May 20, 2010
A Reader's Gut Reaction: B-Real - Smoke N Mirrors (February 24, 2009)
(For today's Reader Review, frequent contributor Dag Dilligent listens to B-Real's solo album Smoke N Mirrors for the first time. I had completely forgotten that this album even existed, so odds are that you have, too. Enjoy the review, and leave some comments below.)
I was digging around online looking for any music that might interest me, and I came across an interview with B-Real about his first solo album Smoke N Mirrors, which was released in 2009. The first thought that crossed my mind was this: how the fuck has B-Real (aka Louis Freese) been in the industry for twenty years and not made a solo album yet? I’m not talking about his Gunslinger mixtapes that nobody ever listened to, or his Psycho Realm side project; I’m talking about a real solo album. I mean, DJ Muggs dropped his first album like fifteen years ago, and he doesn’t even rap, so what the fuck took so long? Was it the weed? Yeah, probably.
B-Real claims that he wanted to release a solo album to show his abilities and unique skills beyond Cypress Hill, and while I am a Hill fan, I haven’t played any of their albums for quite awhile, as they are typically boring and inconsistent. While B-Real’s distinctive nasal flow balances nicely against Sen Dog’s angry flow (like a fucking see-saw), neither of them ever impressed me all that much on the mic. But they still sound good together, and it seems like no matter how much they fuck up, they still get a pass. (Does that remind anybody of a nine member crew from the same era, one which shall remain anonymous?)
Once I got my hands on a copy of Smoke N Mirrors, I had the feeling that it was going to suck. I’m assuming that there will be an overdose of drug references, low quality production, and irritating nasal voices. Even the album cover is poor: its look is similar to all of those free mixtapes that Louis kept trying to give away, but this one is actually intended for sale to a paying audience. I also noticed Smoke N Mirrors was released in a partnership between B-Real’s own label, Audio Hustlaz, and Duck Down Records. What the fuck? B-Real has sold like fifteen million albums in his career, and he co-signs with Duck Down, a respected underground label that, nevertheless, isn't well known for breaking sales records? That's never a good sign. Then I browsed the track list and noticed that DJ Muggs was nowhere to be found, which is another bad sign. Muggs is like a animal handler at the circus, in that he has to deal with a lot of weird shit (in B-Real’s case, his voice) and still manage to put on a good show.
What Smoke N Mirrors does seem to contain are a lot of guest appearances, so maybe Louis finally realized that his flow can be a bit grating, so he tried to bring in some of his friends to help keep things balanced.
So does he pull it off? Lets find out.
1. SMOKE N MIRRORS (FEAT BO ROC)
I really like the way this song starts: producer Scoop DeVille plays a pitched-up old school cut that nicely sets the mood for the album. This is an album that spends some time reminiscing, while at the same time embracing the need to stay sharp for the present and future. After giving a little time to relax to the mellow groove, a pretty nice beat drops with a heavy bass line, some nice strings, and impressive bongo change-ups. The "Children of the Night" loop is ill, and Bo Roc (formerly of The Dove Shack) makes his way out of the unemployment line to deliver a decent chorus. B-Real comes hard and a little paranoid, but it works. Also, B-Real continues the Cypress Hill tradition of very short interludes that I actually like, tacked onto the end of tracks and usually make the overall product better.
2. GANGSTA MUSIC (FEAT BO ROC)
Soopafly (formerly of Death Row Records) produces a hard but uninspired beat with a synthesizer looped over a funky guitar. Louis is lacking, but I cant tell where he's going wrong because his content sounds polished and his rhymes aren’t that bad. Maybe he just needs to play his verses off another emcee. Or maybe he needs a producer who can work miracles, which he doesn’t have here. Plus his voice sounds a bit slowed down, which gives the impression that his mouth is full of gravel. Like a lot of the songs on Smoke N Mirrors, the hook is repetitive and terrible, as we are informed numerous times that “This is gangsta music”. Bo Roc hurts the track more than he helps and leaves us with an excellent example of average.
3. DON'T YA DARE LAUGH (FEAT XZIBIT & YOUNG DE)
The first single off the album delivers a nice G-Funk beat with some greatly appreciated raw elements and the mandatory garbage hook. Young De brings a decent verse, except for his pronunciation of the word “camaraderie”. As expected, X dominates without really saying anything. (Side note: on top of all that, some versions of this song layer a sample of Suzanne Vega's terrible “Tom’s Diner” over the chorus (which follows Vega’s annoying melody); it is extremely distracting and should be avoided in all future musical output. I suspect there was an issue with clearing the sample as it sounds as though was pulled from the official release, but it is definitely present on some online leaks.)
4. EVERYTHING U WANT (FEAT BUCKSHOT)
Buckshot and B-Real have both been in the industry since the early 1990s, but I would have never expected to hear them together on the same track. Buckshot should have killed B-Real lyrically, but even though he spits solid, B’s veteran-level rhymes absolutely destroy the Black Moon legend. The Soopafly produced beat is pretty good, especially as it has that “Duck Down” sound, a definite departure from the West Coast flavor of the rest of the album, but it works. Not bad.
5. 6 MINUTES (FEAT YOUNG DE & TEKNEEK)
The Alchemist’s boring beat sounds like a 1960’s car chase with some sci-fi sounds laid over the top. This track clearly references the far superior Doug E. Fresh song “The Show”, but instead of introducing listeners to Slick Rick, it focuses on how hard it is for young rappers to come up and stay relevant. Tekneek handles the chorus and changes Ricky's classic “6 Minutes, you’re on” line to “6 Minutes you’re gone”. B-Real makes some good points, but Young De doesn’t really have the stripes to rhyme about mastering the rap game, even though he does mention that he’s doing just that by learning from veterans. I suspect this whole track was the result of a head-injury. Skip.
6. PSYCHO REALM REVOLUTION (FEAT SICK JACKEN)
Psycho Realm was a small underground group that B-Real joined at the height of Cypress Hill’s fame. Sick Jacken, one of its three members, produced this horn-heavy beat which is exactly what I expected for this album, and while the loop is nice, the change-up for the chorus and the chorus itself are appallingly bad. Neither emcee spits anything impressive, and the rhymes in Sick Jacken’s first verse are nearly undecipherable. The loop on this song is so good that I would almost recommend the track, but everything else brings it down to skip status.
7. FIRE (FEAT DAMIAN MARLEY)
The mandatory drug song, and surprisingly the first visit to this topic on Smoke N Mirrors. Reggae and B-Real seem like they should be a great combination but our host's uninspired beat plays it safe and ends up sounding like diet reggae. Damian Marley brings a nice level of energy to the track, especially with his chorus. The Spanglish and bass breakdown is fucking brilliant (do more shit like that, Louis, and you might make a track I can resist the urge to skip), but the song still ends up sounding pretty mundane. I would love to see these two work together more often if they can get their shit together.
8. 10 STEPS BEHIND (FEAT YOUNG DE & TEKNEEK)
Another gangsta track. B's lyrics are above average, but the beat is very repetitive and the hook is terrible. Young De spits a nice verse, but it’s hard to concentrate on anyone’s skills because of the wackness of the beat. Honestly, if you tried to sit through the instrumental version of this track you’d end up looking like Saddam Hussein when they pulled him out of that spider hole: mad disheveled.
9. GET THAT DOUGH (FEAT BABYDOLL REFRESH)
B adjusts his flow to match the terribly bouncy beat from Digital Underground’s Young Mass. B's lyrics are okay and his rhyme scheme is impressive but sounds odd coming from him. The topic of the song is about as played out as the Humpty Dance at your cousin's bar mitzvah, and it makes me wish that B had a gimmick like Shock G's fake nose just so I’d have something else to focus on as the track dragged on. The synthesizer-heavy beat and chorus are so bad that the song becomes an automatic skip.
10. DR. HYPHENSTEIN (FEAT SNOOP DOGG, YOUNG DE, & TRACE MIDAS)
B-Real mans the boards again and delivers something that sounds more than a little bit Hyphy. The amount of work he put into his lyrics is apparent as he drops another good verse, but he should have spent some more time on the garbage beat and pathetic hook. Nobody’s going to be ghostriding their whip to this shit, but they will be temped to jump out of the car anyway. Snoop manages to drop a whole verse without saying anything, while Young De and Trace Midas fill the gaps. Skip.
11. STACK'N PAPER
One of two tracks that Louis had to hold down on his own. The quick paced beat is a bit more complex than the rest of Smoke N Mirrors with a flowing bass line and some mild electric guitar. Both of the breakdowns are fucking amazing, and B's lyrical section hits hard, but the turntable breakdown that concludes the track flat-out steals the show. But even with all that good shit going for it, the track still doesn’t rise above average.
12. 1 LIFE (FEAT SEN DOG & MAL VERDE)
Spanish guitar and a heavy Spanish chorus kick off this slamming track. B-Real reunites with his Cypress Hill colleague Sen Dog to tear up this energetic track in Spanglish, and tear it up they do. Sen Dog brings a level of energy that made me wish for another full fledged Cypress Hill album. Mal Verde handles the hook while B-Real handles the production, and it all works. Teamwork. Nice.
13. DUDE VS. HOMIE
The best song on the album, and B pulls it off without rhyme support. The beat starts off light but takes a slightly threatening tone as soon as our host starts spitting. The lyrics are a skillful story rap from the perspectives of both a dude and a homie: the homie is waiting to jack the dude, but doesn’t realize the dude is ready for him. Nice….uh, except for the wack chorus and the goofy title, but I’ll overlook those for the lyrical skill on the rest of the track.
14. WHEN THEY HATE YOU (FEAT BABYDOLL REFRESH)
B-Real works a sparse G-Funk beat all by himself (well, except for the chorus, which is sung by Babydoll). The beat and chorus make the song sound a bit too slick at first, but it slowly builds into a descent track. Once again B spits like the vet he is, describing what it takes to come up and the dangers of success: "They got the hunger for success but it comes at a price / you gotta sacrifice devices that'll put you on ice". But in the end, it still feels as though something is missing.
15. WHEN WE'RE FUCKING (FEAT TOO $HORT, KURUPT, & YOUNG DE)
Seriously, B-Real? A trip back in time to Death Row Records, circa 1995, is an odd way to close out your debut solo album. The topic and the beat sound like something that was dropped from Tha Dogg Pound's far superior Dogg Food. The song starts out with a “radio DJ” claiming that this song is for the ladies. Somehow, I doubt it. Too $hort drops the same verse he’s been using since 1994, while Kurupt pulls a verse from his “Let’s Play House” reject pile. But the weirdest thing is how out of place B-Real sounds on this type of beat: his flow and voice don’t mesh well with the other rappers. Maybe he’s fulfilling his dream of degrading women with some of the best in the business (and Young De, who only shows up for the chorus), but he probably should have kept this track for his private collection.
THE LAST WORD: I have nothing but respect for Cypress Hill and B-Real, but Smoke N Mirrors is mediocre at best. Even though it grew on me with repeated listening and some of the tracks did get stuck in my head (and on my iPod), it still isn't anything great. B-Real fulfills his mission of describing the reality of the streets, and he truly doesn’t paint a pretty picture of Los Angeles, as from his perspective there is danger around every corner: fake friends, shitty rappers, and venomous record labels. As for my initial concerns, the absence of DJ Muggs is definitely felt, and while some of the beats are hot, most of them are just mediocre. As for the lyrics, B-Real used his writing time wisely, as the rhymes definitely sounded above average (for him). He speaks from experience and gives an enlightening perspective on both life and business. As for his voice and flow, he managed to bring in enough guests to keep it from getting too tiring, but Smoke N Mirrors just solidified my opinion that B-Real is more of a team player than a solo artist. In the end it B-Real would have had to pull off a miracle for Smoke N Mirrors to rise above the anything in the Cypress Hill catalog, and there is nothing miraculous here.
(Questions? Comments? Concerns? Leave your thoughts below, and make your opinion known.)