In my absence from the site, I found myself listening to music just for the fun of it, and I realized that I miss doing that. Nearly every single hip hop album I've listened to in the past four years has been for the blog first and for my own experience second, which (a) explains why I tend to listen to new wave and college radio stations when I'm not writing, and (b) also explains why I feel so fucking burned out on our chosen genre. In 2011, I have vowed to somehow find more time to just listen to stuff without the added pressure of meeting a self-imposed deadline, without taking away from the site itself unless absolutely necessary.
Yeah, sorry, that opening paragraph doesn't go very far in apologizing for you two having to look at the ugly album cover for Hip Hop Is Dead for almost a month. Sorry about that. I was busy.
During this transitional phase, I happened across the debut album from Detroit act The Left, Gas Mask, in my local mom-and-pop record shop. Like most of you readers who aren't afraid to admit it, I had no fucking clue what it was supposed to be, although I was intrigued by the album cover's inherent creepiness. So I looked up a couple of the tracks on YouTube, which were good enough to warrant a return to the store to actually buy the thing, and I liked it so much that I decided to deviate from my usual definition of a Gut Reaction post to write about it. Technically, this review was conceived during my third run-through of Gas Mask, but it still counts as a Gut Reaction because shut up, that's why.
And yes, that means you do already know how this write-up will end.
The Left consists of rapper Journalist 103, up and coming producer Apollo Brown, and DJ Soko, all of whom hail from the economically desolate wasteland known as Detroit, Michigan, where a bunch of your other favorite artists, such as Royce da 5'9", J Dilla, Eminem, and Black Milk, also call home, or used to, before they ran for the hills the first chance they got. That's really all the information I have on The Left, as their presence on blogs late last year was an event that seemingly came from out of the ether. All three artists had run on the indie Motown circuit prior to the formation of The Left, so each man had the opportunity to hone their respective craft prior to recording their seventeen-track opus for the Mello Music Group label.
The Left's Gas Mask is notable for being named one of the best albums of 2010 by many of your favorite bloggers; interestingly enough, that very same endorsement from your favorite bloggers served as the only real marketing Gas Mask ever really received. Like I said before, these guys came out of nowhere to deliver their own take on what our chosen genre was missing, and for the most part, the lack of exposure only helped them more, as there was almost no pressure placed on their shoulders to create good music. The Left were afforded a luxury that most popular artists would kill for: as nobody knew who they were or what they were doing, nobody knew what to expect, so just about anything they did could be considered as groundbreaking or entertaining, as long as it didn't sound exactly like what the next guy was doing.
Thankfully, Gas Mask does sound entertaining, if not consistently groundbreaking, and Journalist 103 (not to be confused with the New York rapper Journalist, who messed up my order at Del Taco the other day and has yet to apologize for it), Apollo Brown, and DJ Soko (who, obviously, handles the turntables, but is not really mentioned during the write-up itself, so I figured I'd give him his due here) all prove themselves to such a degree that you will want to hear a follow-up as soon as humanly fucking possible.
Because I really really really liked this album, you see.
It's a rap album intro, and it isn't as though there haven't been enough of them in our chosen genre, but I kind of liked this one, since it happens to be mostly instrumental, with some cleverly chosen sound bites mixed in that sound creepy as shit without the aid of context, which actually makes this sound even more unsettling. Although I highly doubt Gas Mask is The Left's attempt at a concept album revolving around the end of the world as we know it due to a radioactive meltdown or the annihilation of the ozone layer, I'll chalk this up to being effective and intriguing nonetheless.
2. GAS MASK
Journalist 103 becomes the latest artist to take it upon himself to save hip hop from itself, as his two-verse diatribe against what rap music has become and his call to arms proves. Yes, he's preaching to the choir at this point: anybody who is even remotely interested in Gas Mask is probably already dissatisfied with the current state of our chosen genre. However, dude has lyrics: he finds a new way to articulate his frustration over Apollo Brown's dramatic production. Had it not been for his disgust with “all the sex scandals” during the chorus (um, what sex scandals?), this title track could have honestly been a near-perfect introduction to The Left. Still, I liked this shit an awful lot.
3. FROZEN (FEAT. KOOL G. RAP)
There seems to be a great divide between Journalist's promise that his take on hip hop is better than downloading malware and Trojan viruses (I would certainly hope so, anyway) and whatever the fuck Kool G. Rap is talking about, but this shit was fucking dope anyway. Apollo pairs a breakbeat with a dramatic horn loop, resulting in a dark, proto-Killarmy vibe that makes you wish that there was more than just the single verse from each participant. The hook, made up of a sound bite repeated ad nauseum, could have been a bit better, but that's a minor quibble for something that was this fucking entertaining.
4. BATTLE AXE (FEAT. MU)
As you may have surmised from this song's title, “Battle Axe” is a showcase for the battle rhymes of Journalist and guest star Mu, both of whom straight up rip shit over some outstanding Apollo production work. Journalist gets in several good lines, even managing a reference to Eminem that doesn't sound forced just because they both hail from Detroit, and would probably sound just as great over different musical backing, but Apollo Brown's beat transcends everything on this track, making you hope that The Left releases an instrumental version of Gas Mask very soon, it's just that fucking good.
Well, when you have a good thing going, you realize that it can't last forever, or else you would never be able to appreciate it. I'm not saying that “Binoculars” is a bad song in any way, but it doesn't hold its own against the crushing juggernaut that is the previous three songs combined. Apollo's beat is simple and soulful, almost annoyingly so, but Journalist sounds unable to focus on the task at hand, coming across as disinterested, a feeling that is contagious for the listener. I'll use the remainder of this space to note that I appreciate how The Left doesn't feel any pressure to stretch out their songs to the traditional three-verse standard unless the situation truly calls for it. Restraint is still a rare trait in hip hop.
6. HOW WE LIVE (FEAT. HASSAAN MACKEY)
Of course, the moment I write out that statement is the moment when The Left switches things up on the listener and unleashes a song consisting of three verses. To be fair, the first segment is monopolized by their guest, Hassaan Mackey, so Journalist taking the remaining two sections as his own is probably how this song would have worked out even if he had been working alone. “How We Live”, which is by all possible measurements an otherwise generic hip hop cliché of a track that describes how hard a rapper's life is in the streets, is elevated beyond the dull “Binoculars” thanks to the performances from both rappers and Apollo Brown's production, which makes him sound like Detroit's answer to a Prince Rakeem question that nobody ever asked. Minus the kung-fu samples and the flood, of course.
7. CHOKEHOLD (FEAT. PARADIME)
The marriage of the beat and the rhymes on “Chokehold” didn't work for me all that much. Both Journalist and his invited guest Paradime (who also acts as a part of Kid Rock's posse under the name Freddie Beauregard, which sounds ridiculous until you recall that Kid Rock is a Detroit-area musician who actually started his career as a rapper before finding fame as whatever the fuck he does today) come across just fine: my issue was with Apollo's instrumental, which sounds a bit too lazy and generic for me to believe that it was crafted especially for Gas Mask. It doesn't sound bad in any way: in fact, the soulful throes of the sample would fit someone like Ghostface Killah like a glove. (Someone should give Apollo Ghostface's e-mail address immediately.) But it doesn't work for The Left, since, at this point in the project, we've only really heard Journalist over this type of slow roll and are longing to receive something with much more of a bite. Oh well, you can't have everything.
8. THE FUNERAL
Although the beat still doesn't really match with the artist, “The Funeral” (sadly, not a cover of the debut single from the Clipse) works much better than the previous song, mainly because this time around, the music acts as a counterpoint to Journalist's threats, and the contrast helps his bars stand out from the pack. In short, his two verses on “The Funeral” rank among the best I've heard on Gas Mask thus far, and we're not even halfway done yet. This bodes well.
9. STATISTICS (FEAT. INVINCIBLE)
The hook on here is pretty bad, but everything else about “Statistics” is a keeper, from the Apollo musical backing, which manages to sound more upbeat than most of what I've heard thus far, to the lyrics from both Journalist and underground female emcee Invincible, who both sound great, even though this isn't as much of a collaboration as it is the furthering of their own individual agendas. The hook is so terrible that it nearly ruins the entire track, though: was it really necessary to cede to that particular whim, guys?
10. REAL DETROIT (FEAT. MARVWON)
Because I liked Marvwon's guest spot on fellow Detroit emcee Royce Da 5'9”'s “Happy Bar Exam 2”, this was the first song I looked up when I was trying to decide whether to actually pick up Gas Mask or not. Sampling dialogue from the “A Fistful Of Yen” segment of Kentucky Fried Movie causes this song to win the entire Interweb for the rest of the year. Thankfully, the rest of the track, which focuses on various reasons why you may not want to include the Motor City on your travel itinerary (unless you're an aspiring rapper and/or Michael Moore), holds up its end of the bargain. This shit was pretty fucking good.
11. THE MELODY
Although I can't imagine there would be many women running to their local mom-and-pop record shop to pick up The Left's Gas Mask (sadly, underground hip hop is still pretty much a sausage-fest), Journalist throws in a love rap just in case, albeit one that is done on his own terms, which turns out nicely. The use of the vocal sample annoyed me at first, as I've gotten sick of hearing songs where the artist pretends to “interact” with the sample, but by the time “The Melody” ended, Apollo Brown eventually won me over. Huh.
12. REPORTING LIVE (FEAT. GUILTY SIMPSON)
The Left recruit Black Milk's homeboy Guilty Simpson for a guest verse on yet another song that goes out of its way to persuade listeners to not visit Motown. We get it, guys: the economy is really shitty and every third guy is a wannabe rapper that will attempt to pass off his demo when he's not blatantly trying to rob you. This medicine sure would have gone down smoother had Apollo's instrumental not sounded like something the aforementioned Black Milk would have tossed out in yesterday's garbage. Oh well, there's always the next track, I suppose.
13. FOOLED FOR THOUGHT
This was a Journalist 103 one-verse wonder disguised as an interlude-length track, allowing to to briefly break the fourth wall before switching back to our regularly scheduled programming. This shit was pretty hot, and I dig how Apollo slows the music down to a crawl toward the end, as if he had somehow broken your mp3 player using only the power of his mind.
Convinced that this might be his final hurrah (and apparently unaware that there are three more songs left on Gas Mask), Journalist reaches out to the listening audience in the most aggressive way possible, somehow convincing Apollo to go along with his plan by coercing him to craft the hardest beat on the entire fucking album. This was a two-verse tour de force that could have easily beet stretched out to three or four, since his excitement to be behind the mic is so fucking palpable that it's contagious. Nice!
15. CAGED BIRDS (FEAT. FINALE)
Journalist and Finale, the guy who introduced Journalist to Apollo in the first place, attempt to justify their career choice with varying degrees of success. The guest star gets lost within Apollo's production, possibly overwhelmed by the sample, but our host proves himself as a more-than-capable emcee who should absolutely see a career boost after Gas Mask has run its eventual course. Apollo Brown's beat approaches the sound of Black Milk yet again, but this time it flows more effortlessly than it has any right to, turning this song, which could even inspire listeners to reconsider the career paths they're currently on, into a keeper.
16. HOMAGE (FEAT. FRANK WEST)
I was just thinking that Gas Mask was lacking in the “R&B chorus” department: now I can check off that particular line item. To the duo's credit, Frank West's hook doesn't intrude on the proceedings, but that still doesn't make it absolutely essential listening. Journalist's introspective lyrics take a bizarrely interesting left (ha!) turn during his first verse, where he (inadvertently?) equates a prison sentence with military service, a sentiment that will surely get The Left some airplay in the background of a Fox News program in between segments featuring their various hosts sucking Sarah Palin's metaphorical cock.
17. GET IN WHERE YOU FIT IN
Although the song title is among the most generic in hip hop history, Journalist still closes out Gas Mask with a bang, even (finally) addressing that other underground rapper that shares his rap moniker. (For the record, The Left's star emcee finds himself to be “twice as nice” as the guy who made his debut on the Canibus sophomore abortion 2000 B.C. (Before Can-I-Bus) before dropping a solo album and promptly evaporating from the face of the Earth.) Apollo's production ends the evening on a high note, leaving me more than a bit annoyed that the album is now over.
THE LAST WORD: I enjoyed The Left's Gas Mask quite a bit, even though it ultimately suffers from the same setbacks as most other hip hop albums tend to: Journalist 103's bars rarely stray from the “I'm a better rapper than all of you motherfuckers” cliché, while Apollo Brown's instrumentals, while much more polished than those of most of his peers, tend to be stuck in a soulful left lane, blocking traffic while cruising no faster than forty miles per hour. (Once again, DJ Soko rounds out this crew, but this is primarily the Apollo and Journey show.) Still, Gas Mask works more often than not, providing listeners who may find Eminem to be completely useless and Black Milk too much of a household name a perfect Detroit alternative. (And yes, I'm pretty sure that those type of people do actually exist.) Journalist's lyrics showcase the flow of an accomplished emcee who sounds even better when paired up with Apollo's darker beats, as the Guru to his DJ Premier, if Primo were actually made up of two separate people. It goes without saying that Gas Mask sounds very fucking consistent due to this pairing. The Left are very deserving of your money and your time, and hopefully any future follow-up will have similar results. In short, the other bloggers are exactly right in this case: Gas Mask is the shit. Do not ignore this album. In fact, you should just click on one of the many links and just buy the damn thing from Amazon right now. You will not regret it.