Sometimes, partnerships are meant to be. The delightfully uncool names of German producer Figub Brazlevic and American emcee John Robinson combine for something far from ordinary. If you’re unfamiliar with John Robinson (formerly Lil’ Sci), he initially made a name in underground circles as part of Scienz of Life, a trio out of New Jersey well versed in traditional boom-bap, although Robinson has always had a distinct style that makes him more memorable than most. Except, his polite grizzle can often go overlooked, despite having worked with MF Doom, Flying Lotus, and Lewis Parker, some of hip-hop’s finest beat-makers. Figub Brazlevic was unknown to me, but his approach is refined, presenting a selection of smooth samples and headphone-shattering drums. Seriously, these beats will hit you harder than a headbutt from a walrus.
Including the lyrics in the video helps demonstrate Robinson’s strength – less is more. He ensures his verses have space to breathe, and when paired with a slick Nas scratch, “Look of Reality” has been one of my most-played hip-hop songs this year. It’s one of those tracks where you can imagine bars being lifted and scratched into other emcees’ songs, even if the reality of that scenario is quite different. “F.L.O.S.S.” is another strong offering, although the beat may be too loud to let Robinson flourish. I like his knack for a hook here, another element often lost on emcees coming into the game – how to play to one’s strengths. I can see how some may find his voice quite challenging throughout a full album, and in previous projects I have found he can end up in the background, servicing the production rather than commanding your attention. There are times when that happens here too, but the brief duration of each song is welcome and ensures you’re happy to listen again and again.
“Pour Libations” is a similar skull-cracker, but might be Robinson’s best performance as far as switching up his flow. The first verse is absolute fire, and something that DJs would be slicing and dicing in mixes, twenty years ago. “Life Away” reminds you of Robinson’s age, namely the dad-jokes and musical references but also the self-aware notion that he refuses to throw his life away. Much like Supastition’s recent “Every Last Word EP”, a generation of artists representing the culture of hip-hop at its purest (and in doing so, becoming purists), hearing heartfelt moments of self-reflection is as fascinating as it can be disheartening. When you’re over two decades in, there’s no point stopping and throwing that away.
There are plentiful references to yesteryear artists (Run-DMC, Boogie Down Productions) without ever feeling dismissive of what’s on offer in 2023. It’s a key difference between an artist admitting they want to live in the past, and one sharing how their past was formed. Looking back at old Robinson reviews from this very website, he’s clearly improved over the years, and he openly admits on “Life in 3D” that “no critic can break my spirit I’m too gifted”. He’s an easy emcee to dismiss if you’re trying to be analytical because he’s not outstanding in any department, nor noteworthy from an advanced lyricism standpoint. But he knows how to make dope hip-hop, and there are plenty of examples of top-tier lyricists failing at that.
At 22 minutes, “Live Life & Tell Stories” is all over before it really gets going, perhaps a commentary on both the brevity of John Robinson’s stories and his willingness not to overdo a track. You don’t need a third verse these days, and the two-verse structure suits the former Scienz of Life emcee. What suits him, even more, are the beats Brazlevic has provided, and I’d like to hear more from this partnership.