When a group with an in-house producer brings in a guest to make their album, I’m always a little weary. Does this mean it’s not a proper Cypress Hill album? Was Muggs cool with this? What does the album title mean, given Cypress Hill never left, and now they are back? It turns out there is no interesting story behind this album, with B-Real stating in an interview with HipHopDX that Black Milk (who produces “Back in Black”, hence the title) merely provided some beats to the group and they liked the sound of them. Sorry Hollywood, that’s all you’re getting. This seems to be a common backstory nowadays, or “non-story”, a natural byproduct of hip-hop being increasingly driven by Dropbox instead of studio sessions or record label decisions. I guess coming out of the pandemic this is to be expected, but the best thing about “Back in Black” is that it does sound like a natural combination. But then, Black Milk and Cypress Hill aren’t exactly new to this rap shit.
Aside from 2010’s “Rise Up“, this is the first time Cypress Hill have gone with an outsider for a full project, but it snugly fits into their catalog. Their early work, easily their best, is classic 90s hip-hop and they cleverly branched out to ensure they didn’t fall into the strict stoner hip-hop bracket some still place them in. Their mainstream appeal blossomed thanks to embracing the rise of rap-rock/rap-metal while never falling too far from their hip-hop roots, continuing to work with Alchemist, Pete Rock, and every other name purists demanded to be on a production tracklisting. Black Milk lends Cypress a livelier set of beats with crisp drums and warm bass guitar, giving it all a livelier feel than DJ Muggs’ recent output. You could hear Cypress performing this album with a band, so it’s no surprise to see them tour this album whilst supporting an actual band in Slipknot. Hell, B-Real set up Prophets of Rage in collaboration with Rage Against the Machine and Public Enemy – the more I think about it, Black Milk and his penchant for actual instruments make complete sense.
A common theme throughout songs like “Certified” and “Champion Sound” is reminding people of just who Cypress Hill are. Legacy and reputation are topics that are nothing new to established rap artists, and the two singles certainly live up to what the duo claim. B-Real remains as unique a presence as ever, as nasal as Chief Wiggum but with a precise flow that opposes his heavy marijuana-infused lifestyle. He sounds lively, particularly compared to Sen Dog who can sound scruffy on the opener “Takeover”. “Original” is a strong, if simplistic take on representing their neighborhood that benefits from B-Real’s ability to generate an earworm, and while their flirtations with politics remains present on songs like “Open Ya Mind” with its championing of the legalization of marijuana, the album possesses a friendlier theme and isn’t bogged down in neither political opinion nor drug-addled anthems. It sits somewhere in the middle, and that’s exactly why it struggles to flourish as a Cypress Hill album. It’s a light-touch approach to their legacy – albeit a well-executed one by veteran professionals.
There are some questionable beats here, which is surprising. “Hit ‘Em” might work if you are taking hits from the bong, but alas, I didn’t have the paraphernalia available to accompany this review. “Come With Me” really did nothing for me either, relying on the hook ripped from Tupac’s “Hail Mary” for its appeal. Much like how old heads criticize the weaker strains of weed that are available now, compared to the stronger variants they smoked in the 1990s, Cypress Hill’s style of rap does carry a watered-down feel in 2022. The musicality remains, as does their knack for rocking arenas to some catchy hooks, but it all feels like an inferior, cleaner alternative to their prime, thirty years ago. More respect should be shown to Cypress Hill, because they are genuinely one of the greatest hip-hop groups of all time, with a worldwide brand rivaled by few, but “Back in Black” feels a little too safe and uninspired to leave a mark on the listener’s ear. A shame, because Black Milk’s style suits Cypress Hill.