Erick Sermon – “ESP” – (Album Review)

Since Erick Sermon first appeared as one half of the immortal Rap duo EPMD with their groundbreaking 1988 debut album, Strictly Business, the Bay Shore, New York representative has carried an aura about him of the underground rap scene. Lyrically deft, always charismatic, funny and serious in equal measure the always likable forty-six year old rhymer, whose stage name and moniker given at birth are one, is still slaying most of the competition musically. With seven collaborative albums with Parrish Smith, the other half of the group which rocketed Sermon to his current Hip Hop icon status, he has released seven albums collaboratively with Smith under EPMD and with the release of his seventh solo LP on August 28th of 2015 (with a compact disc release set for September 24th of 2015), ESP (Erick Sermon’s Perception), with a clever play on the title and Sermon’s alias as The Green Eyed Bandit woven into the impressive cover of the LP, the marriage of solid basslines, verbosity and his unique sound work just as strongly as ever, even if it does feel more like infectious energy music than anything emotionally satisfying.

With the thirteen second “Intro” and the hilarious fifty-second skit “Imposter”, which come as bookends for Sermon’s new music, he creates the illusion that he is at a radio station being interviewed and is about to play, “Something classic. I’m talking about the lyrics,” as he intones seconds after hitting ‘PLAY’ on ESP. It seems as if he is out to prove something as he approaches the father figure taking the hands of the youthful emcees of the culture and guiding them on what rap should be with these lines. The LP ends on much the same note with Sermon lampooning the 50 Cent types who think “If I get a six pack I will sell more records.” Both of these brief bits are endlessly amusing, and they hint at more wisdom than ESP ever gives us sonically.

After the heavy 1970’s soul groove driving the two minute and eleven second, “The Sermon”, an extended single verse, where Sermon toys slyly with the idea of quitting the game after this record, that is one of the most impressive items herein in terms of production, ESP is built up conventionally. With the enjoyable and radio friendly, in the old-school sense, singles “Daydreamer” (a wonderful mixture of past and present styles that is highlighted by a solid verse from Too Short) and the Ruff Ryder-like bang of “Make Room” (with a razor sharp verse from Sheek Louch) paired up as the gratifying second and third tracks.

Syleena Johnson delivers riveting Gospel-like vocals over “Serious”, the fifth tune in the ESP’s playlist. This has potential single written all over it. As Sermon calls out current emcees to stop taking themselves so somberly, and in the manner suggested by the title, it adds an air of further wisdom and welcome playfulness to the slowed down, more forcefully cerebral tone set by the production. Sermon delivers verbally, as usual, and as it carries into the single “One Shot”. Featuring smart lyricism and delivery from Masspike Miles, the track sonically seems like a continuation of the discussion begun in “Serious”. “One Shot” is more noticeably robust but with lines from Sermon like, “No rappers in my top 5/ Just me”. It is in this instant listeners notice him calling back to the thesis statement in what came before it with a sly wink of the eye. Both tracks are excellent showcases of production, wordplay and music constructing a visible feel which moves and touches the listener inwardly while it makes his or her head nod.

After balancing out the contemplative nature addressed in these past few tracks, Sermon lightens the mood with the wildly amusing thirty-four second skit, “Jokes”. Alas, it is just a temporary smokescreen from the headiness taking place as the best track in the album, “Anger”. This furious anthem comes in with a riveting sting, and sentimentally jarring hook that is made all the more stalwart by Voice’s beautiful delivered vocals on the track, as Sermon touches on George Zimmerman, the IRS and touches back to the common thread of ESP: his outlook on modern wordsmiths and phony rhymers. Much of the first verse talks about being seen at Vegas, his Porsche and other topics too many modern emcees turn to before getting to the heftier subjects. The underlying theme heard beneath his vocals is that rappers are using materialistic flash, as in the items addressed above, as a distraction so they don’t have to address what is on their minds. It is a fantastic way of addressing this message and it is made all the more potent by the soulful song fabrication which suits this track perfectly.

In the second half of the LP Erick Sermon abandons much of the depth he sets up early on to present to us with the battle rhymer persona that so often made him a signature guest with Redman and only returns to the heartfelt impression set up in ESP’s first few tracks with the effectively upbeat final song on the album, “With You”, which exhibits an old school radio smash with Faith Evans rousing delivery on the refrain and Sermon’s gritty, believable and unique perspective on the tried and true romantic relationship angle. Funk Doc himself, predictably, appears with his counterpart, Method Man, on the horn influenced funk of the satisfactory “Clutch”, which is no more than a platform for the three artists to give us exactly what we expect. Red and Meth return briefly in some of the scratching found in the background of the equally capable, “Culture”, which features a pedestrian, ‘just throwing out words until my sixteen bars are done’ turn from Fish Grease).

Regardless, the reason Redman and Sermon are so often paired on each of the other artists’ features is no more evident than in the hypnotic innovation of the funky ninth track, “Jack Move”. With a guest spot from Jarren Benton, who sounds like Andre3000 from Outkast and presents a rhyme that is comparably lyrical, the song screams of Redman’s wild, unpredictable creativity on the microphone and, in so doing, presents one of ESP’s best tracks. “Still Getting’ It”, with another trademark fast flow over actual lyricism bit from Krayzie Bone, and “Neva Take”, with a fair turn from Fred da Godson, attempt to duplicate the pizzazz and characteristically combative attitude of Redman and Sermon found on “Jack Move”. Though “Still Getting’ It” and “Neva Take” are well-done tracks they only marginally transcend some of the aforementioned ninth track’s success.

Sermon has exemplified good, listenable music with ESP, but little else. In many ways it can be seen as a testament to Sermon’s charisma, unique flow and lyricism as much as the impact of 90’s Rap as every song is formulaic, Sermon never reaches too far outside of the box in terms of concepts or breaking new ground with the production, approach or subject matter, but it pleases our ears nonetheless and the placement of the songs is incredible and wise. We, as listeners, nod our heads to the sound and in agreement with much of what Sermon has to say yet, there is a distance and an emptiness the LP as a whole gives you that keeps ESP from being the masterpiece we know an artist like Sermon could create.

For Hip Hop heads Erick Sermon’s Perception is a forty-six minute reminder of what made the old-school great, and how effective it is to this day, and much of the music fits all too comfortably into the one word description: solid. ESP’s tracks are never challenging or gripping enough to be anything more, and none of the tunes herein are remotely bad, but none of it is memorable and, in so doing, the experience as a whole is more of a cold shoulder when many of the parts themselves are dynamic and welcoming.

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