It's weird how two weeks can change a man.
Czarface is the album title that the team of Inspectah Deck and Boston-based duo 7L & Esoteric came up with, possibly while on a drunken bender, possibly while watching Scarface while on a drunken bender and while failing to use spellcheck while on a drunken bender. It is a collaborative effort that finds Deck and Esoteric, the rappers, rhyming over 7L's instrumentals, for the most part. By 2013 standards, it's fairly short, containing only thirteen songs (and an intro), but by 1999 standards, I'm sure this pairing had older hip hop heads pissing their pants in anticipation, possibly because they're now so old that they no longer have full control of their respective bladders.
Here's the thing: the whole 7L & Esoteric / Inspectah Deck thing was ignited by the song "Speaking Real Words", a 1999 track from the former that featured a guest verse from the latter. It was pretty well-received, but that's about it: at the time, 7L and Eso were coming up within the ranks of underground hip hop while the Rebel INS was coming down off of the mountain that the success of the Wu-Tang Clan had purchased him. But nothing more ever really came from this pairing...until last year, when the team announced Czarface, a collaboration album recorded and released in a time when collaboration albums are all the rage.
I've mentioned on Twitter that I believe this album is fourteen years behind the times, and I stand by that remark. "Speaking Real Words" wasn't exactly a runaway success, so I don't honestly believe that anybody was chomping at the bit for a full album's worth of Eso and Deck running wild over 7L's instrumentals. But when the need to
Czarface is hitting store shelves at a time when our chosen genre is in crisis: hip hop heads are being overtaken by hipsters and assholes who hold coke and trap rap near and dear to their ironic little hearts, and urban radio playlists are flooded with songs that all sound like the same shit they just fucking played, I mean, come on. Will there even be an audience for a project featuring two veterans in the rap game whose combined fanbase fails to match even a fraction of the folks who follow around Rick Ross just for fun (and occasional drivebys, apparently)? Will Czarface ever be able to use its boom bap to grab the ears of the very people that should give it a chance?
How the hell should I know?
1. CZARFACE INTRO
Well, that was certainly an accurate title.
2. AIR 'EM OUT
Czarface kicks off promisingly with "Air 'Em Out", an upbeat 7L and Spada4 production that features a single verse apiece from both Deck and Esoteric. Both rappers sound unnaturally rejuvenated: the Rebel INS spits with a Wu-Block "Bust Shots"-level of focus, and Eso sounds just like he did fourteen years ago. The instrumental definitely helps: it's dope enough to get heads nodding, and it's quick enough to keep everything moving at a fast clip. The M.O.P. vocal sample that makes up the chorus (and gives the song its title) grows a tiny bit tiresome, but the track doesn't last long enough for this to become a problem.
3. CEMENT 3'S (FEAT. ROC MARCIANO)
Over another catchy and upbeat 7L and Spada4 concoction, Deck and Eso rip shit like the rap veterans they are, delivering their respective contributions in such an efficient manner that they could have probably recorded this shit in their sleep, and that is somehow supposed to be a compliment. My only real complaint about "Cement 3's", and come on, you knew this was going to happen, was with guest star Roc Marcy. He sounded a little better than usual, I guess, but even the pounding beat can't wake him from his self-induced coma: dude sounds like he actually did record this shit in his sleep. And the way he's kept separate from our hosts implies that he was a last-minute addition, probably intended to bring in the hip hop heads who normally wouldn't look to a project of this nature. I may never understand why the guy is so revered in our chosen genre. But I still liked this song regardless.
4. CZAR REFAELI (FEAT. OH NO)
Deck and Eso graciously give the opening verse to guest star Oh No, who proceeds to destroy the booth as though he's the long-lost fourth member of this makeshift crew, he sounds that good. Deck himself sounds more alert than he has in fucking years, bit Esoteric walks away with this song, as he is on fucking fire. The 7L and Spada4 beat also knocks, building on the pseudo-boom bap that has infiltrated Czarface thus far and elevating it to new heights. The song title is goofy: I'm sure that Bar Refaeli, generally considered to be one of the hottest women on the planet, absolutely appreciates having a song named after her on an underground hip hop project that only, like, twenty people will purchase. But this shit was good, even if the final minute being reserved for a useless skit kind of drove me batty.
5. ROCK BEAST
7L and Spada4 are killing shit with the beats on Czarface so far. Even if you two could give a shit about Inspectah Deck and/or Esoteric, you need to understand just how good the music sounds. Speaking of Esoteric, he walks all over a kind-of-out-of-it Rebel INS on "Rock Beast", even with his gibberish hook and a flow that actually kind of sounds like Inspectah Deck's, weirdly. Not to say that Deck doesn't pull his share of the load, mind you: it's just that Eso sounds that much better. The organs throughout the instrumental were also a nice touch.
6. SAVAGELY ATTACK (FEAT. GHOSTFACE KILLAH)
The first of two cameos from a member of the Wu-Tang collective takes place over a rather Wu-esque 7L solo instrumental that, nevertheless, bangs. Esoteric spits as though he's had something to prove for the past decade, while Inspectah Deck's verse seems to come from a dude who has already tasted success and isn't quite as concerned with reaching those same heights again: after several tracks where Deck was easily outshined by his co-host, I'm starting to come around on the whole 7L & Esoteric thing, especially if their latter-day output sounds this fucking good. As for Pretty Toney, well, there aren't many rappers that can sound completely at home on both an independent project such as, say, Czarface, and on a mainstream trap-crap circle jerk like, oh, let's just say Cruel Summer. Which is the say, dude sounds nice.
7. MARVEL TEAM-UP
Deck and Eso have been a pair for the entire album so far, but they haven't really worked together yet. That all changes on "Marvel Team-Up": aside from an ad-lib or two, this song marks the first time that both artists have participated in a back-and-forth, thereby proving that they did, in fact, work together on this album, for at least the time it took to record this one song, as opposed to having Czarface be assembled from some older Deck verses 7L found on his hard drive or something. The energy is more subdued on here, but that's okay: we'll treat this track like a breather, although it still sounded interesting.
8. IT'S RAW (FEAT. ACTION BRONSON)
Action Bronson has quickly carved himself a place within the ranks of underground rappers who are clearly destined for bigger things, so his presence on Czarface is about as surprising as inhaling secondhand weed smoke at a Wiz Khalifa live show. But it always amuses me when he pops up on a song with a Wu-Tang Clan member, because dude still sounds kind of exactly like Ghostface Killah. Which still isn't a bad thing, mind you: hell, the game could use two dudes as engaging as Ghost and Bronson. They sound similar, even down to all of those references to food (because Bronson is a professional chef, naturally), but they also both sound great behind the mic, which is all I give a shit about. Deck also starts to finally give a bit of a shit again, while Eso does Eso over 7L and Spada4's winning instrumental. It's been a long fucking time since I've heard an album where the first seven songs were all bangers in their own way. Huh.
9. LET IT OFF
Disrupting the flow a little bit is "Let It Off", a song where 7L leaves the production for DJ Premier to handle, thereby creating both a reunion between Primo and Deck (after Gang Starr's "Above The Clouds", from Moment Of Truth) and validating 7L & Esoteric, inadvertently, as Boston's answer to Guru (R.I.P.) and Premier (although Guru was from Boston, but whatever). The sound doesn't throw listeners off too much, though: shifting from 7L's take on boom bap to Primo's actual boom bap is a welcome change of pace. The beat is fairly simple, but it's entertaining, which is all I give a shit about, and both Deck and Eso milk the rare opportunity for everything it's worth. Nice!
10. WORD WAR 4
7L's beat is reminiscent of the type of pulsing instrumental Eric B. either producer or took credit for, depending on your point of view and/or the facts of the matter, for Rakim during their reign over our chosen genre. That is to say, it's pretty goddamn good. Deck is obviously interested, as he turns in a fairly solid performance, one that trumps Eso for the first time on Czarface. Then again, both men are outshined by the extended George Carlin sound bites that play in lieu of an actual hook.
11. DEAD ZONE
It was bound to happen sooner or later: "Dead Zone" is the first dead-on-arrival song on Czarface. 7L's instrumental tries to bang, but trips over its own sense of self-worth, believing itself to be better than it truly is. Deck and Eso try their best to work around the limitations presented, but neither man was truly built for this endeavor, resulting in what is, essentially, a bad song. Still, it took us ten actual songs into the album to find a bad song, so...
12. POISONOUS THOUGHTS (FEAT. MR. MUTHAFUCKIN' EXQUIRE)
Anything that boosts the profile of Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire is a good thing in my book, and if the vehicle transporting him to a larger audience sounds this good, all the better. 7L picks up the ball he dropped during "Dead Zone" and delivers a far more interesting excursion into hip hop's nether regions, one where both Deck and Esoteric shine equally. eXquire gets a slightly altered instrumental to rock over, which only adds to the theory that he, too, was tacked on late in the game, but he still sounds pretty goddamn great on "Poisonous Thoughts", so why should I care if he and Inspectah Deck ever met, let alone became best friends and eat frozen yogurt together?
13. SHOGUNS (FEAT. CAPPADONNA & VINNIE PAZ)
Deck brought Cappadonna (either a Wu-affiliate or the tenth member of the Clan, depending on if you're Max and you refuse to accept the latter scenario) to the party, so Esoteric responds in kind, arriving with both a six-pack and Jedi Mind Tricks' Vinnie Paz, one of his partners in Army Of The Pharoahs, to contribute some bars. "Shoguns" is formatted a bit strangely, in that both Deck and Eso seem to spit an entire track's worth of bars together before either guest even pops up, but the track still works, thanks to 7L's foundation and Deck and Eso helping to transition the listener into the polarizing nature of both Cappa and Vinnie. Paz actually fits the overall tone of the project, so I didn't mind his appearance all that much, although he does turn in the weakest verse (but still sounds decent).
14. HAZMAT RAP
Czarface ends on a fantastic note with the 18980's-flavored "Hazmat Rap", which combines a dusty drum sample with synths suitable for a cop thriller from that era. Deck and Eso each receive a couple of verses to get their respective points across, and both men accomplish their goals with little to no effort. Deck, especially, wins points for paying homage to the late Ol' Dirty Bastard's "Shimmy Shimmy Ya", and not just in the obvious way that everyone else seems to do. A great way to end the evening.
THE LAST WORD: Holy shit, Czarface is actually pretty fucking good. I know, I'm just as surprised as you are, but it's true. Maybe time has been kind to this team: both Esoteric and Inspectah Deck manage to pull several good performances out of their asses, Eso winning more often than not. But, seriously, the day belongs to the fucking production, which is almost consistently fantastic. 7L's work behind the boards is crucial to everything working as well as it does, either with or without Spada4's assistance (although the tracks with Spada4 in tow rank among the best on here), and DJ Premier manages a cameo without walking away with the whole pie, which would have been unheard of just a few years ago but makes perfect sense on Czarface, as the chemistry between 7L and his artists is that potent. I demand an instrumental disc to be released immediately, the beats are that good. Save for one, but still, the batting average on here is more than solid. You can almost sit through this entire album without skipping (well, almost); when was the last time you ever thought that about a latter-day hip hop release? Deck and Eso have done good for a project that nobody's hopes were really all that high for. Now I realize that this project won't be for all tastes: if you're favorite flavor of hip hop runs concurrent with today's trends and sound, then this project will do so little to change your mind that it may as well have been released by Mitt Romney. But for those of you who appreciate hip hop's glory days, Czarface is good, and is possibly the first real banger of 2013. It has been spoken.
Catch up with the Rebel INS here, and as for 7L & Esoteric, well...