It’s been nearly six years since “A Breukelen Story” was released jointly by Brooklyn emcee Masta Ace and Canadian beatsmith Marco Polo. They had a buzz with the Smif-N-Wessun-assisted single “Breukelen Brooklyn” and the finished album proved to be greater than the sum of its parts. As is customary on a Masta Ace album, there’s a story throughout. For the 2018 album, it was loosely based on Marco Polo departing from Canada and taking his chances in New York City to become a hip-hop producer. The duo’s latest release, “Richmond Hill”, goes further back. Though the 18-track project is described as “a cinematic journey that explores how the past echoes through the present”, the concept is now about Marco’s formative years starting with his birth. The album title refers to the region in Ontario, Canada where Marco was raised. There are also several skits tying together the narrative, and Masta Ace lays his raps over Marco’s production.
Marco does the narration on each of the skits, starting with “December 26th” which details his birth. “Brooklyn Heights” is where the music begins, and Ace comes out swinging over some strong drum snares. Lyrically, he big-ups his borough and shows that he can still spit and has bars. Coast Contra has a guest appearance on “Certified”, where Marco makes use of a Bob James sample with deep piano keys. Ace and Coast just rap braggadocious rhymes centered around the idea of who’s certified and who isn’t. The “Cartunes” skit recounts Marco’s childhood spent watching cartoons, leading into “Hero”. Featuring Inspectah Deck, the production is bouncy, playful and the lyrics warrant a full Czarface appearance. The album’s lead single, “Life Music”, features Stricklin & Speech (of Arrested Development). It has all the makings of a feel-good track about keeping one’s head held high:
The Blu-assisted “Below The Clouds” sports one of the album’s better beats, with good drum programming, a psychedelic backdrop, and a haunting vocal sample. It’s a play on the Gang Starr song “Above the Clouds” song and Blu’s 2007 album “Below the Heavens”. Both Ace and Blu use cloud imagery as metaphors for obstacles and for being humbled. This is the middle of the album, and Marco’s skits (“Scarborough” and “St. Roberts”) indicate that his teenage years were rife with internal strife. Ace posits that anything can happen at any time on the Pav Bundy-assisted “Heat of the Moment”. The beat goes hard with metal snares to drive home the idea that you’re your own worst enemy at times. “Jordan Theory” has a laidback R&B-style beat as Ace raps about how experiencing material deprivation growing up later leads to material excess, and he name-checks different fashion brands along the way. “Money Problems” features Ché Noir and they both rap about money and what it can’t buy. However, Ché’s verse is better as she actually raps as money.
For the final third of the album, we see how Marco’s youthful journey ends…but not before Ace drops the last tracks. “P.P.E.” is a lyrical rumination on poverty and drug addiction, and the production sounds awfully dramatic, similar to how a movie scene becomes serious when the score urgently kicks in. Ace and Marco create one for the ladies on “Outside In”, featuring C-Red & E Smitty on the hook. It’s piano driven and Ace raps about seeking a female companion; to which C-Red raps the second verse, reciprocating Ace’s desired connection. Speaking of which, on “Connections”, Ace gets creative and rhymes by having the last word in each bar connect with the first word in the next bar. Marco employs saxophone and string samples on “Plant Based” where Ace spits about the benefits of healthy eating. “All I Want” is essentially a lyrical Christmas wish list with a verse from long-time collaborator Wordsworth and the “December 25th” skit is Marco’s ultimate outcome.
Because they took it back to Marco’s upbringing, “Richmond Hill” merits some comparison to 2009’s “MA_DOOM: Son of Yvonne”, which chronicled Ace’s own childhood. While it wasn’t a bad album, it’s the least played of his concept albums. “Richmond Hill” also didn’t have the same anticipation of their 2018 collaboration. With that release, and Ace’s solo albums, there was a clear vision and plan for the albums that qualified them in the progressive genre of hip-hop. The cover of “Richmond Hill” is that of a blueprint for a building, which reflects the work-in-progress feelings the album evokes from me. Also, the beats elicit more interest than the lyrics in some of the songs. Don’t get me wrong, the album is mostly solid, but feels incoherent as many of the songs don’t connect with the story in the skits.