June 14, 2011 was a good day for fans of Detroit's hip hop scene. Heads with more of a major-label sensibility were witness to the reunion of Motown ambassador Eminem and the city's best-kept secret Royce da 5'9", who used to record as the duo Bad Meets Evil before some stupid shit split them up. However, those of you with your ears tuned to the underground weren't forgotten: that same day, Motor City representatives Black Milk and Guilty Simpson hooked up with the Boot Camp Clik's Sean Price (of Heltah Skeltah) to form the trio Random Axe. Their self-titled debut dropped Tuesday on Duck Down Records (Price's label home), and although it is destined to be eclipsed in both sales and popularity by the much more heavily promoted Hell: The Sequel, Random Axe deserves its share of the spotlight, if only because their group name is truly goofy as shit.
Like a lot of hip hop supergroups, Random Axe started life on a single song. In 2008, Guilty Simpson invited Sean Price to spit over a Black Milk production he procured for himself, and the result was "Run", one of the standout cuts on Guilt's Ode To The Ghetto. The trio actually referred to themselves as Random Axe during this track, but nothing ever came of the pairing until 2010, when some early tracks started leaking to the Interweb. The album Random Axe is three years removed from when the trio first hooked up; since then, all three artists have expanded their sound and their wordplay, specifically Sean P's take on humorous thug raps and Black Milk's production.
Will Random Axe find an audience today? Short answer, yes.
1. ZOO DRUGS
A brief instrumental interlude instead of a tacky rap album intro? Sign me up!
2. RANDOM CALL
The first actual song on Random Axe features some pleasant piano keys sprinkled over a banging drum beat, all thanks to Black Milk, whose voice is also the first one you hear on what is later revealed to be the chorus. Guilty Simpson takes the first shift, with Sean Price batting second, and although they don't necessarily interact with one another, they still sound pretty goddamn good together. Surprisingly, though, the man who walks away with the song is Milk himself, as his third verse knocks in the way that his best solo tracks have in the past. All in all, an excellent way to introduce Random Axe to the masses that won't actually purchase this album.
3. BLACK OPS (FEAT. FAT RAY)
The beat on here is also pretty fucking dope. Milk seemed to think so, anyway: after guest star Fat Ray's opening chorus, he lets the beat ride for a few bars before remembering that this is supposed to be an actual song. Guilty and Price complement each other well with their respective verses, but they also sound a bit too alike for the casual listener to be able to get into this: Sean Price's penchant for punchlines in between his general shit-talking helps separate himself from the group. This is why Heltah Skeltah works: Ruck and Rock brought different energies and talents to the table, and everything meshed well. I still found this enjoyable, though.
4. CHEWBACCA (FEAT. ROC MARCIANO)
Black Milk provides a lo-fi beat that sounds like it was created in the early 1990s in someone's dorm room: that is to say, it sounds like it was lifted directly from a director's cut of Roc Marciano's debut album Marcberg. So it's a good thing that the man himself is the guest player on here. And I'm not just writing that because everyone else on the track comes across as a Roc Marcy clone. I think I may have sorted through my main issue with Marcberg: Roc Marcy hardly ever shared the mic on the project, and hearing his never-changing flow on nearly fifteen tracks became a fucking chore, no matter what the man was actually trying to say. Whereas on “Chewbacca”, he shares the booth with Guilt and Sean price: apparently, a little bit of Marcy goes a very long way. I still feel that the song takes a nosedive when his verse starts, but “Chewbacca” as a whole isn't bad. Wu-Tang Clan fanatics will also have a field day with the instrumental interlude that ends the track.
5. THE HEX
Milk's beat on here is a banger, and he's even nice enough to include little flourishes that give the listener the illusion that they're watching musicians put it together live in concert. Guilt, Sean, and Milk all manage to squeeze in a verse each within the track's relatively short running time, with Sean Price scoring a victory in a race that the other two weren't aware they were participating in. Duck Down emcees should branch out much more often. So, about that Duck Down/Wu-Tang Clan project I keep dreaming about...
6. UNDERSTAND THIS
The first real misfire of Random Axe features Sean and Guilty lending a single verse apiece to a glossed-up drumbeat that fails to connect on any worthwhile manner. This shit may as well have been an acapella freestyle, the instrumental is that weak. Guilty Simpson especially seems to get tripped up by this development. Thankfully, Ruck knocks his verse out of the park, which wasn't very hard to do on a crappy song such as this, but there you go.
7. EVERYBODY NOBODY SOMEBODY
The title sounds ridiculous, as though Random Axe were introducing a segment on Sesame Street, but as it turns out, this song has somewhat of a high concept, in that Sean Price spends the length of his verse talking about “everybody”, while Milk and Guilt handle “nobody” and “somebody”, respectively. There are large gaps of silence during the instrumental between the verses, which leads me to believe that Black Milk intended to lay in a hook and got caught up looking for deviant porn on the Interweb instead, but otherwise, this track was alright, even though the beat sounds like a grown-ass version of the same music from “Understand This”. Everyone involved stays on their chosen topic, though, so that should probably be rewarded with a cookie or something.
8. JAHPHY JOE (FEAT. MELANIE RUTHERFORD & DANNY BROWN)
Goofy song title aside, this shit knocks. Black Milk's beat combines East Coast drums with a West Coast sensibility, not unlike what The Automator did on Dr. Octagon's “Wild and Crazy”, with excellent result: every rapper on here, including Detroit's Danny Brown, sounds fucking fantastic. The hook, provided by Melanie Rutherford, isn't exactly what I would call essential listening, but it is what it is. I preferred Guilt's contribution, as he actually sounds like the great rapper that he believes himself to be, but Danny Brown comes across as somewhat of a Young Zee of the new millennium, which is usually a good thing. This was pretty fucking sweet.
9. THE KARATE KID
This quick one-verse wonder from Sean Price finds him sounding awkward as shit over Black Milk's melodic production, which would have worked much better as an instrumental interlude. I don't think even Guilty could have salvaged this shit. The beat is good, but it isn't conducive to much.
10. NEVER BACK DOWN
Because it's only fair to do so, Guilty Simpson gets a solo track immediately following Sean P's, and he manages to sound much more focused and relaxed (those two traits sound contradictory, but that most definitely are not) than the artist formerly known as Ruck. Guilty tackles Milk's unorthodox instrumental with a purpose, and he comes out smiling at the end. Not bad at all.
11. MONSTER BABIES
The title conjures up thoughts of an animated spinoff starring an infantile version of Random Axe, but “Monster Babies” offers none of the fun and whimsy you would expect: Milk, Price, and Guilt all attack the instrumental as though it stole their lunch earlier in the day and they had spent the rest of the afternoon plotting their revenge. The instrumental is only alright: I couldn't really get into the sound effects intended to help move things along. But the performances were okay, even though there is only one obvious reference to the title ever made in the song itself.
12. SHIRLEY C (FEAT. FATT FATHER)
Black Milk has certainly come a long way with his work: the beat on “Shirley C” sounds like new-school RZA with some experimental drums thrown in for good measure. Too bad this song is the one he chose to waste the beat on: both Sean Price and Guilty Simpson sound bored as shit on here. Only the guest star, Fatt Father, comes across as excited, and that's probably more because he got to cash a check than because he got to spit a verse. Sigh.
13. ANOTHER ONE (FEAT. TRICK-TRICK & ROCK)
These Gut Reaction reviews are supposed to represent my opinion after a single listen, but I'll be honest with you two here: I listened to “Another One” three times before I even wrote a single word, it's that good. Black Milk makes the curious decision to keep the Detroit-based artists away from New York's Heltah Skeltah, but this shit is so fucking entertaining that it doesn't really even matter. Milk weaves a haunting soul sample in between drum hits, and everyone takes full advantage, rapping their asses off for the underground audience, with Ruck's boy Da Rockness Monsta winning the day with a tight-as-fuck closing effort. This shit was nice, son!
14. 4 IN THE BOX
The final actual song on Random Axe is another Guilty solo. It's much less engaging than “Never Back Down”, mostly because Black Milk's instrumental features a ton of seemingly random noises he discovered in the dark caverns of his studio space, but it still isn't entirely awful. Sean Price's presence is sorely missed, however.
15. OUTRO SMOUTRO
An and instrumental outro (with some Black Milk ad-libs) closes things out.
THE LAST WORD: Black Milk, Sean Price, and Guilty Simpson link up to record an album that sounds much better than it has any right to, given how different Price and Simpson seem on the surface, even though a lot of it seems to consist of some instrumentals found on Milk's cutting-room floor. That's not an entirely bad thing, though. Random Axe proves that Sean Price is capable of working well with others outside of his immediate Boot Camp Clik family, and Guilty Simpson gets the chance to essentially carry an album that more hip hop heads will check out on the strength of Price's name alone. Milk checks in with infrequent verses, but he spends most of his time behind the boards, effectively bumping up the comfort level of his out-of-town guest by mostly foregoing the soulful samples in favor of some fucking bangers, and everyone is the better for it. Random Axe isn't a perfect album: some of the songs don't really work (interestingly, two of the three tracks that feature only price or Guilt fare terribly), and a few of the beats sound incomplete, but that somehow adds to the album's charm. For a project that is indeed as random as the group's name would imply, Random Axe is entertaining as shit. It won't appeal to all audiences, but it really doesn't fucking have to.