(Today's Reader Review is brought to you by James M, who decided that now would be a good time to hop across the pond and review the English rap quartet Rhyme Asylum's debut album, State Of Lunacy. Leave some comments for him below.)
Three words you will rarely hear together in the same sentence are "good", "English" and "rap". So I was surprised earlier year when I first heard about Rhyme Asylum, who my friend described as "an English rap group, they're good". As somebody who actually lives in England, I have had to listen to a lot of English rap from the TV, radio, and various other sources, and the thing is, most of it sucks. And I don't mean "it's meh"; I mean "that voice isn't supposed to rap and your lyrics suck, get out of my life". After a bit of nagging, I eventually went out and bought their debut album, State of Lunacy.
Rhyme Asylum is a quartet from London (modern police state V For Vendetta London, not old-school London where everybody wears top hats and is at least proficient at singing), made up of members Possessed, Psiklone, Skirmish, and Plazma. At least it was back in 2008, when State Of Lunacy dropped: Plazma ended up leaving the crew before they released a follow-up, possibly because he was christened with the worst rap name of the four. You may have heard of Possessed (by which I mean you most likely haven't, but if you have, this is why) from his WRC battles with partner Whashisface (later renamed Reain, because apparently misspelling a simple word is slightly better then calling yourself “Whashisface”) , with whom he reached the finals held in Las Vegas. So he would be the biggest name on State Of Lunacy, aside from guest stars Diabolic and Copywrite, I suppose. There are no A-list producers on here, either, as the entire album (save for track six) is handled by Leatherface, so at the very least there is some consistency throughout, even though it comes from a guy you've never heard of.
Rhyme Asylum can best be described as a mix of the Wu-Tang Clan, the Gravediggaz, and that guy you know who makes up ridiculous stories which definitely aren't true but are still very entertaining anyway. Although they look like a horrorcore outfit, I can't really call them that: most of the songs on State Of Lunacy consist of the four MCs showing off how good they are at rapping while bragging about being superhuman, with only the occasional song about insanity and asylums thrown in so the group can claim, “We aren't one dimensional, we have three or so songs which aren't us showing off!" So even though the beats are horrorcoreish (I just invented a word!), the lyrical content is pretty standard for an underground hip-hop group. The four rappers sound very similar in voice and subject matter, so some of you two may find it hard to distinguish between them on the first listen. As you may have guessed, State Of Lunacy isn't the most accessible album ever: it isn't like party music at all, unless you are at a party and want to make sure nobody starts dancing. Unlike their second effort, which featured hip hop heavyweights like Crooked I and Ill Bill, the guests on State Of Lunacy are low-key, with only fellow London rapper Reain and American artists Diabolic and Copywrite scoring cameos.
Oh, I forgot to do a personal paragraph. Well, I'm a fifteen year old English kid who has only really been into rap for the past two years. I can't really talk about how I listened to Ready To Die before school the day it came out, or how I once saw Dirt McGirt performing “Brooklyn Zoo” on a streetcorner to get some more quick cash to convert into drugs. In fact, I am not old enough to have ever bought a Notorious B.I.G. album on the day of its release, and Ol' Dirty Bastard died before my age hit double figures, so I guess all I can really say is that my first exposure to rap that I can remember was “Hey Ya” by Andre 3000. After that, my taste in hip hop remained stagnant for a few years, until I listened to Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) by the Wu-Tang Clan, and like any person with ears, I loved it, and now am pretty into this whole rap thing.
Anyway, onto the actual meat of the review.
1. EXPLORERS OF THE MIND (INTRO)
A standard rap album intro, with some sampled dialogue from a film playing over some music. Why does this need to be over ten seconds long? Whatever happened to albums starting with songs?
2. GROUND ZERO
The first proper song on the album, and the first voice you hear is Possessed. This could be seen as foreshadowing, as Possessed seems to outshine the other three on every track. Each rapper spits two lines and then hands over the mic, so the audience is given a good taste of each. On first listen, you won't be able to tell who is rapping at all, so don't worry so much about that, especially as each emcee name-drops themselves a few times throughout the project. As they do on most of the songs on State of Lunacy, Rhyme Asylum use the track to brag about how badass they are. Possessed outshines everybody else, but all four manage to hold their own. A great song to set the tone of the album.
3. STRAIGHT JACKET PART I (FEAT. REAIN)
Reain's first of two features is a decent one, but his hosts out-rap him. The track is similar to “Ground Zero”, with the group just showing off as normal, but they throw in a slight but of insanity to differentiate the two. The beat wasn't very inspiring, but it doesn't take away from the track. Also, Skirmish was recently awarded with a lifetime supply of orange jumpsuits from Rikers Island for being the one-millionth rapper to reference the prison in a verse. Good for him.
4. THE AWAKENING (SKIT)
If Stoupe the Enemy of Mankind (of Jedi Mind Tricks fame) can't get away with these pretentious sampling interludes, then Leatherface definitely can't.
Your general slow, anti-politician, anti-knife crime (which is our equivalent of gun crime, as there are about three guns in England not owned by farmers), anti-religion track. Again, the beat is a bit boring, but the rhymes are good enough to make up for it, even if the lyrics are a bit generic. In the end, though, I thought it was a very good song.
A dull instrumental by S-Type (the only other producer on State Of Lunacy) is combined with some great over-the-top lyrics. Skirmish's verse helps add fuel to the Wu-Tang comparison fire, as he talks about ninja school. Rhyme Asylum needs to find somebody else to do their hooks for them, as each member proves that they aren't very capable of them: the one on “Multiplicity” is far too long and wordy. At the end of the track, S-Type inserts some random samples including...Adam Sandler? It works, I'll give him that. Shame he couldn't make a Franken-hook for them out of samples, DJ Premier-style, though.
7. SMOKE SCREENS & PIPE DREAMS
Leatherface takes his seat behind the boards back and provides the group with a relaxing instrumental, which they proceed to use to talk about smoking weed. The beat is switched up halfway through and gets even better, and Leatherface mixes together a hook using samples that works very well. It isn't Cypress Hill, but this was still a good song.
8. UNREASONABLE (FEAT. DIABOLIC)
Guest star Diabolic spits a great verse here, even managing to keep up with the Rhyme Asylum. His boasts aren't as good as Skirmish's, though: apparently, he had an affair with the Devil's wife and has dragon wings (the two events may or may not be related). The more you know, I guess. The terribly corny hooks make their grand return on here, unfortunately, but this was still a solid song with more over-the-top bars for your enjoyment.
9. POISON PENMANSHIP
This Possessed solo effort ends up being the best song on State Of Lunacy. Leatherface's simple beat helps the track move along, but you won't be paying much attention to it, since Possessed goes all out on here. His punchlines are funny and his imagery is borderline ridiculous, such as when he claims that he burned his dick in somebody's stomach acid and when he tells the listener that he can overdose on weed intentionally: somehow, he even manages to squeeze in a metaphor referring to scoring in cricket. An amazing song which showcases a great MC. If you're one of these people who can't stand their English accents, though, then this album must be torture for you.
10. TEST OF FAITH
Basically a sequel to “Lost”, except slightly better, with a slow, classical-sounding beat and a tolerable hook, plus some standard Rhyme Asylum rapping. As usual, Possessed outshines the others, but it's all good.
11. STARK RAVING GENIUS
As if the cover art, group name, song title, and the other tracks on the album haven't given it away yet, you should be aware by now that the Rhyme Asylum tend to use insanity as their go-to subject matter for inspiration. “Stark Raving Genius” is slightly creepy, as the quartet talk about how they are being tortured and haunted. They even make a reference to an exploding collar: there are never enough references to that in any form of media, especially hip hop (it's fresher than all of the Rikers Island name-drops, anyway). In all seriousness, you shouldn't listen to this song late at night if you are prone to nightmares. Or you can put it on 'repeat' and play it until you see babies crawling across the ceiling for all I care. I'm not going to tell you how to live your life.
12. ATTITUDE PROBLEM (FEAT. COPYWRITE)
Rhyme Asylum choose to give the listener some standard "let's threaten some imaginary people!"-type lyrics a la Vinnie Paz (of Jedi Mind Tricks). The rhymes are good, even though they generally discuss how many bad rappers there are and how the crew hates them so. As usual, the hook is complete crap: it's about ten lines long, which is overkill. Guest star Copywrite provides the final verse and doesn't do very well. It isn't bad enough to sabotage the track, but it's still fairly awful.
13. STRAIGHT JACKET PART II (FEAT. REAIN)
An amazing beat provided by Leatherface becomes riddled with some standard punchlines and such. Reain holds his own here, unlike on his previous cameo. Just like “Multiplicity”, some random samples are thrown in for shits and giggles at the end of the track, including a guy shouting, “Here comes the pain!”, and Vinnie Paz sound bite, in which he informs us under what lighting conditions he writes his lyrics in.
14. HOLDING ON
Another haunting song, this one featuring some whispered lyrics. It wasn't terrible, but it also wasn't great: I could have done without loads of these songs based around insanity. The best tracks on State Of Lunacy are the over-the-top "I'll hammer-throw a tank into your mum's garage and then beat her in a rap battle for your soul"-style songs: there really should have been more of those. At least the hook wasn't that bad.
15. SHADOW PEOPLE (SKIT)
Again, Leatherface isn't good enough to get away with these shitty interludes. Who asked for this? Nobody cares that you can sample old films. It's been done before.
16. ILLER INSTINCT
Features a good beat and some decent lyrics (although some of them are questionable: for example, “...and until we are resting in peace not sharing love / be scared of us we go out on a limb like a pair of gloves" is somehow compelling, yet also terrible). Possessed, as always, has the best verse here. And the hook is, as always, too long and very corny. I'm honestly considering going to a Rhyme Asylum live show just so I can jump on stage and personally beg them to not write their own hooks so often. Overall, this was still one of the better songs on here, as there are no bad verses. A good way to end the album.
I'm not sure if this appears on all pressings of State Of Lunacy, but my copy contains the following bonus track.
17. MULTIPLICITY (REMIX)
Leatherface remixes this song as a bonus. For my money, it isn't as good as the original, but it's still pretty great lyrically. If this isn't on your copy, you should be able to find it online fairly easily, but it isn't a great loss if you choose not to put in the effort.
FINAL THOUGHTS: I could have done without Rhyme Asylum's State Of Lunacy being seventeen tracks long: after the halfway point, the album seems to get worse (although I love “Iller Instinct”). The beats and lyrics become a bit repetitive at times, but all four rappers sound above-average, and I consider Possessed to be in my top ten lyrically at the moment. That said, I still feel that this is a great album. It's surprising how well all four members can rap with an East London accent, especially when compared to any other accent from that area. The first time I listened to State Of Lunacy, I expected nothing good at all, but I was blown away at how much I liked it. As I have said over and over in this write-up, Possessed is much better behind the mic than Skirmish, Plazma and Psiklone (both in lyrical ability and spelling, it seems), but the latter three manage to keep pace with him well enough so that you won't become upset when Possessed takes a break. Leatherface does very well for being an unknown producer: it's a shame that he didn't produce at all on the group’s second album, Solitary Confinement. (As I mentioned above, Plazma also left the group before the second album dropped, but this was a much smaller loss to the cause, as it gave Skirmish, Psiklone, and Possessed more screen time.) Again though, if you hate the English accent on rappers, you will hate Rhyme Asylum. There are only two verses on the entire album performed by American rappers, so be aware that this album is to people who hate English accents as N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton is to people who dislike violent rap lyrics. There is a small amount of slang in there, but nothing you won't understand based on the context of the word, so you can't use that as an excuse not to listen to this album.
BUY OR BURN?: If you can man up and not scream as soon as you hear an accent which comes from outside of North America, you should buy this album. This is a brilliant lyrical show with some decent beats backing it up, which will make you want to put some of the better songs on repeat. If you can't get past the accents, you should at least still burn the album.
BEST TRACKS: "Ground Zero"; "Lost"; "Multiplicity"; "Poison Penmanship"; "Stark Raving Genius"; "Iller Instinct"
(Questions? Comments? Concerns? Leave your thoughts below.)