Album Reviews

Hip Hop Album Reviews, Week Ending Feb. 10, 2017

The past week saw the return of Lupe Fiasco, KC powerhouse Ces Cru and Quelle Chris of Mello Music. The under underground might not have been popping off much, but the aforementioned artists from the underground to mainstream delivered adequately to astonishingly well. So relax your mind, let your conscience be free and let these here joints teach you a thing or three.

Catastrophic Event Specialists by Ces Cru (Strange Music, Inc.)

The Ces Cru men of Kansas City (Donnie “Godemis” King and Mike “Ubiquitous” Viglione) return with respect and character once again in their sixth LP and third with Strange Music Inc. Entitled Catastrophic Event Specialists, the project brings all the vocal fire the group is famous for plus sociopolitical tones and messages that were less than very prominent on their previous albums but definitely profound and shocking in a good way here.

As they’ve always done with excellence, these outstanding backpackers reinforce real hip-hop music and authentic emcee-culture in the look-back in time of “Combustible” and in all other parts through pristine technique. In “Highlander,” they denounce what are implied to be mumble rappers around a scathing yet true statement by Ubiquitous – “Hillary’s a fake and Don Trump’s a fraud.” “Rubble” further tests big money-driven rappers and resets the bar higher with a stellar assist from Rittz. “Tidal Wavy“ speaks on some mainstream artists’ motivation for strictly personal gain as they warn that “living for self and only self you’re prone to die alone” and “you only care about yourself and that’s weak sh*t.” They confess they don’t have “mad dough, cars [or] designer clothes” but that makes them more than your “average joe.”

A light piano interlude opens Act II before Ubiquitous tells of rappers “lacking respect” who are only “after a check” with Godemis describing a mass media hip-hop scene of “actor”-rappers. A furor of frustrated voices from the public in “Purge” builds to “Gridlock,” where topics include victimization of the poor by (some) police, nepotism, government gridlock obviously and the unconcern of “elected” officials who are chosen by the super wealthy. The powerful (or powerless) “Slave” then fully describes the condition of being subservient to power structures, of falling for mind control tricks played by authorities (“head in a cage” as they say). A (inappropriately?) raunchy (and promiscuous?) Tech N9ne and a testy MURS then pave the way for the opening of Act III, another cool jazz cut.

With a subject already discussed countless times but still worth revisiting, “Deja Vu” explains how the tightest of relationships can easily become a dizzyingly disorienting separation. They’re letting us know how it is, so we’re prepared when and if we get in that situation. Songstress Mackenzie Nicole, beautifully real and expressive on “Hero,” is positively inspirational with the boys, and “famished ghetto celebrities” and guests Krizz Kaliko, JL, Joey Cool, Info Gates, Kutty Slitz, Trizz and former direct Ces Cru lady-of-rhyme Perseph1 all “hangout” to spit some laid-back, cavalier styles and some raw vicious ones, but never that “same same” dumbed-down garbage.

Way to go and good for the two frontmen of Ces for sticking together all these years. Their chemistry is incredible. Memories are made and lessons are learned listening to this disc. With energy and articulation over electric music, Godemis and Ubiquitous have some fun, exercise their tremendous skills and hold sources of extreme power accountable at the same time, with impeccable immaculate flows. The type of hip-hop music these Catastrophic Event Specialists make is not the end-all-be-all of the genre, meaning the backpack way is not the best way hands down period (how would rap innovate if it were?), but Ces Cru always take it back to the essentials with amazing results, as crisp as chips, chips off the old block of their great emcee forefathers.

5 out of 5 stars

Drogas Light by Lupe Fiasco (1st & 15th Prod./Thirty Tigers)

Lupe Fiasco’s music was supposed to get better after he left Atlantic Records. Instead, it seems to have gotten a little more mainstream-y, or so is the case in the Chicago wonder’s sixth LP, Drogas Light, released through 1st & 15th (his personal imprint) in conjunction with Nashville music-services firm Thirty Tigers. It’s not as if Lupe doesn’t come with messages or substantial lyricism on the project, but they are either scaled back to a somewhat lesser role than before or mixed with kitschy pop-music styles. In other words, he really knows how to put the light in Drogas Light.

Lupe gets through all of his most system-critical songs in the beginning half. His call to abandon poor character and poor values in “NGL” (feat. Ty Dolla $ign) risks coming off as misplaced criticism of poor blacks due in large part to its name, “N*ggas Gonna Lose,” and his list of bad things born in America in “Made in the USA” may seem like simply a jeremiad from the homeland, sans solutions, and both are marred by lacking bars and some snuck-in references to money, cars, choppers and other material ends. Even his “Jump” story of a relatively green artist held hostage for a rap career by a seductive street vixen (his metaphor for the music industry) descends into a bit of club bass’d decrepitude with its easy twerk-to beat and the generic Gizzle as guest.

Furthermore, for a song like “Tranquillo,” which is intended to support purity of soul and mind, to feature super mobster-rapper Rick Ross and have love for “myself and all my n*ggas, all my b*tches and all my thugs” (interesting wording) is to put forth a commitment to good that condescends its objects of affection with nasty pejoratives and epithets at the same time. The last very noteworthy part of great passion and depth of meaning would have to be “More Than My Heart,” the finale, which is Lupe’s version of rap’s famous love-for-mom song. The rest has enough visceral gusto to comment on love and romance with sounds of funk, disco and other pop concessions in store.

While parts of Drogas Light showcase Lupe’s unmistakably solid rapping, swaths of it have a tendency to feel (at least) like flimsy filler and lowbrow content because of crowd-pleasing beats and Lupe’s chant-deliveries and his more lax flows. Lupe is back but sections of his new album are simply unLupe-like, as he sort of compromises consciousness for trends, not to the nth degree but enough to ache dully. This is Lupe Fiasco as we all know and love him for the most part, albeit to a minuscule loss of hardcore artistry and moral integrity, a modest step down for someone of such stature, originality, character and vocal identity, who came and remained in the game as a very devout conscious emcee. Let’s hope he stays one.

3 out of 5 stars

Being You Is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often by Quelle Chris (Mello Music Group)

With the release of his Being You Is Great LP upon us, Mello Music artist Quelle Chris from Detroit now has six albums out, all with Mello. Chris is again famously all-over-the-place with his moods and ideas on fuzzed crate beats that are less capricious than his fidgety disposition. The only thing that holds the album together is a smattering of scattered wisdom. Besides a few interesting guests, like Jean Grae, Elzhi and Homeboy Sandman, among the arguably too many mediocre ones and the random words of weight (“things are going to go down but we are going to stay up” for example), Chris is hardly distinguishable and more often than not throws around flippant comments with lyricism that is difficult to call impressive, and his emotional state is rarely something other than sad, troglodytic, sarcastic, braggadocious or cutely hopeless.

The project’s title says it all. Looking in the mirror, Chris probably wishes he could be genuine more often instead of fake with a pretentious personality demanded by society, but his conduct on the album seems to suggest he is not confident with his current self and ill courageous enough to be something more desirable, as his lack of concentration and focus have him undecided and untethered to any one thing for any substantial span of time. Whimsy and hardly serious, Being You Is Great unfortunately pays improper attention to the most important matters of human life (social and political issues) and spends much more time being weird, peculiar and inconsistent.

2 out of 5 stars

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