The duo of thirty-nine year old Kiam Akasi Holley and thirty-eight year old Victor Santiago Jr., collectively known as Capone -N-Noreaga, refuse to variate on their fifth full-length LP, Lessons, which was released on July 24 of 2015, from the formula of grimy lyrics and beats detailing the usual motions of street violence that didn’t exactly make them stand out from the crowd when they released their first album on June 17 of 1997, The War Report, and it still leaves much the same result now as it did nearly two decades ago.
Though the three records Capone -N-Noreaga released since that time, 2000’s The Reunion, 2009’s Channel 10 and 2010’s absurdly titled The War Report 2: Report the War, all of which received mixed reviews and seemed uneven, the twosome who often call themselves ‘C.N.N.’, with most of their albums playing upon the news channel suggested by the acronym idea, always had a vigor to their music which was infectious but little of the personality or range in lyrics to make them truly noteworthy. Instead they always seemed like they were budding emcees and if they were to tap deeper into themselves, and therefore their true potential, that they could musically create something that would elevate our preconceived impressions of the group as sticking to the rote subjects of gun glorification and thug retribution. On their current effort, we see a bit more contemplation, and it makes for a worthwhile listen to those of us who dream at night of revisiting that glorious 1990’s Hip Hop sound, even if the results are mostly enjoyable, but largely forgettable.
With a title like Lessons, we immediately sense an underlying promise of growth, maturity from these two, who have been making music together now for over eighteen years that appears totally discarded with the LPs infantile cover. Over the course of the fifteen track, fifty-two minute record we witness exactly this and they shine as Lessons’ best moments. For example: the four minute and fifteen second sixth track, “U.M.A.R.”, with beautiful and an appropriately eulogy-like piano looping production from SPK, is as close as Capone- N -Noreaga have come to a genuine love song. With a hook that wrenchingly states, “They only give you flowers when you can’t smell them/ Well, I’m going to give you trees when you can inhale them”, the song takes the melancholy truth in the idea that the world never seems to give the living the respect they deserve until they pass and creates a haunting work of Hip Hop art. With powerful verses from both Capone and Noreaga it is undoubtedly the best track found in the whole endeavor.
The fifth song, “7th Continent”, with inconsistent production from Hazardis Soundz, attempts to preface the sonic evolution found in “U.M.A.R.” and give us a tale of the disrespect lying underneath terms like “O.G.”. After yet another piano loop, apparently this is the only way they know how to set a somber mood, Capone declares, “Sometimes they calling you O.G./ But, they just calling you old/ You got to learn how to read in between it.” The concept behind this could show further contemplation but the execution and wording in the hook seems to dampen it and make it seem alternately insightful and dim. When the vigorous, triumphant verses ring in from the group and its guest rhymers Royal Flush and Tragedy Khadfi, the track seems to suffer from an identity crisis and becomes uneven.
Opening with a one minute and fifty-four second skit dubbed “Khadfi Talks”, which can be seen as much about ego as telling the tale of Capone- N- Noreaga and its leadership, this variation to its stabs at depth continues when presented throughout the rest of the LP. As “Khadfi Talks” leads into the energetic anthem, “Future”, one of the best tracks on the album. “Future” sports wild and victoriously brazen orchestration (which sounds a bit like something out of a video game) from Ayatollah and the song has more emotional drive in the few seconds long sample of a speech that starts the track than anything in the rambling introduction before it. Still, what it lacks in profundity it delivers with endlessly quotable bars from the group and another guest spot from Tragedy Khadfi that matches their insane vigor.
“Future” is preceded by the disjointed, dull and mechanical groove of iFresh’s beat work on “In the 1st”. As is the case of most of the more decidedly ‘Crunk’ sounding tunes on Lessons, which is nearly the whole record, the aforementioned jingle is a marathon lap of victorious sixteens, hindered occasionally by flat and juvenile lines which don’t work at all, that make the song semi-listenable.
Much the same criticisms go for the eight track, “Not Stick you Pt. 2”, which takes the often utilized thought of a conversation between two rappers, this time Capone and Noreaga, and adds an artificially cheery twinge before the fair beat kicks in on Ayatollah’s second example of production found herein. The two rap with less inflection than in “Future”, or on the best display of the marriage of a potent hook and equally abrasive rhymes marrying one another to craft an absolute knockout of a fight music type ditty as it does on the Anna Shay featured and Mr. Jones constructed “Riding”, but its engaging nonetheless.
But, with great luck, the successful sonic fusion found in “Riding” shows itself often throughout and is equaled by Scram Jones’ melodic work on the album’s concluding opus, “Foul 120”, which features a show-stopping verbal turn from Raekwon and another appearance from Tragedy Khadafi. These musical elements working together so phenomenally is also present in the fourth tune, “Shooters Worldwide”, which explodes with an ear-pleasing boom by Jahlil Beats through the speakers. “Elevate”, again featuring a solid turn from Tragedy Khadfi and Hazardis Beats, has one of the most gripping hooks and the defiant rhymes to match and equate it.
“Pizza”, with its concept of the urge to have a drink and a piece of the title food in an endeavor to temporarily forget your problems, could’ve come off as absurd but instead, and thanks to the aforementioned attributes of lyrics and sound from the legendary fellow New York native Large Professor, make for a pleasantly off-key experience.
“Chinese Girl” has the funkiest and most inventive melody within Lessons, which was done by Beatz n da Hood, and though it only shows slight alterations of the standard rap sex and romance relationship angle it proves far more successful than the inane, garden variety orchestration of Beatz n the Hood’s second bit of production seen on this album: the simplistic and dim lyricism of “3 on 3”. The aforementioned track exposes the worst verbal turn for Tragedy Khadfi (and everyone else-including the once mighty Lox) on the whole LP and it sounds equally uninspired.
Statik Selectak gives Capone -N- Noreaga a melody which sounds like a drunken imitation of a 50 Cent tune on “Now”. The sung hook is ingratiating, the lyrics infantile and the whole endeavor screams of filler and a desperate attempt at a pop single and a law suit from Curtis Jackson waiting to happen. In much the same vein, “Gumar oz Dubar”, with more musical construction from Hazardis Soundz, is fair and forgettable in the aforementioned attributes of wordplay and the soundtrack which Capone- N-Noreaga rhymes over and makes for a bland two minutes and forty seconds.
We get little of the experience, wisdom and perspective promised by the title Lessons. Instead, Capone -N-Noreaga’s latest gives us what we have come to expect with just a few modifications on the formula. The LP works more than it falls apart, mercifully, but it has little too offer than a semi-pleasant wall of sound which allows the group to mostly go through the motions. Lessons, though somewhat uneven, is better than their last few efforts, but not by enough to bring in any new fans or really do anything for their time tested ones as it ultimately tries to prove a case of “if it’s not broke than don’t fix it” but, instead, gives us another reason that artists must mature with time.
Even with the mostly high energy in Capone -N-Noreaga’s delivery, there is far from enough new ground covered on their latest work to appeal to anyone else or give them a reason to care. Such makes for a cold, largely distant, but not utterly intolerable, experience and though most of the music found within the album is far from memorable it isn’t entirely unworthy of your time and attention either.
How much mileage you get from Lessons will simply be dictated by your already existing feeling of the duo’s prior work. That, in itself, showcases the confines of two emcees refusing to fully evolve as artists.