July 19, 2012

My Gut Reaction: The Alchemist - Russian Roulette (July 17, 2012)

Alan Maman, best known as one-half of rap duo The Whooliganz the producer-slash-sometime-rapper The Alchemist, is probably best known in our chosen genre for his gangsta-tuned street backdrops, which he tends to give to like-minded artists (such as the Infamous Mobb, Mobb Deep, or Nas, the guy I'm sure you two actually wanted to see reviewed today) who convert the music into bite-size crime parables. 


He's also best known for eschewing the violent tendencies in hip hop in favor of underground stardom, thanks to his work with the Dilated Peoples, Gangrene (a duo he formed with Oh No), and his earlier life as a member of the Soul Assassins collective.  I'm not sure how a single man can be best known for two diametrically-opposed styles of the same musical genre, but however that's possible, The Alchemist has nearly perfected it.

I say "nearly" because, as anyone who has read this blog for more than five minutes can attest to, I'm not the biggest fan of Alan's work.  The man is most certainly talented, and his best beats stand shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the finest masterpieces our chosen genre has ever created.  But part of the purpose of HHID is to see if so-called "classics" can stand up to the test of time, and I was surprised to discover that I don't feel Al's work as much as I did when I was younger.  He seemed to come across as a singularly-focused artist (which, again, doesn't make much sense when given my previous description of him, but just go with me on this) who tries to reinvent the same wheel every single time he steps behind the boards, with some of the results clicking, and some of them sounding even worse than terrible: boring.

So when The Alchemist announced his latest project, Russian Roulette, I didn't pay much attention to it, as I figured it would be one of the two types of projects he tends to release: either it would be a guest artist-driven collection of unrelated singles, or a compilation of instrumentals that he may or may not have sold to other artists previously.  So it came as a but of a shock when I discovered that Russian Roulette wasn't either category of album: it was both.  

There's that "duality of The Alchemist" theme again.

Russian Roulette is essentially an art project where Alan challenged himself to create an album's worth of material using only samples taken from Russian music.  Coming in at thirty tracks, about half of which feature a who's who of 2012 underground rap (and a few older heads) and the other a series of instrumental interludes, Russian Roulette attempts to relay to the listener the two most important events in the history of the former Soviet Union: the space race with the United States, and...um, the plot of Rocky IV.

That wasn't a joke.

Whether or not Russian Roulette is successful will depend on just how well The Alchemist can captivate the listener and hold their attention for the duration of thirty songs.  Each rapper (with the exception of one, which I'll get to later) only receives a single verse to get their message across, none of them actually adhering to whatever storyline Alan is trying to follow, since rappers tend not to pay attention to shit like that.  

So...

1. SOUNDCHECK
And so it begins. I have to give Al credit: his production work has advanced to such a degree that he doesn't seems to be concerned if anyone can even rap over his instrumentals anymore, such as the one he uses for this intro, and his confidence in his own abilities shows in just how fucking good this opening track sounds. I don't know if this will set the tone, but if Russian Roulette is mostly just Alan getting his DJ Shadow on, you won't hear me complaining.

2. APOLLO'S LAST STAND (FEAT. AG DA CORONER)
The first actual rapper to appear on Russian Roulette is future pub quiz star Ag Da Coroner, who sounds like a screwed-up Nas with a Jim Jones complex (his ad-libs are pretty goddamn obnoxious). Aggie spits a one-verse wonder and lets Alan's hands do the rest of the talking, and I have to give it to the Chemist: the beat on here is not only pretty good, it doesn't even pretend to be on some generally grating gangsta shit. Nice use of restraint. Also, Ag's actual bars don't sound half bad, so that was nice.

3. CRUSHED KREMLIN (FEAT. MEYHEM LAUREN)
Hold the phone: I spoke too goddamn soon, as “Crushed Kremlin” sounds exactly like what I figured Alan would try to do when I first heard about the overall theme for this project, and that, folks, is a bad thing. The way our host flips the various samples does guest star Meyhem Lauren (not a fan of that rap moniker, I have to say) no favors, as he flops around on dry land before giving in to the sweet release of death. Bleh.

4. DECISIONS OVER VEAL ORLOFF (FEAT. ACTION BRONSON)
Action Bronson, on the other hand, could go pretty far in this rap shit if he really wanted to, as evidenced by his single verse on “Decisions Over Veal Orloff”, his first of many planned collaborations with The Alchemist. Yes, he still sounds like you-know-who, but goddammit, I like you-know-who, and it's not like Bronson is actively aping the man. AcBro (copyright pending) rolls out his non-sequiturs and observational rhymes over some slow-moving, thugged-out Russian mobster shit, and as a result, Russian Roulette quickly shifts back into high gear. This was nice.

5. LEARNED BY LISTENING
A quickie instrumental interlude that grows creepy toward the end thanks to some simple studio magic. Effective, though.

6. TRAINING MONTAGE
Takes a while to get going, but I can picture an actual training montage set to this interlude. If he hasn't done so already, I hope Alan releases a clip for this track, one edited to look like poorly-tracked VHS footage of a lost 1980s flick with an actual training montage, preferably one where the trainer is a fat guy in a sweatsuit chowing down on a comically-large sandwich while our hero is, I don't know, punching a bag or something.

7. IVAN'S WORKOUT PLAN
Probably should have been combined with “Training Montage”, since it does so little damage on its own. Fairly goofy, though you won't think so the second time around.

8. NEVER GROW UP (FEAT. EVIDENCE)
Thanks to his preexisting working relationship with Alan (they perform together as the duo Step Brothers), Dilated Peoples's Evidence becomes, by default, the veteran of this particular project, which doesn't explain why the dude sounds like a remastered MF Doom on “Never Grow Up”. I just wasn't feeling this shit, which will, again, surprise absolutely nobody who has followed HHID for more than five minutes.

9. THE TURNING POINT (FEAT. ROC MARCIANO)
Ah yes, the infamous Roc Marcy, one of my favoritest topics of discussion on HHID. Alan lays down a sinister-as-fuck backdrop (one that sounds even creepier during the final thirty seconds, when the music pulls the rug out from under you) for the former Flipmode Squad member-slash-current acclaimed thug poet to antagonize, which he does with his patented nonsensical lyrics, apathetic and downright sleepy flow, and general look-at-how-many-fucks-i-give attitude. I'm sorry, but unless the guy releases something that actually forces me to stand up and take notice, I'm going to continue on as the dissenting voice in Blogland that flat-out just doesn't care for the guy. Go ahead, talk your shit about how Max doesn't know “real” hip hop: you're wrong. Simple as that. Liked the beat, though.

10. LIVE FROM DYNAMO STADIUM 2
Sounds celebratory and all, but then it's gone just as quickly as the rest of the tracks on Russian Roulette, so there's no need to commit to it, I suppose.

11. DON SEYMOUR'S THEME (FEAT. MIDAZ)
I hate resorting to simple comparisons to quickly describe a rapper's flow, but it's so goddamn easy sometimes, especially when Midaz sounds like the bastard stepchild of Smoothe da Hustler and Akinyele, and that combination is actually fairly complementary, so I didn't mind so much that he contributes what is seemingly the longest verse (thus far) on Russian Roulette. Alan steps outside of his comfort zone beat-wise, and the end result actually works. Interesting.

12. BEFORE THE FIGHT PRELUDE
You know, I guess this could be what a pre-fight interlude would sound like.

13. ADRIAN'S WORD – CHAMPION SONG
The sound bites, although necessary (relatively speaking) for furthering the pseudo-story on Russian Roulette, are intrusive and annoying as fuck. It's only when Alan has finally got them all out of his system that the track achieves anything resembling good music.

14. FLIGHT OF THE BUMBLEBEE
Kudos to The Alchemist for not going with the more obvious choice of sample.

15. KALASHNIKOV GUNS (FEAT. GUILTY SIMPSON)
Alan looks to Motown for his next collaborator, Random Axe's Guilty Simpson, but the end result is poor, since Simpson never quite fully grasps just what our host is trying to do with this entire experiment. Over a more conventional Al beat, Guilty may crackle like fireworks in a dry county, but on here, he falters. Cool song title, though.

16. FLIGHT CONFIRMATION (FEAT. DANNY BROWN & SCHOOLBOY Q)
The single, centerpiece, and the most highly-anticipated track on Russian Roulette. Alan's beat sounds fairly similar to the late J. Dilla's work on Raekwon's “10 Bricks”, which probably isn't what anyone involved with this song wanted to hear me say, but here we are. New school critical darlings Danny Brown and Black Hippy's ScHoolBoy Q both contribute a single verse, neither of which meet the lofty expectations you may have had: Q comes thisclose to embarrassing himself on the mic, whereas Brown seems to run out of steam toward the end of his verse, forcing the bars out through the gap in his teeth. A disappointment.

17. PRESS CONFERENCE PRELUDE
“Flight Confirmation” ends with an instrumental interlude that leads into this brief intermission, one which sounds aimless and has a sense of finality somehow simultaneously. Which isn't terrible.

18. FREAKISH STRENGTH
Not bad, but not especially memorable, either.

19. JUNKYARD FIGHT SCENE (FEAT. DURAG DYNASTY)
By including the trio Durag Dynasty (made up of Planet Asia, Tri-State, and Killer Ben), The Alchemist pulls off the somewhat impressive feat of fitting three full verses (a single one from each performer, naturally) onto a track that's roughly two-and-a-half minutes long. The bars themselves aren't bad, although they are kind of flavorless, but it really doesn't matter anyway, since the music drowns out the vocals at nearly every given opportunity. Well, at least the beat was okay: it forced a sense of immediacy upon me that made me almost want to pay attention to the words. Almost.

20. OLEG'S FLIGHT (FEAT. FASHAWN)
West Coast stalwart Fashawn, a blogger favorite, is the only rapper on Russian Roulette to receive the chance to spit two verses, thanks to his sneaking in a shitty “hook” to break up a long standalone performance. Which, honestly, wasn't that impressive: on “Oleg's Flight”, he sounds like a Cali-based Roc Marciano. Which, coming from me, is not a goddamn fucking compliment. To his credit, Fashawn doesn't sound nearly as apathetic as my point of comparison, so that's something, but he still didn't come off as all that hot. Yeah, I said it. Alan's beat was decent, though: it deserved a better collaborator.

21. MOSCOW MORNINGS - SUNRISE
I can't imagine waking up to this song, regardless of its location.

22. MOSCOW EVENINGS - SUNSET
However, when combined with this instrumental, the previous track sounds much more complete. So I would recommend only listening to these two tracks if they're always played together, as two halves of a cohesive whole.

23. THE KOSMOS PT. 1 – LIFT OFF (FEAT. CHUUWEE)
The first of an eight-part Human Centipede-like sequence, “Lift Off” features Sacramento-based artist Chuuwee, who sounds like an angrier, cockier Talib Kweli, but without the social commentary. Or the longevity, to be honest: I can't see this dude's career lasting beyond the time it takes for this song to evaporate from my speakers. But he sure could have sounded much worse.

24. THE KOSMOS PT. 2 – POWER GLOVE (FEAT. BOLDY JAMES)
Alan really wanted his frequent playdate Prodigy (of Mobb Deep, although I don't know why I continue to feel the need to clarify that) on Russian Roulette, but Cellblock P was too busy recording Mobb Deep's inevitably shitty comeback album or getting a sandwich or something, so our host moved on to the next best thing, as Boldy James sounds exactly like how Prodigy sounds today (an important distinction to make). Weirdly, this isn't a bad thing, as Boldy comes across as a decent performer in his own right, one who is up to the task. He is helped immensely by Al's beat, which is badass and the best instrumental on this project by a country mile. Pity we had to get this far into the album in order to actually hear it.

25. THE KOSMOS PT. 3 – IN ORBIT
A quick but pleasant diversion.

26. THE KOSMOS PT. 4 – MOON PROBE (FEAT. BIG TWINS)
Remember Infamous Mobb's Twin Gambino? The Alchemist may be the only guy who does, since he made room for his old friend (and frequent collaborator) on Russian Roulette, thereby fulfilling the clause in his contract that requires him to include at least one person even tangentially related to Mobb Deep on each one of his solo releases. I've always dug the guy's gravelly voice, and thankfully he hasn't changed all that much since I last listened to anything from the Infamous Mobb, but I'm left thinking that Twin Gambino wasn't exactly the horse that this instrumental was betting on. I'm just saying.

27. THE KOSMOS PT. 5 – 1ST CONTACT – THE CHASE
Tracks such as this one make me believe that it would not be terrible if Alan moved on to scoring films. He could certainly make other, more awful career moves.

28. THE KOSMOS PT. 6 – LIFE ON ANOTHER PLANET (FEAT. WILLIE THE KID)
Sometime Wu-Tang affiliate La the Darkman's younger brother Willie the Kid drops by to deliver a quick verse and a Sunday paper over an annoying-as-shit instrumental that should be excommunicated. Willie does the best he can, though, dropping vivid descriptions of criminal activity and generally talking shit with the confidence of a vet. So maybe all of his time spent on the mixtape circuit was for a good reason after all.

29. THE KOSMOS PT. 7 – THE EXPLANATION (FEAT. MR. MUTHAFUCKIN' EXQUIRE)
For the final rap song on Russian Roulette, The Alchemist calls upon...well, look at that, it's Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire. (That's actually one of the reasons I ran the Lost In Translation post when I did; I wanted to have already discussed this guy before Russian Roulette dropped.) eXquire brings with him a quick, highly detailed story that leaves the listener on a bit of a down note, thanks to its bleak ending, which borrows liberally from The Notorious B.I.G.'s “Warning” while depressing the shit out of you. The guest slows his flow down enough for the listener to catch everything, and while the tale is successful, the beat sounded incomplete, which undermined the overall effect. Still, not awful.

30. THE KOSMOS PT. 8 – RETURN TO EARTH OUTRO
And we're done.

THE LAST WORD: Russian Roulette succeeds in that it sounds better as a cohesive whole than it does a collection of tracks. Does this mean that The Alchemist's latest work is worth the time and money, though? If you're a strident Alchemist disciple, you'll probably buy this sight unseen and, while you will find something to like, you're likely to feel a slight tingle of disappointment, due to Al's choice of collaborators, or the short length of each track, or whatever. If you've never cared for the man's production style, then Russian Roulette won't change your mind, and if you fall into this category, you're not reading this article anyway, so I'll take this time to say that you're mother's a whore. If you appreciate mixing experimentation into your hip hop coffee, then Russian Roulette will be your cup of tea, and yes, I realize I just switched beverages on you, since Alan admirably sticks to his self-imposed confines and creates an art project like nothing else he's ever come up with. But if you're like me, and you've followed Alan's career since the beginning and have found yourself questioning why he's so revered in hip hop circles when only a handful of his beats still hold up today (I realize I'm in the extreme minority here), Russian Roulette won't turn you around, but it'll help you realize that you might have the man all wrong. It isn't for everybody, but it's short enough to warrant at least the one listen, and a few of his collaborators deserve the eventual spotlight that projects such as this will afford to them.

B-SIDE TO TRACK DOWN: “SPUDNIK WEBB” (FEAT. DURAG DYNASTY, BLU, & KILLA KAL)
I'm not really sure why Alan left this track off of the proper release: maybe he just didn't feel it was fair to give the Durag Dynasty trio any more shine than the rest of his collaborators. And yeah, this hard-hitting track would have sounded out of place in relation to the subdued entirety of Russian Roulette. But this song is actually good, goddammit, as much as a string of unrelated verses without a hook can be categorized as a “song”, anyway. The Alchemist chops up his samples and stretches them into a six-minute-plus heat rock that switches instrumentals one verse in, which really gets the track moving, and each contributor (including blogger favorite Blu, who everyone still reading this far into the post is probably wondering the reason why he didn't make the final cut) gives it his all. This shit was nice.

-Max

RELATED POSTS:

29 comments:

  1. While I don't think Alchemist is as hit or miss as you find him to be, I will admit consistency is not his strong point. That being said, when he strikes gold, the results are very nice. And I have no shame in admitting that yes, I wanted the Nas review.

    ReplyDelete
  2. AnonymousJuly 19, 2012

    How about some reviews about albums we may actually give a shit about?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Alchemist... dude just sounds so... out of touch. Idk. His shit sounds soulless, empty. Never got into his work. He had a few good tracks... The Forest by GFK was AITE and it is the only one that pops into my head right now, but dude isn't all that great. Every time i hear him or of his name I think of that shitty Rae joint Surgical Gloves and I'm just like.... nahhhh.
    Maybe it has some shit to do with the fact that he's from fucking Beverly Hills. Or maybe I'm just generalizing. Idk. Nice to see that this album is consistent though. Still not interested in the man's work.

    ReplyDelete
  4. probably one of the last things i'd expect you to review. no chance of life is good being reviewed?

    ReplyDelete
  5. AnonymousJuly 20, 2012

    Great review. Fantastic effort. Well-written.




    ...Right, now that I've said all those nice things can we have the Life is Good review now? :)

    ReplyDelete
  6. i could have sworn there used to be a review for danny brown's xxx on here

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. cant wait to hear your take on it!
      i personally love it and its been on constant rotation in my ZUNE for the past few days since i finally got around to checking out danny brown

      Delete
  7. AnonymousJuly 21, 2012

    enough of all the alchemist hate. he has plenty of killer beats.. The Realest & When You Hear The & Got It Twisted by Mobb, Keep it Thoro & Genesis by Prodigy, We Gonna Make it by Jadakiss, Worst Comes to Worst by Dilated Peoples, Wet Wipes by Cam'ron, Chase the Clouds Away by Evidence, That Go by Keak Da Sneak, Lose your life off his album, Smoke calmly off one of his albums, all of Currensys mixtape covert coup, etc. He is pretty damn consistent as far as producers go i think Premo has more duds

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree that Primo has a lot of duds in his catalog now, even more than Alan, but that's because Primo is a lot less discerning in who gets his beats. "When You Hear That" is one of my top three AL beats period. And I don't hate the guy: he just isn't as consistent as everyone else thinks he is.

      Delete
  8. life is good is rated around 65/70% by max.
    life is good is so over rated/overhyped it's unbelievable.
    good to see the alch on here.. i downloaded this last month and had no idea when it was actually going to be released lol.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The first sentence lost me, since as of this writing I haven't listened to Life Is Good at ALL. I also found it weird that this project leaked a month early.

      Delete
    2. my assumption was based on how you found nas' other albums. I also love how everyone moans when you write about "commercial/obvious" choices.. yet when you write about something that is less known everyone still moans >_>

      Delete
    3. People will moan regardless. I learned that long ago.

      Delete
  9. AnonymousJuly 22, 2012

    Nice review Max, your so spot on with the description of Alchemists career so far.

    woul love to see you do a Harry Fraud month where you review all the projects he has produced, such as Meyhem Laurens Respect the Fly Shit, Smoke DZA Rugby Thompson, Isiah Toothtaker and RapeWolfs Rob Zombie EP, and his EP with Curren$y, Cigarette Boats.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Not a bad idea.

      Delete
    2. AnonymousJuly 23, 2012

      I second this, but the only album truly worthy of a legendary HHID review is Meyhem Laurens

      Delete
  10. AnonymousJuly 22, 2012

    God review, but all 3 of us want a Nas "Life is Good" review. Been playing that album nonstop and would like to read your thoughts on it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Everyone still reading this comment section realizes that I HAVE to get to Life Is Good eventually, thanks to my self-imposed "finish what I started" rule, right?

      Delete
  11. AnonymousJuly 23, 2012

    Not much russian about this album. All samples (except two or three that I detected) are from east-european music, maybe former soviet republics, but not Russia. I know nobody gives a fuck about this here. I'm not insist. Also using Rocky IV theme is stereotypicaly stupid, i think. Besides this fake hype i like this album. Of course Alc loves "Marceberg" album and tried to emulate its minimalistic sound.

    andrewfrumrusha

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Interesting take. I thought all the Rocky IV stuff was pretty goofy. What, Alan couldn't come up with some KGB spy themes?

      Delete
    2. AnonymousJuly 24, 2012

      Idk. Maybe he sampled only from the vinyl with russian letters on it. But its not automatically russian music. By the way KGB is not usually famous by makin' music.. Hehe

      andrewfrumrusha

      Delete
  12. AnonymousJuly 23, 2012

    premo has more duds then alan. funny clean your ear out

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. AnonymousJuly 25, 2012

      haha ok if you like premo's generic ass beats that's cool. douche your asshole cause premos been doing the same shit for 20+ years and its starting to get old

      Delete
  13. AnonymousJuly 24, 2012

    You should review the newly released Raw Money Raps by Jeremiah Jae. He's on FlyLo's Brainfeeder label!

    ReplyDelete
  14. The "Your mother's a whore" gag was priceless.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I'd actually suggest reviewing Space Ghost Purrp's material and pay attention to the RVIDER KLVN. I spent all day listening to their stuff and I must say, I was blown away.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Wow, awеsome blog foгmat! How long
    have you been blοgging for? yоu make running а blog
    glancе еasy. The whole glanсe of your
    website is wonderful, let аlone the content matеrial!
    Also see my website :: payday uk

    ReplyDelete
  17. thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete