One of hip-hop’s most unpredictable niches is the producer album. It holds everything from beat tapes to self-produced solo rap joints to star-studded compilations, and despite often qualifying as hip-hop music Mensa meetings, the producer album genre is a source of perennial frustration. Especially since there is a substantial number of shining examples that absolutely live up to the promise, some even becoming all-time hip-hop classics. Diamond D set an early standard in 1992 with “Stunts, Blunts & Hip Hop.” Although his name was familiar to attentive readers of liner notes, even they couldn’t possibly have expected to be hit by such a forceful double impact from the self-described “Best Kept Secret.” “Write my own rhymes, produce my own shit” (or, in the radio version, “hits”) became the basic formula for all contenders for the title of “best producer on the mic” – another famous turn of phrase coined by the man himself. In short, “Stunts, Blunts & Hip Hop” remains one of the most astounding debuts credited to a hip-hop musician who’s mainly lauded for his production skills. (Naturally when talking 1992 et seqq., it is overshadowed by Dr. Dre’s gigantic “The Chronic.”)
His initial momentum killed by a lengthy legal battle, his subsequent solo efforts fell short. The thought of Diamond D making another attempt at an album in 2014 seems a stretch, sadly. But the impressive guest list not just reconfirms his standing in the industry, it also suggests D tries a new approach to his album projects. While “The Huge Hefner Chronicles” outsourced a substantial part of the production, “The Diam Piece” sees the Bronx native (for the majority of the time) ceding the microphone to established, experienced rappers while returning to the boards full-time. A number of features are actually old connections, such as Tha Alkaholiks, Ras Kass and The Pharcyde. (Where Fugees at? Kidding.) No other guest goes as far back with Diamond as Fat Joe, who was already rapping over his beats in the late ’80s.
But, alas, no matter the star power or close kinship of the collaborators, the producer album always is measured by the same yardstick – is the music any good? I’ll get to that a minute, but let me state first that Diamond put evident thought into his fifth album. He invites fellow producers Pete Rock, Scram Jones, Hi-Tek, Nottz and Kev Brown to trade bars with, resulting in several entertaining tracks that tell it from the producer perspective. It’s a terrain he’s at home at, boasting on the Nottz duet “Vanity”: “I done made TNT in D&D / All about my business – EPMD / Nottz Raw, he’s the DMP. / And y’all a bunch of New Jacks in the City – CMB.”
The female threesome “Pump Ya Brakes” has a number of predecessors (remember Bahamadia’s “3 The Hard Way”), and Rapsody, Boog Brown and Stacy Epps do the legacy justice. And whenever MC’s might be looking for a specific mood, there’s a good chance Diamond has a corresponding track in his library, see “Hard Days,” a lightly melancholic backdrop for The Pharcyde to reminisce about their days of paying dues, or “Pain,” where a melodramatic canvas provides additional inspiration for A.G. and Chino XL. Every guest at Diamond’s table plays their part, because they get served what they asked for.
Case closed? Not quite. An age-old issue is whether such projects should rely on the tried and tested or if they should explore and experiment. Diamond chose the former. As if The Alchemist and Evidence hadn’t already been hanging out enough together, he puts them on the same track. By lining up Fat Joe, Chi Ali and Freddie Foxxx, “Its Nothin” comes across like a hypothetical reenactment of 1994. Black Rob’s “Take Em Off Da Map” could be from any of his albums. “We Are the People of the World” isn’t really out of the comfort zone of neither Tha Liks nor Kurupt, especially since they all fail the eponymous vocal sample.
And then there’s the music. Again this is my subjective perspective, but hip-hop beats should slap you on the wrist when you try to pick holes in them. They shouldn’t leave the slightest doubt about their arrangement. They can be the result of five-finger discounts, but the only fingerprints they should have on them are the producer’s. Melodies, rhythms, etc. can be sampled, but the beats should be recognizably yours. They can make heads nod or rumps shake but first and foremost they have to be the proverbial foot up your ass. I don’t feel “The Diam Piece” kicking me in any way. It’s a pleasing collection of hip-hop songs from people who have already said everything they had to say. And what they have to say today on this record is rendered less interesting by an inattentive mixdown. “Watch the Sound,” D boasted alongside Fat Joe and Grand Puba in 1993, but 20 years later Diamond’s sound is a real concern. The album simply doesn’t come across the speakers as crisp and clear as it should. The mix obscures rather than highlights and too often you’ll be reminded of 2000-ish beatmaking instead of vintage Diamond D.
Things are actually off to a good start with the slick drums and vibrant bounce of “Rap Life” and a no-holds-barred performance from Pharoahe Monch complemented by hooks performed by the producer. “Its Nothin” opens with a crunching rock guitar loop which is soon contrasted by a sparkling flurry of sharp sounds. While not perfect, it’s one of the better tracks, each rapper introduced by an interview soundbite. And yet, given the whole set-up, a returning Chi Ali assisted by veteran mic-wreckers Fat Joe and Freddie Foxxx, it’s still not enough in your face. A tune like “Wheres the Love” naturally doesn’t aim for the same effect, but one could expect more than the haphazard alignment of Talib Kweli, Elzhi and Skyzoo over a painfully languid track. A few songs here sound so poor they are hard to sit through, especially since they involve estimated hip-hop artists. Too bad for a gem like “Y’all can have all them singin’ thugs / The Ace of Diamonds still greater than the king of clubs.” But whether Masta Ace and Diamond D pull an “Ace of Diamonds,” or Pete Rock describes their team-up as a ‘Diamond Rock,’ or Grand Daddy I.U. ventures that “Diamond D is like the Dre of the east,” the actual product simply doesn’t confirm the advertising.
And so “The Diam Piece” joins many similar projects, a hodge-podge of predictable collaborations and welcome returns, the nagging suspicion that the throwbacks are garnered with throwaways, plus a few silver linings. As much as it pains to say, in his weight class Diamond D is outclassed by students like Marco Polo and as a beatmaker he hasn’t nearly aged as well as someone like K-Def. “The Diam Piece” may satisfy indiscrimininating disciples of a bygone era, but a dime piece it certainly isn’t.