(Today, the Reader Reviews continue with A.R. Marks and his opinion on Elzhi's The Preface. And, as usual, I'm still accepting submissions: I'm especially fond of the reviews for albums that I may not have gotten to normally. Enjoy!)
Like almost any conceivable place in the U.S. not commonly referred to as “New York,” “Cali” or “The South” (and in the latter two examples, even some spots within those designated areas), the hip-hop scene in Detroit, Michigan was almost uniformly self-contained before one breakout star managed to transcend the regional stage. Due to the sheer magnitude of a certain white rapper's popularity, Detroit suddenly became a new hot spot for hip hop talent which was actually somewhat varied in style, as it housed not only cartoonishly twisted artists such as D12 and Esham, but also aggressive "gangsta" acts such as Trick Trick and (to a much lesser extent) Royce da 5'9”, and even soulfully "conscious" (even though this has become almost a four-letter word in hip-hop, it's still applicable) artists such as One Be Lo, Black Milk and Slum Village, the latter of which is a group that includes the subject of today's review.
It transpires that Elzhi became one of the most continuously active members of Slum Village, a crew with somewhat of a revolving door when it came to members, which included the late J Dilla (I refuse to call him by his much more generic moniker, Jay Dee, seeing as (1) it's just an abbreviation for his actual nickname, and (2) there's too goddamn many “Jay” artists in hip-hop—Jay-Z, J-Live, J-Love, J-Zone, J Hood, Jay Millz, J. Period, J.R. Writer, etc.) was a founding member, but left to pursue the freedom to provide all of hip-hop with his talents; Baatin, another founding member, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and left the group as well; T3, the founding member that actually remains a part of the crew; and while he was never formally a member, SV briefly associated themselves with producer Waajeed (before realizing that fellow Detroit producer Black Milk was much more talented). It unfortunately seems as though every formal member of the group who leaves eventually dies, albeit of natural causes.
R.I.P. J. Dilla & Baatin. Moment of silence.
Moving on from that depressing tidbit, we come to the history of Elzhi, who undoubtedly became (if not started out as) the most lyrically-gifted member of the group thus far. His first major appearance, or at least the album on which I first heard him - or even Slum Village, for that matter - was on Pete Rock's Soul Survivor II, an otherwise mostly-underwhelming effort. The song, appropriately entitled “Da Villa,” first saw the light of day in 2004, showcasing the young Detroit native completely weaving lyrical circles around his SV co-star. Elzhi's debut album, The Preface, came four years later, in 2008, and even though T3 is only featured on one track, it's clear that ain't shit changed.
It should be noted beforehand that Black Milk produced almost all of The Preface, and even though it was literally made up of leftover beats the producer simply had lying around, it still sounds as cohesive than it has any reasonable right to.
1. INTRO (THE PREFACE)
Longtime, short-term, and even completely new readers of Max's blog will already know that rap album intros are utterly despised. Longtime hip-hop fans in general will know there is a good reason for this. However, while this “Intro” features a rather bland Black Milk production (relatively speaking - the beat is actually still pretty good by general standards), it pleasantly surprises you when Elzhi makes his first (though short) verse on his solo debut a specific thank-you to fans who spent their sweet time and/or spare change to sit down and listen to the album.
2. THE LEAK (FEAT AYAH)
A much more engaging Black Milk production, this song is the proper introduction to Elzhi's album, and its whole concept actively acknowledges the virtual certainty that his album would illicitly appear (read: leak) on the Internet prior to actually being released in stores. El's words are satisfyingly complex and visual, succinctly explaining his whole background and mentality up to the point of the album's release and rather accurately proclaiming that “This is everything I am, am / crammed, jammed, in two verses.”
3. GUESSING GAME
A stated theme of this album was that Elzhi would be toying around with his abilities, exploring what types of songs he could write, and “Guessing Game” is the first of several high-concept songs that are also very original in their execution. The beat is, like the last one, a catchy and nicely-rhythmic concoction by Black Milk, and sounds different enough not to feel like a retread. Elzhi's aim on the record is to end lines one way, then kick off the next line with a term that changes the meaning of the last line, which is actually conducive to some very clever wordplay. It helps that the chorus/bridge combination is a clever, concise and repeated reminder of the “rules” to this guessing game.
4. MOTOWN 25 (FEAT ROYCE DA 5'9”)
Back in 2007, Black Milk reported that Royce and Elzhi would be recording a collaborative album with beats from himself; this was before Slaughterhouse began eating up Royce's time, so this song may be the closest we ever get to that record. It's a pretty good one, featuring the theme of Milk production centered around a recurring vocal sample, but the beat frequently alternates between this and an intriguing layered horn combination to keep things fresh. Although I'm a big fan of the artist-also-known-as-Nickel Nine (and I do feel that he drops a commendable performance here) El completely - and rightfully - outshines his guest. 5'9” even takes a quick moment to apologize for “sounding lazy,” having apparently smoked a bunch of weed beforehand.
5. BRAG SWAG
Over a subtly smooth beat, Elzhi takes time out to execute the traditional braggadocio-song incredibly well, while avoiding the “nameless sucker MCs” cliché. The scratches on the chorus (by DJ Dez) are a little amateur, but the star's flow and wordplay, and the beat, more than easily make up for it.
Reverting to the bouncy-catchy beat with a breakdown interval, Elzhi proceeds to pull out a GZA-esque concept execution by naming colors in his lines on the pretext of teaching kids a color scheme, with some improvised kid-voices naming each color. The chorus has a nice flow, with Elzhi breaking down colors and then again in reverse order; the end features an amusing little skit where the kids realize all they really learned was that Elzhi is “the shit.”
7. FIRE (REMIX) (FEAT BLACK MILK, GUILTY SIMPSON, FATT FATHER, DANNY BROWN, FAT RAY)
Why would you have two weed-carriers with “fat” in their names on a single track? Are they like Big Pun fat, or are rest of these guys just bulimia skinny? This is the only track where the rhymes are so-so, although the guests at least have some personality on the mic; they just serve to underscore how much more impressive Elzhi is. The beat is also quite pleasant.
Prominently displaying a haunting beat with some fitting wood block percussion, this song is made more creepy by the fact that it's 1:30 AM and I just watched Paranormal Activity before writing this review. (The movie made me nauseous, thanks to the handheld camera work, but I'll co-sign on the creepy factor, as some of it is quite effective.) The second verse is also one of my favorite lyrical performances on the album (or just in general) as Elzhi effortlessly breaks down the letters of the title into several different acronyms. It's also pretty sweet that he's also spitting about social awareness. There follows a nice skit sampling one of my favorite Led Zeppelin tracks, “No Quarter,” with a creepy echo effect while Elzhi threatens the lives of his cheating woman and her lover.
9. SAVE YA (FEAT T3)
Interestingly, the next song in the sequence is this decidedly lighthearted track about the golddigger(s) he's had to deal with. One of the two tracks not done by Black Milk, this is produced by T3, effectively making it a full-on Slum Village song. T3 comes through and at least proves he's better than the guys from two tracks ago.
10. YEAH. (FEAT PHAT KAT)
I've never been much of a fan of Phat Kat, but he does hold his own here, with his delivery if nothing else. The beat is pretty standard Black Milk fare, which hasn't failed us so far, and Elzhi's lyrics are still on-point.
11. TRANSITIONAL JOINT
An even-more-lighthearted track keeps momentum up, but hearing another song which is essentially the same as “Save Ya,” except that it's about the opposite type of woman, makes me question how necessary it is. Still, my understanding is there's an audience for this sort of thing; plus, the running theme of quality music and lyrics makes it hard to hate on this song. Also the chorus is pretty catchy.
12. TALKING IN MY SLEEP
After a short, spaced-out singing interlude appended to the previous song comes the track that probably should have come after “D.E.M.O.N.S.” I remember this song along with a few others on here popping up on EuroPass, an overseas tour promotional CD, and this one really jumped out at me then; it was very wise to include this on the album. Stepping back to the haunting beat theme, this one is more dreamy, as befits the subject matter. Elzhi brings forth my other favorite lyrical performance and probably my favorite song on the CD: a very vivid description of the disorientating and disturbing nature of dreams.
13. THE SCIENCE (FEAT FES ROC)
The other non-Black-Milk-produced cut, the aforementioned DJ Dez actually provides a nice and rich beat that sounds worthy of Mobb Deep's Havoc (of olde, not the recent Hidden Files or The Kush Havoc). Fes Roc's performance, just on the intro to the track, is completely forgettable, but the rest of the song is awesome, with some more top-notch flow/wordplay from the star of the show.
14. HANDS UP
Showing some needed logical transitioning between tracks, Elzhi's lamenting of neighborhood violence leads him into more desperately aggressive territory on this cut. Over an effective marching beat that samples the phrases “hands up” and “freeze”, he lays down a blow-by-blow of an attempted store robbery-turned-hostage situation, including a thorough description of the robber's mentality and motivations. This is a track worthy of a Ghostface Killah or Slick Rick remix (or both, perhaps?), if I might say so myself.
15. WHAT I WRITE
Back on the upbeat tip, Elzhi lays out his writing process with some nice vivid examples.
16. GROWING UP (FEAT A.B.)
Utilizing what sounds like a typical rap soul sample to a more interesting, sped-up (but not overly-produced, a la Just Blaze/Kanye West) effect, Elzhi once again goes in explaining his past, mentality, environment and influences, providing a sort of bookend to the album that started with “The Leak,” plus some heartening soul crooning on the hook.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Easily a very good album and one of my personal favorites (could you guess?), the whole concept of The Preface seems to promise more solo records to come, on which there will need to be some expansion of Elzhi's sound, more cohesion between tracks and more of a focus on an overall theme. As its own album it still stands quite well on its own; it provides a nice foundation for the rapper to build on in the future and provides a detailed background check for the listening audience; I can't help but think that if Nas had put out this record, it would be hailed as the second coming of, say, It Was Written.
BUY OR BURN: By all means, buy this. El's solo album is stronger than any Slum Village record I've heard so far (no disrespect to SV fans, but this is my own perspective) and he manages to come original, not sounding like a knockoff of any of the more popular Detroit artists. Plus, some of Black Milk's best music resides on here.
BEST TRACKS: “Guessing Game,” “Colors,” “D.E.M.O.N.S.,” “Talking in My Sleep,” “The Science,” “Hands Up.”
(Be sure to leave your comments below. And if you have something to say about one of your favorite albums, shoot an e-mail to the address on the top right.)