If signing on for record label distribution has fringe benefits beyond having to do all your own legwork for a rapper like Random (Mega Ran), one of them might be a sample clearance budget. I’m not sure dialogue snippets from HBO’s “The Wire” could have been worked in on his own dime, but brick Records was able to take on the expense of borrowing from the loquacious Stringer Bell (played by Idris Elba, the man everyone wants to be the next James Bond, myself included) for both the interlude preceding “Medici Lions” and the song itself. It was startling to me to hear this pop into my eardrums as I was casually listening to the album for a review.
“Mr. Lucas you got five minutes? (Absolutely!) There’s somethin’ I’m thinkin’ about, maybe you could help me out with it. (I’ll try!) What are the options when you got an inferior product, in an aggressive marketplace? (Well if you have a large share of the market, you buy up the competition.) And if you don’t? (Reduce price to increase market share.) That assumes low overhead. (Of course, otherwise you operate at a loss. And worse – as your prices drop your product eventually loses consumer credibility.)”
There are multiple layers to the song that follows. The song’s title itself implies a duo, as in the famous pair of original statues in Italy, but Medici also references a famous Italian family that consolidated wealth and power to an almost unprecedented degree in the 14th and 15th century until their bad banking practices eventually undermined their fortune and left them in ruins. In this way, the song’s samples and the track’s plot reflect a similar truth – as Storyville says the protagonists have a hunger for “lettuce, the spinach or collard greens – the feta, the cheddar, ricotta or cottage cheese” – all metaphors for money. So did the dealers like Stringer Bell on The Wire, who constantly tried to legitimize his illegally earned profits, while educating himself on the nature of economics so he could understand and manipulate the very trade he was a part of. The music business is itself a lot the same – people who attempt to profit from the labor of others while not making those exploited aware of the process – and those underneath aspiring to get their turn. It’s the reason Shawn Carter once accurately compared rapping to selling crack.
Our “lions” here, Mega Ran and Storyville, are well versed in the give and take of the music game – the micro and the macroeconomics at play in each transaction. It’s not a coincidence that this subject came up in my pre-album release interview with both men, and that they were well aware of which retail outlets give the biggest cut of a sale back to the creators. Regardless it goes without saying that record labels and retailers both have something in common – making a profit – so they’re going to keep the “lion’s share” for themselves. Ahh yes. It’s the law of the jungle in hip-hop, in capitalism, in life – or as Biggie once opined “hunt me or be hunted.”
Nevertheless, this is a bit of misdirection on my part, because “Soul Veggies” is not a dry lesson being taught by two grizzled veterans of the music business in a small classroom with a wipe down board and dry erase markers. Though Ran and Storyville certainly have the knowledge to impart after all their years in the game, they’re also here to have fun and to share their wit along with their wisdom. “Rappin’ About Rappin'” is a textbook example of this philosophy, as the Soul Veggies team make fun of the cliches of modern era hip-hop. From referring to yourself in the third person (“Storyville announce his own name like a Pokemon”) to how lyricism has gone downhill (“I can’t decide if it’s worse, to repeat the same line twice/I can’t decide if it’s worse, to rap a line that don’t rhyme at all”) to overused and abused slang (“I’m naming my newborn SWAG“) there’s no stone left unturned in this hilarious Seinfeld-esque “rap without a point or intention” that winds up making a whole BUNCH of points.
And of course, there are up-tempo tracks like “React” which leave you moving quickly to the beat, just like Story and Ran flipping high octane bars to the track and leaving you just barely enough time to catch the punchlines that come flying at your head (like “this is creation, not Kreayshawn.”)
If you’ve come to expect video game hip-hop from Mega Ran, you’ll probably want to jump to the metaphorical “Life’s a Game” right away, as both rappers ably explore “taking games too serious” and “picking fights just for the experience.” It’s not built on a repurposed chiptune though, and in fact, if that’s what you’re looking for you should look elsewhere. Beats are ably provided by a slew of superb producers – DJ Seedless, Kid Icki, Lost Perception, Mike Paris, Small Professor and Storyville himself just to name a few – and the latter mixed down the album too. One of my favorites is Small Pro’s snazzy, jazzy piano tinged backdrop for “Artillery.” Ran drops gems on his doubters: “People think I made a name off of sampling soundtracks/made a name in the cypher, rhymin around cats/who snapped at the drop of a hat, no beat necessary/now they drop paper like a weak secretary.”
If I have any regret about “Soul Veggies” it’s that it’s only 45 minutes long, which isn’t really enough for a collaboration that works this well, but on an album with a song called “Waste My Time” it’s pretty clear that their modus operandi is the exact opposite. No song is a missed opportunity for dope bars or dope beats, and you can’t front on Wise Intelligent’s flow on “I Know Who I Am” – he clearly hasn’t lost a step since the height of the Poor Righteous Teachers’ fame in the early 1990s (RIP Father Shaheed). The standard disclaimer applies here – I’ve known Ran for many years now – we’ve been reviewing his albums for about a decade and have developed a cordial relationship over that time – but if you listen to the clips online they speak for themselves in terms of the musical quality. Nonetheless, the lions on the prowl here have made an album that’s both serious and fun, which is befitting of their Soul Veggies theme, that you can “veg out” and enjoy it but that these “veggies” are good for you too. This is hip-hop soul food.