a hot chick…
In all seriousness, Pep’s continual skirt chasing rhymes get real tired, real quick. Especially if you’re familiar with his solo work then you know he’s capable of much better than that. As his past material has shown, he’s a deep, eloquent and intelligent brother who has the ability to offer far beyond the likes of “baby ass go round and round/there’s a space in her waist I’m tryin’ to fit in between”, but unfortunately this type of rhyme is relatively common place for Pep on the album. We still get glimpses of the best of Pep, but when the hormone driven side of him kicks in it just kills me. Pep Love’s microphone demeanour demands more lines like “all the battle of Horus, except when the day die”, not banal references to chicks that just come across as lyrical cop-outs, and it’s almost an injustice that someone with his talent resorts to dumbing his lyrics down for a piece of ass.
Although it stands out as most bewildering amongst his verses, the female themes aren’t restricted to Pep alone, as they come from some of the other MC’s also. With the exception of “wShores Galore”, the songs about girls appear mostly in the second half of the album, which renders it somewhat boring. “All As Above So Below” and “It’s Partly Me” both contain stories of encounters with the fairer sex, and although the tales come from varied angles it’s still pretty yawn inducing to me, and it doesn’t help that both are quite bland musically and plod along, lacking the vibrancy found elsewhere on the album (is it just me or does “It’s Partly Me” use the Windows “Trash” sound effect in it?):
“It’s Partly Me” reminds me of Casual’s blandness on the album also. “Highway Five” is another example of Opio’s production talents and is a nice sister track to “wShores Galore” as it too has a tasty 70’s undertone to it, but Casual sounds too damn casual and disinterested on the track, which then has me focusing on his less than enthused persona at times elsewhere on the album. “Exciting” is another example of this. It’s an edgier, dramatic track which comes close to a gangsta vibe, not dissimilar to what was heard on Phesto’s “Background Check” album, but Phesto, Opio, Taj and Pep all leave Casual in their dust as he sounds like he was abruptly awoken from a mid-afternoon nap and then asked to rhyme ten seconds later. Although someone smacked the life back into him on “Nano Salt” as it’s another urgent track with a car chase feel of sorts, and Cas thankfully lives up to this track which requires a livelier flow to match it. Phesto really shines on the track though with that most appealing stern delivery of his that has evolved over time, and Opio’s performance on this song (and across the whole album) proves why he’s the most consistent Hiero MC of late. Surprisingly, A-Plus also leaves me feeling similarly underwhelmed on the album as Casual does. Whilst his lack of presence on the album doesn’t help in leaving a lasting impression, when he does have a chance to drop a line or two it sort of feels like same rhyme over and over. It’s probably not even an excuse to say he’s not on the album enough, as Del and Phesto deliver very strongly during their few appearances, so I guess he’s just not quite in the zone for me here.
I haven’t forgotten about the fact that the album is “cooked up by the Sleeprockers”. As far as I can determine, the Sleeprockers are a five man DJ crew from Sacramento, who were provided with the album tracks in unfinished form and given the chance to complete them, and do the final mixing to achieve the end result we hear today. To be frank, I think they’ve overplayed their hand a little bit. Yes there’s some nice DJ cutting from them throughout, but they do things beyond the usual DJ chorus work which are more annoying than beneficial. As much as I praised “Indonesia” it does suffer from a heavy handed Sleeprockers touch, as they chop up the song at a couple points in a beat juggling manner that would work in a live DJ set but not so much in recorded album format. Similarly with tracks such as “That Merch”, “Highway Five”, “Immortals” and “It’s Partly Me” where they mess with the tempos of the songs; slowing them down, speeding them up, or almost stopping and restarting the songs at times. I’d really prefer the records to run smoothly and not be tampered with to such an extent. There are a few tracks that they don’t fool around with too much, but overall the Sleeprockers presence is strongly apparent. I guess that goes to show what a bunch of specialist turntablist DJ’s will do when they are allowed to run buck wild with an album; it’s an idea that looks good on paper but doesn’t seem to translate so well into a formal album structure.
It would be easy to conclude this by saying the usual thing that the album would have been better had the weaker tracks been left off. However, I actually want and expect LOTS of tracks on a Hiero album, and they’ve given us that. It is a predominantly enjoyable and creative album, and it’s great to hear Del, Opio, Tajai and Phesto in top form over the crew’s typically funky production, with touches of edgier work on display also. It’s just a bit disappointing that a couple MC’s didn’t add enough seasoning to the meals they prepared, whilst others were too pre-occupied with creating sweet desserts for the ladies. Most of all, the Sleeprockers should have held back a bit on the spices in their dishes.