August 12, 2007

(Mad) Skillz - From Where??? (February 13, 1996)


First off, for any of my two readers that I may have lost based on that Kingdom Come write-up, I have to make a comment: I firmly stand behind my Bleek and Sigel statements. Sigel might surprise me later (he did appear on that Roots song "Adrenaline!", which was actually the first time I had ever heard him, so at least he appears to have some taste, and he introduced the rap world to Freeway, he of the awesome beard, so he can't be completely awful), but there is no possible way that Bleek will ever do anything to impress me in his or my lifetime, unless one day he shows up at my house to rescue my cat from a tree, and in the process of climbing said tree he loses his grip, grasps onto a sturdy tree branch, swings around 3.5 times, releases, performs several flips of increasing difficulty, and ultimately hits the perfect landing on the top of an unmanned 18-wheeler, right before it drives off of a cliff, because in this fantasy I live right next to the Grand Canyon. At least then I could say in his obit, "Josiah 'Memphis' Bleek was the type of person who would try, and ultimately fail, at getting your cat out of a tree, let alone making a song that is halfway decent, but at least he wasn't at my house long enough to breathe in all of my precious oxygen. Because I need that to live, you see."

Anyway.

Donnie Shaquan Lewis, known as Skillz (formerly Mad Skillz), was born in Detroit, but calls Virginia home, sharing the title of VA's Contribution To The Rap Game with Timbaland, The Neptunes, Missy Elliott, and The Clipse. Skillz is best known as a battle rapper and hip hop ghostwriter who now releases year-end wrap-up songs, recapping the previous twelve months to hilarious effect. Those songs are good, but Mad Skillz also used to make actual albums. He scored a record deal with Atlantic Records when he placed second in a freestyle contest. (The winner of that contest went on to open his own Quizno's franchise.) His first and only major-label release, From Where???, was released to zero fanfare, and his career quickly tanked.

He went on to work several day jobs but never gave up on the songwriting, and aligned himself with all of the aforementioned VA artists listed above , as well as his own crew, The Supafriendz, whose only real claim to fame thus far is their "Are You That Somebody" remix; they claimed that they rhymed over the Aaliyah beat to prove that real emcees can rap over any beat, even one that Timbaland was inspired to utilize the sound of a baby's cry on. He released a single, "Ghostwriter", around this time, which informed listeners of all of the artists that he has written songs for, except everyone's names were censored. He has threatened multiple times in the new millennium to re-release the unedited version of the song, but has yet to do so. It may not matter anyway; some of the artists he has been rumored to ghostwrite for include Puff Daddy, Foxy Brown, and Ma$e, and none of those artists are relevant anymore anyway, so re-releasing the track would only bring unnecessary publicity for those artists involved. He also later scored a deal with Rawkus Records, but this was around the time that the label was imploding, so everything he's done since has been one-offs on random labels, at least to my knowledge.

I think it's obvious that I've focused on what the former Mad SKillz has done since the From Where??? release because there isn't really much that I can say about him. I heard his two singles on the radio, but they never really took off in my area. I saw a video for the lead single "The Nod Factor" on BET (around 1996, I suppose, but I can't really attach the video to any particular memory of '96, it's that forgettable), but never on MTV, and even in my teens I figured out that if Atlantic Records couldn't even bribe MTV into playing a video from Mad Skillz, then his career must be doomed. And it was, for a while. The next time I saw him and paid attention was when he popped up in the video for Timbaland and Magoo's "Clock Strikes (Remix)" (the one that rips off From Dusk Till Dawn), with a video-only verse of his added on for good measure. At that point I thought, okay, if he aligned himself with Timbaland, he should at least have a decent amount of exposure. (Bear in mind, this was before Ms. Jade and Bubba Sparxxx were taken under Timbo's wing, and we all know how that turned out.) These days, I'm happy when I see a new single of his bouncing around the blogs, or when I hear a new album of his is rumored to be released sometime in the next thirty years, because it proves to me that he never gave up the rapping to open up a rivalling Subway franchise.

Anyway...


1. FROM WHERE??? (INTRO)
A rap album intro, yes, but it features Skillz and an uncredited Lonnie B. in a cypher, which is always a decent way to start your debut album. Lonnie B. indirectly disses Bone Thugs 'N' Harmony and Snoop Doggy Dogg, which is more interesting than Skillz's rhymes, sad to say.


2. IT'S GOIN' DOWN
I guess Skillz's Detroit connect was in full force in 1996, as this song was produced by the late J Dilla. A much better way for Skillz to introduce himself to the masses, even though the hook both (a) sucks, and (b) utilizes an overused hip hop cliche.

3. THE NOD FACTOR
The first single, with production handled by The Beatnuts, who I really have to get around to reviewing. I mean, their debut has been sitting in my 'review' pile for several months now. Since I found out about the production, I've seen this song in a different light, even though as a Skillz song it's pretty weak, sounding like radio-friendly battle raps, which was Canibus's mistake as well.

4. VA IN THE HOUSE
Mad Skillz's ode to the Veteran's Administration, over a beat produced by Buckwild. I'm still trying to figure out how he scored such great underground producers, since he was a rapper from Virginia, and in 1996 that meant jack shit.

5. TONGUES OF THE NEXT SHIT (FEAT KALONJI THE IMMORTAL)
A note for the aspiring rappers who may or may not read my blog: when you release your debut album, it's always a good idea to include a weed carrier or two on a song, just so you can look like a better rapper by comparison.


6. DOIN' TIME IN DA CYPHA
The chorus is very weak, but that's a characteristic of all battle rappers who believe that they can write an actual album. The verses themselves are alright, but I found Buckwild's beat to be very lacking , which didn't help matters.

7. TIP OF THE TONGUE

Probably the first song on here that showcases the, well, skills that Mad Skillz is known for nowadays; the beat, provided by Nick Wiz, is the best vehicle for Skillz to flow on. The fact that it comes in as the seventh song on the CD isn't a good sign, though.

8. EXTRA ABSTRACT SKILLZ (FEAT LARGE PROFESSOR & Q-TIP)
Contains the best guest appearances on the album, which wasn't too hard to do. Skillz proves that he can more than hold his own around rap legends (yes, I just called LP and Q-Tip legends, and I'm sure others will agree with me). Great track overall.

9. WMAD (INTERLUDE)
...

10. GET YOUR GROOVE ON
The chorus is horrendous. I would say that the rhymes are pretty good and that the song is decent otherwise, but I have to repeat: the chorus is horrendous.

11. THE JAM
The "Method Man"-inspired chorus over the second J Dilla contribution is appreciated.

12. MOVE YA BODY
The second, and final, single released. DJ Clark Kent, who I think I last wrote about on Jay-Z's Reasonable Doubt write-up, gives Skillz the most radio-friendly track here. I love the fact that DJ Premier took a vocal sample from this song and used it on Jeru The Damaja's "Me, Not The Paper" ("Ain't no fiends coming in between me and my dreams, see what I mean, black?") The song actually isn't that bad, but when I was younger, I would always get this song confused with Miilkbone's "Where'z Da Party At?" and Little Shawn's "Dom Perignon", since they all sound kind of similar, what with the subject matter and overall radio-friendliness.


13. STREET RULES
Meh.

14. ALL IN IT
The hook is inspired by Gang Starr, which is not a bad source of inspiration, for all of you aspiring rappers out there. Not bad.

15. UNSEEN WORLD (FEAT LONNIE B, KALONJI THE IMMORTAL, DR. MYNBENDA, LIL' ROC, & JAVON THE MEDIEVAL)
When in doubt, put all of your friends on the same track, and make sure that you outshine them all. It helps if the beat is well suited for a posse cut.

16. INHERIT THE WORLD
The drums are awkward, to say the least, but this isn't a bad way to end your debut album.

FINAL THOUGHTS: From Where??? is not the instant classic that blogland would have you believe just because Skillz is well loved in the blogging community. The album sounds like an artist who is struggling to find his place in the genre, and actually succeeding part of the time, which is more than you can say about some of these rappers out today (cough most of the rappers in the South cough). Skillz has given us a decent debut, and leaves the listener wanting more, so hopefully he settles his lack-of-a-label situation and gets some more product on shelves.

BUY OR BURN? I would have to recommend a burn, mainly because From Where??? is out of print and sells for more than twenty bucks a pop over at the Amazon z-shops. It's not the greatest thing since sliced bread, but for a rap album, it still tastes good with a smear of butter.

BEST TRACKS: "Extra Abstract Skillz"; "Move Ya Body"; "Tip Of The Tongue"; "All In It"

-Max

9 comments:

  1. I remember the ype about him when he finally got some airplay and his face in the source, so i went and brought this album, and was hugely disapointed by it, i think i only ever played it a couple of times, then it faded away to the back of my creates....i have sinse heard stuff from him that may have got him his Blogger Hero Status, but to me, him and this album aint half as good as it should be!

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  2. The Most Felonious Vocalist In The Wide World Of ShowbusinessAugust 13, 2007

    That was a very accurate and insightful review of Memphis Bleek. I've often thought the exact same thing.

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  3. umm, I really hope you werent talking about Mad Skillz when you said you were dissapointed. I was dissapointed he was never recognized, I was also dissapointed he did a shit load of ghost writing for p diddy and bad boy that he never got credit for; not that that wouldve helped him but come on the man has mad skillz on the mic..

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  4. aaaaah, i think you were a little harsh on this one, but all in all right. there were tracks i loved on here and tracks i probably never got the whole way through.

    whatever, i'll keep my copy.

    props.

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  5. I PLAY THIS ALBUM AND ALL HIS STUFF ALL THA TIME!!!! HE IN MY TOP 20.

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  6. ufff ya top 20 nugga

    DA NOD FACTOR

    illest joint ever recorded on planet earth

    &
    on the really reals your review is all bullshit son!

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  7. AnonymousMay 31, 2009

    so weird that skillz sounded like L on this album,i still bumped this shit though

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  8. AnonymousJuly 13, 2009

    This is a classic album.
    I really didn't like your review, sorry man.

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  9. This album is fire! Tongues of the Next Shit, Doin' Time In The Cypha, Tip of the Tongue and Extra Abstract Skillz form one hell of a sequence.

    You overthink this shit, Max. Appreciate albums like this for the underground gems they are from the time they're from. You'll sleep on the genius when you scrutinize the details so much.

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