The Keynote Speaker is U-God's fourth solo album on as many record labels. After cashing paychecks from the likes of Priority, Babygrande, and something called Free Agency Records that shouldn't really count, Lamont Hawkins ended up on the only label that would really have him: The RZA's Soul Temple, which was ostensibly created to promote The Man With The Iron Fists but has since released projects from Ghostface Killah, Tony Touch, and a compilation of Stax recordings curated by RZA himself.
U-God's third album, Dopium, marked a turning point in his career, at least in my eyes, since he wasn't exactly capable of carrying his first two solo albums: Golden Arms Redemption sounded like a pale imitation of what U-God thought a Wu-Tang Clan member's solo project should have sounded like, and the less said about Mr. Xcitement. But Dopium was actually pretty entertaining, and Lamont hoped to carry his newly-earned goodwill over to The Keynote Speaker, his attempt at building up his career outside of the Clan's direct involvement. Although a few Wu members do contribute, so there's that.
I'm sorry, but these paragraphs sucked. You can tell I rushed through this part.
1. VORTEX OF MY MIND (SKIT) (FEAT. VIVIEN SCARLETT)
2. KEYNOTE SPEAKER
Leaf Dog's beat is actually pretty good: it manages to elicit a Wu-type feel while coming across as celebratory theme music, which is appropriate for the title track on a Wu-Tang Clan member's solo album. However, U-God doesn't ever seem to know what to do with the instrumental, and ends up sounding uncomfortable and entirely out of his element. This is a shame: there are many other rappers who could have knocked this one out of the park, but in Baby Uey's unlucky hands, all that one hears is the wasted potential. I hope this is just an aberration and not a running theme.
3. HEADS UP (FEAT. JACKPOT & GZA/GENIUS)
Our host fares much better on “Heads Up”, turning in the best verse on a track that also features his bandmate GZA/Genius, so you know that is no small feat. Over DJ Homocide's beat, which sounds like a throwback to that period of time when The RZA was in between “dusty” and “digital orchestration”, U-God, along with the GZA and Jackpot (better known as Wu affiliate Scotty Wotty, who also appeared on Dopium) unleashes a verse that sounds pretty goddamn great, regardless of the fact that he rhymes “irrelevant” with “relevant”, which just seems lazy when written out like that. Gary actually lends the track its worst verse, which is a weird critique to make, but it just happened. Otherwise, this wasn't bad.
4. INFERNO (SKIT) (FEAT. VIVIEN SCARLETT)
5. FIRE (FEAT. JACKPOT & METHOD MAN)
This was actually pretty good. The Steve Reaves instrumental is minimalist and smart enough to stay out of the way while our host breaks bread with his invited guests Scotty Wotty and Method Man. The hook was unnecessary and annoying, especially as it is made up of some Jackpot bars (seriously, how has there not been a rapper named Jackpot yet?) that we just fucking heard, but otherwise, “Fire” was just fine, as all three artists turn in some good performances. Meth wins the day, sounding 4:21...The Day After-level invigorated, but our host steps his own game up as well.
6. FAME (FEAT. STYLES P.)
“Fame” is kind of lame. Leaf Dog's beat is an uninteresting loop punctuated by a lone sound bite that sort-of gives the track its title if you listen to it while high, and our host seems unsure of himself, which is ironic in an “Alanis Morrissette's 'Ironic' and not actual irony”-type of way, since he spends his three verses boasting about how famous he is. The Lox's Styles P. doesn't do any better: he seems more determined than U-God to not let the instrumental trip him up, but he only spits a few bars anyway (at least when compared to Golden Arms), so it's clear that he was a last-minute addition intended to break up the monotony. Oh well, they can't all be winners.
I quite liked Homocide's instrumental: it's both funky and ultra-modern all at once. And aside from U-God's useless “chorus”, I liked his verses, too: his quick details about “big city life” present the idea that our host has evolved as an artist, and by that I mean he's finally taken some notes from the ever-expanding careers of his Wu-Tang brethren, all of whom have showcased unexpected longevity in this game. Hell, even the useless hook isn't even that bad: it was just unnecessary. Not every song needs to follow a proper song structure, Lamont. But I liked this one overall.
Thanks to Teddy Powell's intriguing beat, I just spent all of “Heavyweight” waiting for the beat to ultimately drop, and even though it never actually does, I still didn't mind. I don't know when U-God developed this new ear for beats, but I wish he had it back when his first two albums dropped. Then again, he only sounds good behind the mic now because of endless practice, Malcolm Gladwell Outliers-style, so. “Heavyweight” isn't a perfect song, but it also isn't objectionable, which is amazing for U-God, isn't it?
9. COLOSSAL COSMOS (SKIT) (FEAT. VIVIEN SCARLETT)
The fuck was this shit? Nobody's ever going to play U-God solo songs on the fucking radio, so why would he feel the need to aim for mainstream acceptance with a poppy Homocide instrumental and a shitty, simplistic hook? I don't know who Lamont recorded this song for, but whoever the intended audience was, they'll never hear it, because nobody gives a shit about U-God. I'm sorry, but it had to be said. (Side note: DJ Homocide has also lent production to U-God's first two albums, so who says our host isn't the loyal type?)
11. GOLDEN ARMS
It just occurred to me that U-God started referring to himself as “Golden Arms” long before The RZA ever wrote The Man With The Iron Fists. Is it possible Prince Rakeem was inspired by the member of the Wu-Tang Clan named least likely to succeed? Who the fuck cares? This song, however, is kind of a mess. It starts off promisingly enough, as the instrumental isn't bad, if a bit busy, but the track itself takes wild (for our host, anyway) risks that don't pan out, and U-God's verses hardly approach anything resembling “entertainment”. I still liked this a hell of a lot more than “Stars”, though.
12. ROOM KEEP SPINNING
The RZA finally checks in on his investment, with an understated beat that isn't bad, but isn't especially Wu-esque, which wouldn't be that much of a problem has U-God not been an actual Wu member. His bars aren't half bad: over three verses, he describes different situations where drugs and alcohol are involved and/or necessary, and he shows off an impressive bit of attention to detail, even bringing the entire track to a halt when a new stressor introduces itself, just so he can get fucked up again. Not the greatest song in the world, but U-God clearly took his time with the writing, and it shows.
U-God's ode to a popular real estate website in the U.S. takes...I'm sorry? That's not what this song is about? “Zilla” is actually an ode to yet another of his own aliases (specifically, “U-God-Zilla”)? I don't believe you. So U-God's ode to a popular real estate website in the U.S. takes an odd approach, in that our host uses up the run time bragging about himself and not even trying to sell any houses. Which might make financial sense for him: it's probably easier for U-God to pen some quick verses than it is for him to move a property, something that he probably isn't even licensed for, seeing as how he's been so busy being a “RZA disciple” that he never had time to keep up with his studies. Stay in school, kids.
14. GET MINE
Prince Rakeem returns to give his disciple what sounds like a discarded portion of his score to The Man With The Iron Fists, specifically the part of the film where everything turns into a spaghetti western, which is to say, this was not a discarded portion of the film score. The beat sounds good, but U-God makes the curious decision to sing on the track, no lie, and he at least commits to the bit, which is admirable. Kind of laughable, though, especially when he drops to a lower register and sounds like the world's luckiest frog who got to perform over a RZA beat when the rest of the animal kingdom has been unjustly shunned. So this happened.
15. MT. EVEREST (FEAT. INSPECTAH DECK & ELZHI)
It's a little weird, but not unexpected, that The Keynote Speaker doesn't feature at least one overt Wu-Tang posse cut: instead, we've gotten the GZA, Method Man, and, on here, Inspectah Deck appearing on separate tracks. But at least they answered U-God's call: it would have been more surprising had Raekwon or Ghostface Killah found time to appear. “Mt. Everest” is a Blastah Beatz-produced banger where each verse is disconnected from the last, and it features Detroit rapper Elzhi for some reason, although he fits right in, so that's not meant to be a criticism. The Rebel INS continues his 2013 winning streak, and even our host seems a little excited to be here. A nudge back in the right direction.
Meh. And I have no comment about the absolutely unnecessary misspelling.
17. JOURNEY (FEAT. KOOL KEITH)
Obviously, if you've read HHID for any length of time, you've guessed that “Journey” features the one guest star that I was most interested in hearing from. “Kool” Keith Thornton has only worked with the late Ol' Dirty Bastard in the past (on a WWF compilation, for “Wreck”, way back when they were still the WWF and not the WWE), and has taken mild potshots at The RZA's Bobby Digital persona (he calls himself Robbie Analog in the liner notes for Dr. Dooom's First Come, First Served), but the fact that at least one guy in the Wu-Tang Clan still thinks it a good idea to give him a call speaks volumes for where the man stands in the pantheon of hip hop history. Besides, Keith hardly ever gets invited to these types of parties anyway, so it's always a pleasure to hear him earning another paycheck. Teddy Powell's beat wasn't bad: it sounds more 1970's sitcom incidental music-esque than I had anticipated. Keith's trademarked non-sequiturs don't really mesh with the overall flow, but the mere fact that he's on here in the first place merits at least a cursory listen, even though the song isn't all that great. Oh, and U-God appears, as well.
The final two songs on The Keynote Speaker are marked as bonus tracks.
18. BE RIGHT THERE
The first of two extra songs kicks off with little fanfare, unless you consider the fact that The RZA produced this track to be exciting in and of itself. Weirdly, Prince Rakeen's beat sounds modern and built more for a rookie artist's trap rap crap than it does for a veteran such as Baby Uey. Lucky Hands spits some quick verses and makes the titular claim approximately eight hundred and thirty-two times. While it's easy to hear why this is just a bonus track, it certainly could have been a lot worse.
19. DAYS OF GLORY
I preferred producer Steve Reaves's beat on the earlier “Fire” more, but “Days Of Glory” isn't bad, even with U-God's insistence on singing during the hook. This actually could have worked more as the introductory song on The Keynote Speaker, as it has a nostalgic feel that would work well for a guy who has been in the game for twenty goddamn years. Decent, I guess.
THE LAST WORD: Look, I realize that most of you two were hoping this review would be much funnier and more aggressively anti-U-God, but face the facts: The Keynote Speaker just flat-out isn't horrible. I didn't think it was all that great: Dopium is more solid, even with its ridiculous side trip into dubstep territory toward the end. But this project ranks a close second in our host's overall catalog, what with his decent ear for beats and the attention paid to the actual writing process. One would have hoped for a larger Wu presence on the project, instead of the handful of cameos and the three RZA beats we did receive, especially since U-God released the album on The RZA's fucking record label, but the Lamont Hawkins that recorded The Keynote Speaker is streets ahead of the guy who only contributed a couple of verses to Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), and Wu stans should pay attention. Everyone else, though, will probably find a valid reason to not give a shit, and to be honest, there isn't anything on here that would turn someone into a U-God fan, either. Golden Arms doesn't have a Twelve Reasons To Die in him, but The Keynote Speaker proves that there is some life left in his brand, so hey, maybe his verses on the next (and supposedly final) Wu-Tang Clan album will sound pretty good.