June 15, 2013

Reader Review: CunninLynguists - A Piece Of Strange (January 24, 2006)



(For today's Reader Review, the last one I'm running for a while, Will Schmitt, one of the contributors to KevinNottingham.com, continues with the CunninLynguists catalog, picking up where I left off with his thoughts on A Piece Of Strange, the group's third full-length album. Hey, that's one less project I have to worry about.  Leave your thoughts for Will below.)

CunninLynguists, a hip hop trio centered in the south of the United States, is composed of three members: Deacon the Villain (Lexington, KY), Natti (also from Kentucky) and Kno (haling from A-Town). They are a tour de force that, in my opinion, has never disappointed from a musical or creative standpoint. They’ve worked with various artists and explore some of the more diverse branches of hip hop, be it by way of a downbeat Southern ballad (“Yellow Lines”) or a vicious battle song (“Halfanimal”). They’ve been around for about a decade, but have never made a splash in the proverbial mainstream: however, they have continually crafted unique work filled with positive messages and have carved out their own niche in the lore of hip hop over the course of five studio albums and a handful of mixtapes.

In this piece, I’ll be looking at what is considered to be one of their best works, their 2006 album A Piece Of Strange. This marked a big change from their previous two efforts, both in production style and crew. For the group’s first two albums (Will Rap For Food and Southernunderground), the CunninLynguists were made up of Deacon, Kno and Mr. SOS, who left amicably after those early efforts and was replaced by Natti. Looking back, Will Rap For Food and A Piece Of Strange are like night and day.




So without any more back story, let’s delve into A Piece Of Strange.

1. WHERE WILL YOU BE
Now that’s how you start a rap album! A Spanish guitar traipsing over a descending bass line provides a backdrop for Deacon and a ethereal chorus to sing some soft stuff over. (By the way, Deacon is slowly becoming a sort of Southern poor man’s Nate Dogg. He has a pretty good voice, but it’s not as smooth or recognizable as Nathaniel’s.)

2. SINCE WHEN
Follows the same pattern of letting the beat build with a chorus of voices before Deacon finally drops in: “We flava the music, chop this screw that / Take you through church in a verse 'til you view fact / Holy ghost, from the lowly coast, spit humility / Facing critics cold fronts, blocking our humidity.” Deacon and Natti trade lines and work well together, which is probably a Southern thing, although the Beastie Boys will always be the masters of that kind of rapping. Anyways, this song is fantastic. Kno has steadily become one of my favorite producers because of how deep his beats can be. Let me explain: there are so many things going on (bass line, lyrics, samples 1, 2, and 3, etc., guitar, drums): it takes a page out of production duo Blue Sky Black Death's method in that regard. And just when I was settled in, the instrumental completely switches. Same chilled out, guitar-centric style, but with a darker mood and a high-pitched voice singing some spooky shit. The hi-hats and electric guitar finish it out, and my God, this is one hell of track.

3. NOTHING TO GIVE
A piano line and more sampled voices give way to a great hook as the song gets into its groove right away. This time, Natti rhymes first, speaking on the troubles of urban life. He touches on societal ills such as homelessness, drugs and education as he paints a rightfully cynical picture of urban decay. Deacon chimes in with a more sing-songy pattern (think Nelly, if Nelly was really good) and continues where Natti left off. Deacon seems to be more abstract and have more complex rhyme schemes, while Natti has a more direct approach and a harder, more traditional delivery: both work pleasantly well with the beat, as this is an excellent song.

4. CAVED IN (FEAT. CEE-LO GREEN)
The first credited feature to A Piece Of Strange goes to Cee-Lo, still in between fame from Goodie Mob and his judge role on The Voice. This song features a staccato guitar and a slightly slowed down Kanye West sample (from “Two Words”, I think). Cee-Lo’s hook is the most memorable part of this song, not because Deacon and Natti’s verses weren’t good (they were), but rather because the chorus meshes so well.

5. HOURGLASS
Another soulful intro, complete with a dancing saxophone, and then the pace speeds up with a snappy break and a rollicking synth. Deacon takes both verses and rhymes about love and life: “She, speaks no evil, but says whatever / After shakin' up bedfeathers still prays together / On a parlay flip, permanent private party trip / the next Ruby and Ossie Davis, I'm talkin' great shit.” Deac is not only talented, but honest and forthright. I have no idea why these three haven’t made like the Afghan hills and blown up, but then again, that’s your fault. This song ends with a breakbeat that leads into…

6. BEAUTIFUL GIRL
A weed song, well-disguised as a love song! A nearly majestic riff that sounds more big band than hip hop leads into Natti’s bars: “[she] can make a blind man see and forget his doctor's appointment / For her sheer enjoyment I'll even risk unemployment.” This song is important for a couple of reasons: (1) Natti finally outdoes Deacon on a song (neat!), and (2) Kno is ridiculous behind the boards, with this beat being the closest his production has been to the forefront of a song. (His solo album, Death is Silent, is phenomenal by the way, if pretty gloomy.)

7. INHALE (INTERLUDE)
So this is what Indian music would be like if had a child with Southern hip hop. Kind of weird. The guitar solo in the background is fun, but this song steals the momentum the last song had, which is unfortunate. Still, not bad.

8. BRAIN CELL
Starts with a seemingly unrelated sample before starting the song (think Pete Rock and CL Smooth's “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)”). Really powerful instrumental with a dominant bass line and a piano that alternates between plinking and chords. A really chill sax makes an appearance, then takes the lead on the hook, which also includes a sample of the Wu-Tang Clan's “C.R.E.A.M.” And Kno makes a rare (at the time, anyway) appearance behind the mic. I don’t know why he took such a long hiatus: he’s nearly as good a rapper and is almost as conceptually talented as Deacon. All three members of the collective rhyme here, and it’s fantastic. Somewhat strange how they extol weed on the last song and then point out the dangers of drugs and crime on here. Still, so far, this is my favorite song on the album.

9. AMERICA LOVES GANGSTERS (FEAT. TIM MEANS)
Never heard of Tim Means before and I can’t really figure out what he does on this song, unless he assists on the chorus. Anyways, a somber beat with a lot more open space than normal clears the way for Natti to go really hard on the first verse about gangsta rap, and for Deacon to do the same on the second, although he has a more roundabout way of doing so. Kno ends the song with a spoken word thing that sounds like half of a written verse. It still packs a punch, though, and make no mistake, this is an excellent song with a very clear, concise message.

10. NEVER KNOW WHY (FEAT. IMMORTAL TECHNIQUE)
A soulful intro that sounds like background music from a Paul Newman / Robert Redford movie (you all have to watch The Sting). The actual beat sounds like something Ant (from Atmosphere) would do if he layered as well as Kno. Deacon tells a tale of a racist old man who refuses to care for a girl because of skin color, and then sings a really nice bridge which transitions to guest star Immortal Technique, who raps about the things he usually raps about. I don’t mean to diminish his contribution, but you already know what you’ll get from him: social issues, “haterism”, pain, struggle, etc. The reason nobody minds, I suppose, is because he’s so good at it. Both verses end with death, which segues into…

10. THE GATES (FEAT. TONEDEFF)
See, it’s moments like this that make this album so special. Tonedeff, the head honcho at QN5 and an accomplished musician in his own right, picks up right where Deac and Tech left off, giving a backstory of a fireman who developed racist beliefs because of a relationship with a black woman. The beat is so fucking deep on this song, with a huge bass line underneath guitars, samples of blues / gospel singing, and keys. The guitar takes us to Tonedeff’s verse, which works well on the beat. With some time to reflect over a very soulful sample of a woman singing, Tone continues the tale, where Deacon takes the role of St. Peter at the gates of Heaven. Tonedeff tries to defend his actions while Deacon points out the racism and hate evident in Tonedeff’s life. Deacon eventually sends him to Hell. Spooky and epic.

11. DAMNATION (INTERLUDE)
Another interlude. I prefer this one over “Inhale” because the drums have purpose and the vocal samples are perfect for the mood of the song. Deacon makes an appearance on the latter half of the song, chanting something that wouldn’t be out of place at a Baptist church.

12. HELLFIRE
Turn it down! Too late, I bet that startled your mom in the next room. I love when producers do this so you can see how the sample was flipped. Natti leads off with some fiery (groan) wordplay and Deacon follows up. Interesting to see how Natti uses more direct examples of fire (“Zippo flow” and “Where there's smoke there's fire / Similar to the streets, where there's spokes there's tires”), while Deacon uses abstract imagery of hell and the punctuating “FIRE!” sample to complete his verse. This shows how great songs can be when everyone is not only on the same page but in the middle of the same sentence. Fantastic trio of songs telling an enthralling story.

13. REMEMBER ME (ABSTRACT / REALITY)
An instrumental track meant to showcase Kno’s ability, which it does to tremendous effect. I believe the “abstract becomes reality” sample is from a Cyne song, but I don’t know which. This song shows everything that Kno has in his arsenal (heavy bass, relentless drums, well-timed vocal samples, choice usage of guitars and a smart song structure) Even if you’ve never heard any of his other stuff, his work on A Piece Of Strange should be enough to place him into the conversation of greatest active producers. I’m dead serious on this, I believe the man is that talented. A fantastic, chill song.

14. WHAT'LL YOU DO
Beautiful beat. I’ve described the instrumental backing on this album many ways, but that descriptor is one of their few connectors. I hear this song as a lament of how hard it is to stay fiscally solvent if you’re not in the cool kids group of hip hop. Deacon tells his musical story as well as anyone. This would be a very bittersweet yet fitting way to end an album, but…

15. THE LIGHT (FEAT. CLUB DUB)
Club Dub is a band that is based in Kentucky and collaborates with the CunninLynguists on occasion. This song features more singing than rapping, with the solitary verse coming from Natti: “Ain't nobody on this earth been perfect since birth / sinnin' and doin' the erk and jerk in church / then the next minute be back to puttin' in work / Jumpin' into them holes not lookin' in first.” Just when you think the song is over, an impromptu jam session with some pretty good drum fills takes over.

FINAL THOUGHTS: I’m pretty glad that CunninLynguists chose to end A Piece Of Strange on a positive, hopeful note. In an album that works as a metaphor for life and death, a song that is “The Light” at the end of the tunnel is a nice reminder that it’s not all bad, especially after songs such as “America Loves Gangsters” and “Hellfire”. My philosophical ramblings regardless, this is one of my personal favorites and should have consideration as one of the better albums at least on this side of 2000, if not of all time.



BUY OR BURN? Get fucking familiar and buy this album.

BEST TRACKS: “Brain Cell”; “The Gates”; “Hellfire”; “Caved In”; “Beautiful Girls” (although almost all of these song are great, those listed are the cream of the crop)



-Will Schmitt



(Questions? Comments? Concerns? Leave your thoughts below.) 

 

18 comments:

  1. Usually i groan when i see someone praise every song on an album...but this album deserves all the accolades you gave it. Their first 2 albums were solid, but this monster right here may be the best hip hop album from 2000-2009.

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  2. This one was, unexpected, I even left a comment, which is probably my first of 2013, hoho!

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  3. AnonymousJune 15, 2013

    The spoken word on America Loves Gangsters was Tim Means, not Kno.

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  4. AnonymousJune 15, 2013

    yeezus! Get off the Notorious! Hurry up with that review before I squeeze and bust!

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  5. One of my favorite albums of all time! It's about time someone on this blog voiced their opinion, well done.

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  6. AnonymousJune 16, 2013

    Couldn't agree more. This album is brilliant.

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  7. AnonymousJune 18, 2013

    After this review I plan to give these guys an investment of my time. But I'd just like to say, if someone plans to review Yeezus, it should start and end with one word: AWFUL.

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    Replies
    1. I agree -- need to check this out.
      Also agree that Yeezus is a hastily compiled heap of shit. What a waste of my money.

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  8. AnonymousJune 19, 2013

    Good review. I'm surprised you haven't reviewed the High School High Soundtrack. I'm pretty sure you will enjoy the album. It's underrated.

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  9. Funny thing, these last couple of days I've listened on repeat "The Gates". Good album.

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  10. AnonymousJune 19, 2013

    Yeezus isn't trash because these tools above me say it is. Listen to it with open ears Max :). I'm sure you'll like at least 4 tracks if I'm correct, but personally I enjoyed the whole album from start to finish.

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  11. AnonymousJune 19, 2013

    Yeeeezus Max!!! I would like to hear you destroy that garbage, Kanye has finally lost it completely. or Prodigy and the Alchemist's Albert Einstein (at least the beats are not bad). I'm sure Adrian Younge had a part in that.

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  12. AnonymousJune 24, 2013

    Max, does this mean that you're going to skip your own review of APOS?

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    1. Unless I suddenly and miraculously get caught up on my ongoing project to the point where I can squeeze it in, yes.

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  13. Any chance of reviews of some of Cunninlynquist solo/offshoot albums like Natti's Still Motion or Niggaz with Latitude? Deacon has a new album coming out too.

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