7L & Esoteric are a deejay/rapper combination who hail from Boston, Massachusetts. They are best known for not being Gang Starr.
Okay, that sentence was both ridiculous and an awful way to kick off this write-up. Hey, at least I admit it. It probably doesn't help that the comparison doesn't make any sense anyway: Guru (R.I.P.) hailed from Boston, sure, but DJ Premier calls Houston, Texas his home, and when they joined forces, they defined the New York street sound. But 7L and Esoteric always claimed the home of the Celtics as their stomping ground, even back when they were a different entity entirely.
George Adrinopolous (7L, the deejay) and Seamus Ryan (Esoteric, the non-deejay) were once a part of a trio called God Complex, which they had formed with another emcee, Karma (Trevor Gendron). They recorded a number of tracks together, and underground acclaim started bubbling up, but when the dust settled, Karma elected to pass on the whole "rapping as a career" thing, and the other two elected to soldier on themselves, changing the group's name to the far more simplistic 7L & Esoteric. (Soon after, they found themselves popular enough to be courted by a number of hip hop supergroups, including yesterday's subject Apathy's Army Of The Pharoahs and the Demigodz, but that's looking a bit too far ahead.)
After recording and unleashing some songs under their new moniker, including a couple of re-dos on some God Complex songs, the duo parlayed their critical support into an actual record deal. Before they released their first album The Soul Purpose, though, they elected to whet the appetites of their ever-growing audience with Speaking Real Words, a teaser EP (mostly produced by The Vinyl Reanimators) that ultimately only managed to float a single track onto their proper debut.
1. SPEAKING REAL WORDS (FEAT. INSPECTAH DECK)
The first voice you hear on the EP is that of Inspectah Deck, albeit only in an introductory fashion (the Wu-Tang clansman doesn't actually rhyme until the second verse). A strange creative choice for 7L and Esoteric, sure, but I ended up simply feeling bad for our hosts, as the Rebel INS who appears on this title track sounds smug as fuck, as though he was slumming it just to appear on a project with a couple of underground cats, thereby keeping his street cred at a maximum level. His verse is Deck at his absolute fucking worst, bored as hell and resting on laurels that he had never truly earned as a solo artist. (Had he been given a chance to re-record his verse today, you had best believe that Inspectah Deck would sound much hungrier now. Releasing a consistent run of shitty albums will do that to you.) Esoteric's two verses are merely alright, as he uses battle rhymes when there is no actual battle, and the Vinyl Reanimators instrumental (with an assist from Marley Marl, of all people) is annoying as shit, so there is no winning here. This track just doesn't hold up in 2011. Probably didn't really help that the Deck vocal sample played during the “hook” (taken from his work on the Wu's “Bring Da Ruckus”) sounds leagues better than the man himself during his cameo. Sigh.
2. BOUND TO SLAY
Although I understand the logic behind leading off the EP with a song featuring an A-list guest (because Inspectah Deck was still held in high regard back in 1999), “Bound To Slay” would have made for a much better opener. The beat is much more successful, and Esoteric sounds within his wheelhouse as an underground rapper who spends his money on stupid expensive shit just like the big boys do, albeit in a more wordy fashion. Which is to say, he sounds really good on here. The Big L sound bites woven throughout actually fit the situation, which only helps the cause. This was a nice way to rebound.
3. DEF RHYMES
This Vinyl Reanimators beat sounds like something Kool Keith and Motion Man would put to good use, although, weirdly, it does not feel like an instrumental their frequent collaborator Kutmasta Kurt would come up with. Anyway, it sounds good, and 7L and Esoteric were nice enough to let it ride for the final forty seconds of the track, so that's cool. Seamus's rhymes aren't so much “def” as they are bragging about how his rhymes are “def”, but he still manages to entertain the listener, so I can let that slide, even though I have yet to hear anything on Speaking Real Words that reminds me of exactly why hip hop heads were all gaga over Esoteric back in the late 1990s.
4. ESSAYS ON ESOTERRORISM
The instrumental could have been cooked up by DJ Premier in one of his whiskey-induced stupors, similar to the one that resulted in the signing of Group Home. That is actually a bad thing on here, though: “Essays On Esoterrorism” sounds like what someone would think Primo's trademarked boom bap would sound like after merely reading about him on Wikipedia. It's also boring as shit, which doesn't help. Esoteric's braggadocio (the man has only one setting, apparently) sounds alright enough, but are we really four songs into Speaking Real Words without having heard any sort of deviation from his already well-traveled path? Because that shit gets old.
5. HEADSWELL (FEAT. VIRTUOSO)
Esoteric finally shares mic time with someone with similar sensibilities, which is to say that both of the artists featured on here seemingly go out of their way to cram as many syllables into a single bar as they possibly can. And the result? Alienation of their audience. Over a plodding instrumental, Eso and his guest compete for who can write the emptiest verse using the most words, leaving nothing for the audience, be they mainstream or underground, to grasp on to, turning “Headswell” into yet another one of those songs that you'll want, nay, need to skip immediately. And for the record, I seem to remember hating this shit back in 1999, too. So there.
6. LEARN FROM THE DRUID
Now this track sounds like something Kutmasta Kurt would have produced for the Masters Of Illusion. In fact, is it too late to commission a remix featuring Kool Keith and Motion Man? It is? Statute of limitations? Nobody gives a fuck anymore? Oh, okay then. Esoteric actually sounds refreshed over this science fiction beat, the type that he really should be utilizing exclusively, and even that goofy-ass song title can't take away from the fact that this was actually entertaining as hell. Maybe 7L and Esoteric truly do still have some tricks up their sleeves.
7. BE ALERT (FEAT. BEYONDER & VIRTUOSO)
I suspect there are more than a few hip hop heads out there who will admit, along with me, that they hadn't paid 7L and Esoteric any mind until they discovered that they recorded a track that sampled the theme song from the old Transformers cartoon series. “Be Alert”, obviously, is that song. Back in the day, I thought it was good enough to warrant listening to more of the duo's output, but twelve years removed from the original release date of Speaking Real Words, the track is striking in both its lyrical density and its irrational fear of committing to an audience, any audience. The three verses, from Esoteric and his two guests, uses more words than necessary to say absolutely nothing: none of these bars are remotely memorable. Today, all that holds up is Beyonder's instrumental, and even that sounds dated in a bad way. Groan.
The version of Speaking Real Words that I have ends here, but Traffic Entertainment, an underground label that counts Trevor Gendron (also known as Karma) among their employees (ah, full circle!) recently reissued the EP with two additional rarities tacked on. Bastards.
8. OBSERVE THE SOUND (FEAT. APATHY, J-LIVE, & L THE HEADTOUCHA)
Judging by sheer entertainment value alone, this posse cut is much more successful than “Be Alert” could ever hope to be, even though none of the bars on here are particularly sticky either. All of the invited guests sound decent enough over the instrumental, but none of them complement one another: as most posse cuts are these days, this track consists of four entirely unrelated verses that were probably all recorded at different times at different locations under the influence of different illicit substances. Still, this wasn't bad as an indicator of what Esoteric could contribute if he were still a part of a proper group.
9. DEF RHYMES (FIRST VERSION)
Yeah, so they remade this one for a reason.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Time has not been kind to 7L & Esoteric's Speaking Real Words. True, this EP was never intended to be anything more than a teaser for the duo's eventual full-length debut The Soul Purpose, but the lack of entertaining songs on this project firmly plants the seed of doubt in their respective abilities. Lyrically, Esoteric attacks his verses in a workmanlike fashion, rapping his ass off while never evolving from the basic concept of “I'm a better rapper than you”, which is not unheard of in our chosen genre, but on the glorified sampler disc that Speaking Real Words actually is, it would have been nice to view some more facets of his personality, as braggadocio can only carry someone so far. 7L's deejay work is present but largely unobtrusive, which isn't really a compliment for someone trying to make their mark. The production on the EP varies wildly from pretty good to truly fucking godawful, with no stops in between, which was more than a little annoying. Which is the best critique I can offer Speaking Real Words as a whole: this EP was more than a little annoying. I couldn't wait for it to end, and it's only seven songs long. (Or nine, I guess, depending on when you picked this up.) More importantly, it doesn't hold up very well today: you two will most likely skip past every single track on here and resort to listening to Apathy's Honkey Kong again. An inauspicious debut for a duo who still purport to play a role in today's larger hip hop picture.
BUY OR BURN? Leave this one be.
BEST TRACKS: I suppose “Learn From The Druid”, if I'm being generous.