January 17, 2010

Reader Review: eMC - The Show (March 25, 2008)



(Today's Reader Review is brought to you by Dag Diligent, who previously wrote about KRS-One's I Got Next. He tackles eMC's The Show for your reading pleasure. I'm just glad someone got to this one, because things kept getting in the way of me writing it up myself. Be sure to leave your comments below.)

Believe it or not, Masta Ace is considered by some to be a hip-hop legend. And while I loved Sittin' On Chrome when it came out in 1995, by 1996 I had completely lost interest in Ace and his music (and I thought everyone else had, too). It turns out he has been busy forming connections in the industry, gaining a strong underground following, and dropping critically acclaimed albums (Disposable Arts in 2001, and A Long Hot Summer in 2004). Before it even came out, The Show, by rap supergroup eMC, was hailed by hip hop heads as one of the greatest albums of all time. (They also used the phrases “album of the year” and “automatic purchase”.) Everyone expected absolute brilliance from Masta Ace and his Wisconsin protégé Strickland, especially since they were being joined by Lyricist Lounge veterans Wordsworth and Punchline.

The music itself had attracted positive attention while eMC was touring: it walked the line between conscious music and raw hip-hop, which was a good place to be. eMC delivered smart, positive, and uplifting lyrics, which were a nice contrast to the garbage played on the radio. They even secured solid production from big names like 9th Wonder, Ayatollah, and Nicolay. When the The Show was finally released (after leaking to the Interweb a couple of months ahead of schedule), many people called it one of the best albums of 2008, and backed up that statement by pointing out the skilled production and intelligent lyrics by some of the best emcees working today. I was excited to hear it.

Now, I’m going to go ahead and ruin the end of this review: I didn’t like this album. I really wanted to, but I just couldn’t. At first I thought my expectations were too high, so I shelved this review for a few weeks and returned to the material with a fresh mindset – and I still didn’t like it. I appreciate the lyrical skill: these boys are dope, most of the beats sound like vintage DJ Premier (which definitely isn't a bad thing), and it is clearly intended as real hip hop. But something is missing, because the music is just not engaging. But where did they go wrong?

Well, The Show is a concept album, and I have never been a fan of concept albums in hip-hop. The project describes a day in the life of eMC before one of their live shows, which means there are a lot of skits. I'll be straight up: the skits are terrible and don't enhance the album at all. In general, the songs don't help the story either, which makes the skits even more worthless. The bottom line is that the story being told by the skits is not very good. I would not even be remotely interested in the skits if they were presented without the music in between them, which is the mark of a bad story.

But what about the music?

1. WHO WE BE
The first sounds on the album come from an overproduced piano, which made me roll my eyes so hard that my head tilted back. Thankfully, after a few notes the piano is joined by a raw guitar sound which kept me from pushing the 'skip' button. But I’m tempted soon enough when I hear the first lyrics on the album, which come from what turns out to be the chorus: “What’s up to everyone that’s in the place to be? / I’m glad we could come together we’re making history / They won’t see this again for half a century / I’m telling you who we be: eMC” Fuck! You guys are all talented and this is the best chorus you could come up with? Unfortunately, this song starts a trend of wack choruses that continues all the way throughout The Show. Actually this song starts two other trends as well: overproduced syrupy smooth beats, and smart lyrics (not on the hooks, obviously). All four emcees introduce themselves and spit cleverly, with Wordsworth standing out on the first verse. But for everything that eMC does well in this song, they mess it up with something weak: the rugged beat is overcome by the lame piano, the solid rhymes are canceled out by a chorus that could have been written by an 8th grader, and the strong mic-handling of the artists involved are rendered obsolete by an embarrassing synthesizer solo. Honestly, if you were driving with someone you didn’t really know, and this keyboard solo came on, you would be ashamed.

2. THE AIRPORT (SKIT)
Oh my, the first skit. This one (actually, all of them) feature really bad voice acting and miserable jokes. Several of the skits (such as this one) are boring phone messages, while some are conversations that will just leave you depressed. While I'm glad they didn't attach the skits to the start of the songs, they still manage to drag the album down. If you want to skip the skits but still get the general idea of what's going on with the story, just listen to the song "The Show", as it describes most of the same events.

3. LEAK IT OUT
The Show was leaked online a full two months before it was officially released. Soon after the leak, Masta Ace made an official video asking fans to still buy the album. I wonder if this song was added after the album was leaked, or if was always on the track list? While it smells like a marketing ploy, in the end it doesn’t matter, because this track is great. It has a quick jump off and delivers a solid beat (which sounds like some old Gang Starr) that is upbeat and complements the emcees well. The hook is a collection of samples, which is usually something I like, but for some reason this one didn’t work out so well for me. The samples sound silly but still work well enough to keep the track moving.

4. THE CHECK IN (SKIT)
Overproduced and just not funny.

5. TRAFFIC (FEAT LITTLE BROTHER)
A smooth track that kind of has that summer jam feel, sort of like the Dove Shack's “Summertime in the LBC”, except without the singing. There are a lot of references to using cell phones, which really sounds out of date, so maybe this song was written in 1997. Otherwise, not bad.

6. SAY NOW
Contains successful mic handling all around. Wordsworth starts things out strong, Strick kills it, Punch holds his own, and Ace ends things with a couple of the best lines: "spit like we at the dentist" & "let's hold each other down like we tryin’ to drown". Nice.

7. THE MESSAGE (SKIT)
...

8. DON'T GIVE UP ON US (FEAT ADI OF GROWING NATION)
Do you like R&B? Have you ever had a hard time getting along with your lady? Then this song is perfect for you, I...ah, fuck it. I can't write about this sentimental shit. Definitely for the ladies. Skip.

9. GIT SUM (FEAT SEAN PRICE)
The guest appearance of Sean Price seems to infuse some energy into the track; The Show might have entered classic territory had it maintained the pace of this song. Sean Price doesn’t rise above his hosts here, but none of them do anything particularly great. The rugged beat matches the crew's flow much better than the smooth shit from the previous track. But I'm not saying the beat is any good: it's definitely hard, but a bit too busy. I don't think I'll be uploading it anytime soon, especially with the "eMC orchestra" that fades in and out from side to side, as if my nephew was handling the production.

10. WE ALRIGHT (FEAT STRICKIE LOVE)
I got nervous as soon as I saw "Featuring Strickie Love" after the title, and I don’t even know who that is. I started imagining a smooth and jazzy beat with some R&B singin’ and spittin’ geared for the ladies. Guess what: I was right. Actually, it's worse. The lyrics are corny, talking about people finishing school and getting a pay raise. "When the time come you gonna shine so bright, let them see your light”? Seriously? Come on, eMC. Skip. If you want to hear a good song about the struggles of everyday life (bills, jobs, etc.) check for “Life is a Movie” by Gza/Genius and The Rza.

11. THE INTERVIEW (SKIT)
...

12. EMC (WHAT IT STAND FOR)
Nicolay produces what is easily the best song on the album. The four talented emcees take turns tearing up a solid beat.

13. THE ANGRY MERCH GUY (SKIT)
...

14. THE GRUDGE
The beat is a little overpowering, with a chunky guitar and the horror movie strings. It’s almost like they were going for a rugged sound, but there are two problems: the beat is wack, and the hook is layered with that Ol' Dirty Bastard throat sound (you know what I'm talking about), which was done once (and done well) and should never be repeated. The things eMC seem to have grudges against are realistic, but somewhat light to make a rugged song about: childhood difficulties, high school girlfriends, and thieving uncles. Maybe I’m not in the demographic that this song is aimed at (pre-teens who appreciate old-school?), but I thought it lacked in the creativity department. Skip.

15. MAKE IT BETTER
Things start off well with a nice bell-based loop and a hard beat, then a couple of terrible keyboards kick in, one set to “strings” and the other to “funk”. And fuck, the hook is awful. “We can make it better if we put our heads together / We can make it better if we try to come together”. Ugh. The lyrics are on point, and deep as one would expect, but it doesn’t matter. Even if Nas spit his best on this shit, the beat and hook would make it sound wack. Skip.

16. THE LOBBY (SKIT)
...

17. WINDS OF CHANGE
This song reminded me of the Outkast album ATLiens, which was practically dedicated to the abstract concept of change, and tackled it in a creative manner. “Winds of Change” never reaches that level artistically, but it does a good job for what it is. This is a slower song, and really showcases the skills of the emcees. But the hook: “the more things change the more they stay the same.” Really? I do have one other minor complaint: the tone of the vocal track doesn’t match the instrumental track. It makes the song sound like it was made in the basement by an inexperienced producer…or my uncle. Hey Uncle Larry, stop producing for eMC and come to dinner!

18. THE SHOW (FEAT LADYBUG MECCA)
I don’t know what a Ladybug Mecca is (maybe some kind of computer?), but she ruined the chorus. (Most of you may know her from Digable Planets, but I choose to remember her as an animated member of the Dino 5, alongside, oddly, Wordsworth of eMC.) Besides that, eMC holds it down on this track. The lyrics tell a similar story to some of the skits and run through pre-show operations for the crew, listing off times and activities, with quick trade-offs over a frantic beat. The lyrics are amazing and what you would expect from such a talented bunch. The song ends with the actual live show starting. Pretty good.

19. THE BACKSTAGE (SKIT)
...

20. BORROW U (FEAT STRICKIE LOVE)
Something else for the ladies (I think). Another sugary beat with some raw overtones. Nothing I would listen to by choice. In fact, I had trouble sitting through the whole thing. The lyrics are strong, and the production is solid, but the beat is a little amateur. It’s just not my thing. The chorus is performed in a fake Nate Dogg-esque manner and sounds terrible.

21. ONCE MORE
Another Premier rehash, with a chorus that fits well with the laid back vibe of the song (think “Metropolis Gold” by All City, if you’ve ever heard it). I could jam to this if I was cooling out, but only under very specific circumstances (like if I was falling asleep or trying to do something else). Otherwise I would probably skip it. Also, I don't know if Stricklin thought his verse through: "I got more game then most of these rappers that's out / half the time I don't even know what they rappin’ about / But when I find out they might just get smacked in the mouth." So, if he hears a line in a rap, doesn’t understand it, then asks his dad on his way home, he's going to get mad and want to fight?

22. U LET ME GROW
A song dedicated to all the moms out there...well, more like Ace's mom specifically. I don’t have anything against songs about moms (2Pac did a good one), but this one is lacking. The intro to the song basically tells the same story twice, which is a little weird, and it goes downhill from there. Another candy beat, only this one has some throwaway Kanye West samples from 2003. I can't help but feel like I've heard this song a hundred times before; it’s just stale. Even four strong emcees can’t make it fresh.

23. FEEL IT (FEAT MONEY HARM OF PRODUCT G&B)
MORE R&B! This sounds like a Sunz of Man beat (with some Sunz of Man sounding lyrics to boot), but it's basically more of the same for eMC. But for some reason, I like this one. The lyrics stick to family man talk, but the beat is strong enough to keep it moving. The chorus is just as corny as the other songs, but it sounds okay within the context here. If the whole album had the musical quality of this one (or maybe the energy), I think it would have been a lot better. Before you get too comfortable, though, they end the song with a surprise skit, also known as a gut punch, because it’s another phone message and leaves you feeling like your going to vomit.

The Show also contains the following bonus track.

24. UNTITLED BONUS TRACK
I don't know who would consider this a bonus. It's a behind-the-scenes look at how they put the skits together over a beat. Not quite a track, not quite a skit, not quite worth listening to.

FINAL THOUGHTS: I found The Show frustrating because I wanted it to be more than it was. For the most part, everything that eMC did sounded out of date: there were no new ideas, the beats were a bit stale and mostly reminded me of other, better work, and no envelope was pushed. The album was just safe. While the lyrics from Masta Ace, Wordsworth, Punchline, and Stricklin are better than a lot of the stuff out there, good lyrics don’t make for a good album. This album is missing soul; these four talented emcees are just going through the motions. Everyone does their job and delivers solid rhymes and passable beats, but nothing more. You won’t be bumping this in your car because it’s just not hard enough. Likewise, you probably won’t be or jamming to it on headphones for long, unless you really like the lyrics, but even still, the lack of energy will probably hold you back. Plus, hip hop heads who appreciate sharp lyrics will probably find some of the hyperbole corny. So that leaves using this as background music while you’re doing something else, which it is perfect for.

BUY OR BURN: I know I’m in the minority on this one, but I’m going against the grain and recommend that you burn this album. None of the songs on here made it onto my iPod. I think a lot of people forced themselves to like this album because of what it should have been. It’s difficult for anyone to admit that their expectations were not met. Go ahead and set fire to the comments.

BEST TRACKS: "Say Now", "Leak it Out", "eMC (What It Stand For)", “The Show”

Dag Diligent

(Agree? Disagree? Want to throw a brick at your computer screen? Leave some comments below instead: it's healthier, and you won't have to buy a new monitor.)

12 comments:

  1. Well said.

    This album is merely okay. There is some garbage tracks (Git Sum is one I'll particularly remember), but there are also some great tracks (Leak It Out, The Grudge).

    I wanted to like it a lot since it was Masta Ace, but this album is just alright.

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  2. agree! I love masta ace but found the album really really BORING! best track eMC (what it stand for)

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  3. Boring ass album overrated by "real hip hop heads"/backpackers.

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  4. Literally all it took for me to get what you were talking about in your final thoughts was listening to the album's opening song.

    I feel like a lot of artists (underground/backpacker/otherwise) assume that because they rhyme longer words they are automatically more lyrical than the next guy without even putting passion into it (it's one of the bigger reasons I don't listen to more Hiero), and this appeared to be the case here. Well written.

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  5. @refuse to come wack

    hiero doesnt do that. you're stupid as hell

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  6. Good review! A lot of the older guys still doing it (and most of the guys they cosign) still think the old concepts of rhythm and flow in hip-hop will cut it today, which they won't. See: Buckshot & KRS One.

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  7. Deltron 3030 was a f*cking awesome album though.

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  8. I'd agree with that...3030 was sick as far as concept albums go (and it was Del with production from Dan The Automator, not Hiero), but I feel like in Hiero songs there's a lot of reliance on multi-syllable rhymes without any real context, proving that there's gotta be some substance behind all of those fly rhymes.

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  9. I was randomly looking over this review (I have no clue why, two years later, I'm Jeff who had the first comment here), but I feel compelled to mention, YOU DON'T KNOW WHO LADYBUG MECCA IS?! OF DIGABLE PLANETS? For shame, Max. I hope you addressed that in the time since this review.

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    Replies
    1. Do you mean "addressed" in that I schooled the author (and the readers) of the actual review? Because I did make one of my italicized comments within the body of the post itself.

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  10. AnonymousJuly 31, 2014

    I will acknowledge that, even though his albums are getting more flawed as time progresses(with the exception of Son of Yvonne, as that album is friggin AWESOME), Masta Ace has one of the most consistent discos of ANY hip hop act of the past 26 years.

    He's no Gang Starr, but he's damn close!!

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  11. AnonymousJuly 31, 2014

    I mean, the man has one of the best ears for beats in hip hop, period.

    Which is a VERY important factor to the longevity of an MC.

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