In a way, I'm happy for Al Maman's success. The man who produces under the name The Alchemist has parlayed an alliance with both the Soul Assassins and Infamous Mobb camps into an impressive career, one where he isn't exactly a household name, but he consistently works with some of the hottest rappers in the game; not for nothing does his name continue to pop up on the hip hop blogs to this day. And he's never compromised his vision: he essentially records whatever he feels is right at any given time, and that is an admirable trait: it's difficult to find an artist in the current musical climate that isn't solely focused on gaining radio airplay in the hopes of earning enough money to pay back the record company for their advance.
On the other hand, though, I never realized that I was so unimpressed by Al's instrumentals until I started this site. The Alchemist almost exclusively works in moody gangster music, aiming for the cream-filled center between sinister and melodic, but more often than not, his shit doesn't click. “But the man is one of hip hop's most valued treasures”, you say. “How can that be possible?” It took me a while, but I think I've figured it out. Back in the day, like most of you two, I used to record my own mixes to play in my car (this was before I sprung for satellite radio, which remains one of the best inventions since the George Foreman Grill); unlike some of you, though, I'm fairly anal, and I liked to group the songs together in specific categories. As such, The Alchemist scored a mix of his own, as I compiled a disc or two of solely Al-produced material. And I enjoyed the shit out of those songs. But after starting this blog, I realized that there are actually a lot of Alchemist songs out in the world, and the ones I like are far outnumbered by the rest of the man's work: I never knew that I wasn't a big fan of Al until I jumped right in to his catalog, which, like everyone's catalog, has songs that I like and songs that I want to stab in the face. The man may have never compromised his integrity, but in the decade-plus that he's been working, he's only deviated a handful of times from what he believes to be his winning formula, and that doesn't always work for me.
In truth, his hit-and-miss nature may have caused his record label, the affable Koch graveyard, to postpone the release of his debut album, 1st Infantry, as producer compilations don't necessarily sell many copies (unless your name is Dr. Dre). So in an effort to appease his fanbase and to try and convince me that he was worth continuing to follow, Al followed up his first mixtape, The Cutting Room Floor, with the subject of today's post, Insomnia: 1st Infantry Mixtape Vol. 2. Unlike the earlier project, Insomnia: 1st Infantry Mixtape Vol. 2 was specifically conditioned to promote 1st Infantry, as it contained all-new tracks not taken from Al's vaults of unreleased material, including one song that actually appears on 1st Infantry. The guest list contained all of the usual suspects (Mobb Deep, Infamous Mobb, Dilated Peoples) alongside some more surprising names (Nas, Saigon), and Al occasionally takes to the microphone himself, as a way to get in on the fun. This mixtape is built around the idea that this project was put together while Al was battling insomnia, which is just a way to work in a sound bite from one of the most popular David Fincher films ever made, but I have no complaints.
I keep feeling that The Alchemist deserves better treatment than what he's received on HHID, but at the same time, I have to be honest with myself (and, by proxy, you two). Perhaps that's why I keep insisting on writing about his shit. Hopefully Insomnia: 1st Infantry Mixtape Vol. 2 is entertaining enough for this to not be a complete waste of my time.
1. INSOMNIA INTRO
Since David Fincher's Fight Club is the tits, I was excited the first time I played this mixtape, thanks to the sound bite from Edward Norton's narrator. Nice choice, Al. A good way to kick off a mixtape.
2. CARVED IN STONE (FEAT. MOBB DEEP)
I would have been more shocked if Mobb Deep didn't have anything to do with an Alchemist project (but we all know that'll never happen). Al's beat is actually pretty fucking fascinating, and Hav and P sound refreshed, spitting rhymes with the fervor of their younger selves. As a song, this is incomplete and lacks context, but as a quick two verses buried in a mixtape, this actually wasn't bad.
3. DOUBLE TROUBLE 2004
This skit leads into the next track. While it wasn't necessary, at least it serves its purpose.
4. LIVE AT THE AMPHITHEATER (FEAT. TWIN)
The artist also known as Twin Gambino's gravelly voice adapts well to a simple, soulful loop from Sebb, as Al was too busy writing lyrics or some shit: as such, he doesn't embarrass himself when he takes to the mic. It helps that he was a rapper himself before the second phase of his musical career started, I suppose. Do you think he stays in contact with Scott Caan? Because that's guy's show (the reboot of Hawaii Five-O) is blowing up in the ratings right now.
5. TURN IT UP (FEAT. SHEEK LOUCH)
When the beat first kicked in, I assumed Fat Joe would start spitting, as it sounds like something he would half-assedly attempt to rip to shreds before resorting to a guest appearance from Lil' Wayne while he catches his breath and takes a bite out of a slice of stuffed-crust pizza. Then Sheek Louck (from The Lox) arrives instead to provide listeners with a solo track. I'm not sure who he's trying to fool by brushing off non-comparisons to Rakim and Kool G. Rap, but hey, whatever helps him sleep at night, I guess. The hook is traditionally awful, but Sheek pumps some energy into his performance, so this wasn't all that bad, even if it won't ever make me run out and buy a Sheek solo album or anything.
6. MARATHON (FEAT. DILATED PEOPLES)
I don't know what is up with that lame-ass chorus: chalk that up as yet another misstep in the career of persons Dilated, one which is littered with them. Okay, I really have to stop bashing Dilated Peoples based on past experience and just listen-slash-write about The Platform already. Al's beat is a non-starter, and Evidence's opening verse leaves a lot to be desired, but Rakaa-Iriscience actually picks up the slack, so this could have been much worse. I guess. (This song eventually ended up on Dilated's album Neighborhood Watch, for those of you two who give a damn.)
7. SHOOTEM UP PRELUDE
This should have just been combined with the next track.
8. SHOOTEMUP PT. 2 / GOTCHA (FEAT. NOYD)
This is the same song that I already wrote about during the review of Big Noyd's Only The Strong, albeit now with a screwed-up title that does it no favors. For the record, this still sounds alright, but that's a testament to the beat more than anything else.
9. PASS CODE
10. LETTING GO (FEAT. CHINKY)
Al gives the frequent Mobb Deep songstress a solo showcase, but while his production accurately apes that of some old-school R&B, Chinky (which is a terrible name for a singer, by the way: I wonder how well she plays over in Japan or Korea) proves that she isn't quite ready for the spotlight. Still, it was pretty interesting to hear her not singing about some thug shit, so at least she got the chance to show some range.
11. FUEGO (FEAT. TONY TOUCH & THE LOX)
Even though Insomnia: 1st Infantry Mixtape Vol. 2 isn't supposed to be a collection of cutting-room-floor leftovers like its predecessor, I wouldn't be surprised if this was snipped from one of Tony Toca's The Piecemaker projects. (Man, I really hope he brings that series back, as it showed a lot of promise.) Tony, who receives top billing, sticks with scratches while Jadakiss provides the (shitty) hook, so it's up to Styles P. and Sheek (again) to save the day, which they actually manage to do. Al's beat pulsates and embeds itself into the website of your mind, as well. This was actually very goddamn good. Maybe the kid still has it in him after all.
12. IN WITH THE DRAMA KING
13. WHEN IT COMES TO THE BEEF (FEAT. MOBB DEEP & I-20)
Well, credit goes to Al for conjuring up a collaboration that I didn't see coming. Havoc and Prodigy share the microphone with I-20 (from Disturbing Tha Peace, best known as the merry band of weed carriers that surrounds Ludacris at any given moment). The beat (sampled from “Joy Part 1” from Issac Hayes) is soothing, and, strangely, a pre-prison Prodigy sounds better than he has in the past few years, while Havoc continues to up his writing game. If only I hadn't already written off the Mobb, I would admit that they could still win me over with another good album. But, yeah, that will also never happen.
14. U KNOW THE RATIO (FEAT. IM3)
Apparently the Infamous Mobb also goes by the name IM3, signifying the number of members in the crew, but only Twin Gambino and Ty Nytty make appearances on this track. This wasn't that bad, but it's hard to remember anything that either of these two guys were talking about. Oh well, at least it only runs for the length of two verses on this mixtape. This non-Alchemist track (which appears on this mixtape why?!) apparently ended up on Infamous Mobb's second album, Blood Thicker Than Water Vol. 1, for those of you two who are fans of Sebb's production work.
15. 3 MINDS COMBINED (FEAT. IM3)
To make up for missing out on “U Know The Ratio”, G.O.D. Father Part III (man, what a silly idea, taking your rap name from the worst movie in the fucking series) pops up on here to kick a single verse, on a track whose very title seems to imply that a longer version of this song exists somewhere, but I wasn't able to find one. This is over before it seems to actually start, fading into a useless skit that loses the battle as to whether you'll want to skip it or not.
16. ONE NEVER KNOWS (FEAT. NAS & LAKE)
This was pretty fucking stupid. For one, it's edited, which never makes sense to me on artist-compiled mixtapes: why would The Alchemist believe that his fans would be okay with clean radio edits? Secondly, it features the atrocious Lake, although he only gets to appear on half of the chorus, so maybe I could let that slide. Finally, God's Son provides a meh verse and punctuates the hook with the grammatically frustrating phrase, “One never knows, do one?” You should know better than to pull that kind of shit, Nasir.
17. TICK TOCK (FEAT. NAS & MOBB DEEP (sort of))
This sampler track only runs for one minute and forty-five seconds, so it's fairly obvious that you won't really get to hear from the entire guest list as promised (and you never will: regardless of what this mixtape proclaims, only Prodigy appears on the final product). I guess you'll have to pick up the actual 1st Infantry to get the full experience. Nasir provides an awful hook on here, too, but at least his verse (which is the only one that you'll get to listen to on here) sounds much better than that “One Never Knows” horseshit.
18. THE ILLEST (FEAT. HAVOC)
I'm fairly certain that this is the same song that I wrote about during my review of Mobb Deep's Free Agents: The Murda Mixtape. The “chorus”, which consists of a Cellblock P sound bite that doesn't fit the flow of the track itself, still annoys the shit out of me, which doesn't bode well for this offering's success when presented in a different context.
19. MY PRIORITES (FEAT. PRODIGY)
Since Havoc got a solo spotlight, of course Prodigy has to receive the same consideration. Too bad Al fails his boy on the production tip (his hit-or-miss ratio has remained consistent throughout his entire career, so at least that's something), but it isn't as though P's vocal contribution could have sounded better otherwise. Remember his performance on the entirety of Hell On Earth? Those days are so far back in the past that your great-grandchildren are tired of hearing your fucking stories already. They are fucking gone.
20. RESPECT MY GANGSTER (FEAT. PRODIGY)
Al takes his second turn behind the mic on Insomnia: 1st Infantry Mixtape Vol. 2 over a 1970s-esque instrumental (that could be interpreted as the inspiration for his work on Prodigy's Return Of The Mac project) that sounds pretty good. Cellblock P sounds distracted as always, but Al's own rhymes, while awkward, are actually pretty polished. This wasn't bad, although it did feel a bit empty.
21. STALKING CAP (FEAT. SAIGON)
Once proclaimed to be the next big thing in hip hop (in the blog universe, anyway), Saigon parlayed his many mixtapes and a recurring guest spot on HBO's Entourage into a major label album, executive produced by Just Blaze, which was only just released on an indie this past February after serving time in a vault, with cockroaches occasionally holding their dinner parties on it. Al's beat is annoying, and there's an obvious spelling error in the song's title that might even piss off Saigon (what the fuck is a “stalking” cap supposed to be, anyway? Do you wear one when you follow your ex-girlfriend around the city, sticking to the shadows and monitoring her every movement while slurping on an Icee in a fairly unsettling manner?), but at least his performance ends Insomnia: 1st Infantry Mixtape Vol. 2 on an up-ish note.
SHOULD YOU TRACK IT DOWN? Insomnia: 1st Infantry Mixtape Vol. 2 isn't as consistently interesting as The Cutting Room Floor: the beats aren't as sticky, and The Alchemist relies a bit too heavily on rappers who ran out of things to say several years ago (*cough* Mobb Deep *cough*). And it doesn't create any level of excitement for anyone to hear the eventual 1st Infantry album (which, once again, only contained one of these songs - “Tick Tock” - when all was said and done), so it fails at its primary purpose. But as a producer-specific mixtape, it's okay enough. Al's beats are either banging or middling: there is no middle ground ever. But some of the musical choices made on Insomnia: 1st Infantry Mixtape Vol. 2 are decent enough, so it isn't a complete waste of your time. It isn't anywhere near great, and you most certainly should not go out of your way to listen to this, but if you already happen to have it in your possession, you should know that it isn't a waste of space, whether on your shelf or on your hard drive. Yeah, that's the most praise I can give the project.