Rawkus Records released Soundbombing III, the third (and as of now, final) installment in the series, in 2002. That year was one of great change for our chosen genre, and even though they were seen as an underground label (or “the” underground label, depending on where you stand), Rawkus wasn't immune to the necessity of having a cash flow in order to keep their company afloat. As such, Soundbombing III marked a transition from aiming squarely for the backpackers to trying to appeal to all audiences, a paradigm shift that didn't sit well with most hip hop heads, and which eventually led to the implosion of the label. But that's getting too far ahead of myself.
The project kinda-sorta returned to the roots of the series as a whole, showcasing many members of the label's roster on songs that had been previously released. Indeed, the first chapter was pretty much a compilation of all of the twelve-inch singles that Rawkus had released up to that point, throwing around names such as Mos Def and Reflection Eternal and Company Flow with abandon. Soundbombing II abandoned that approach in favor of exclusive material that would then be issued as twelve-inch singles after the fact, but even though it featured bigger names in hip hop that weren't actually signed to the label (such as Tash (from Tha Alkaholiks), Prince Paul, and, the biggest get of them all, Eminem), Rawkus still stuck to their roster for the bulk of the album, giving rappers such as the High & Mighty, Shabaam Sahdeeq, Skillz, Pharoahe Monch, El-P, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and the rest a proper forum to express themselves.
Soundbombing III threw a curve ball at the audience, which is why it wasn't as well received as its predecessors. Presumably with dollar signs placed where their pupils should have been, the executives at Rawkus Records reached out to major label acts such as Styles P. (from The Lox), Q-Tip (from A Tribe Called Quest), Capone-N-Noreaga, The Roots, Method Man, Missy Elliott, The Beatnuts, Common, and DJ Quik, some of whom had turned in work for the label before, all in an effort to move units of a compilation that was built on the strength of the roster as it actually existed on the label. Curiously, a good chunk of the tracks on Soundbombing III were previously released or scheduled to appear on the respective artists' own projects, which would have added to the “album sampler” concept had all of these artists been signed to Rawkus: since they were not, that line of thinking was questionable at best.
Soundbombing III is formatted as a fake mixtape, as its predecessors were, hosted by DJs Cipha Sounds (currently of Hot 97 fame) and Mr. Choc (of the Beat Junkies), although they're not given much to do, since it isn't as though they had a hand in the creation of any of the songs presented. Not that it matters much: Rawkus as we knew it folded a few years later, after having only managed to release one more album from a member of their original roster (Talib Kweli's The Beautiful Struggle) and a greatest hits compilation. (Rawkus continued releasing projects through 2007 due to a technicality: artists such as producer Marco Polo and the Kidz In The Hall saw the logo appear on the back of their debut albums due to a deal Universal Music Group made with Rawkus after having bought out their back catalog.)
Was Soundbombing III so bad that it caused the implosion of an entire record company? Was the album so terrible that nearly all of the label's roster jumped ship almost immediately?
1. INTRO (CIPHA SOUNDS & MR. CHOC)
Of course it is.
2. THE LIFE (STYLES P. & PHAROAHE MONCH)
After a quick additional introduction to the project from
Yasiin Bey Mos Def, the first single from the project makes its appearance, and
it holds up much more than I had ever thought it would. A
collaboration between Styles P. and Organized Konfusion's Pharoahe
Monch seems farfetched, sure, but it works well enough, even though
Monch only sings the hook. Over Ayatollah's soulful and dramatic
instrumental, Holiday Styles unleashes two verses justifying his
actions and lifestyle, and they are killer. An excellent way to
start things off. Still don't know why it isn't called “My Life”,
which would have made much more sense, since it's not like either
this track or the Kool G. Rap song that appears later, the one
actually called “My Life”, were recorded exclusively for this
compilation. What a weird coincidence, though, right?
3. FREAK DADDY (MOS DEF)
To hear Cipha and Choc tell it, “Freak Daddy” is actually a remnant of Mos Def's abandoned rock album side project, Black Jack Johnson. And sure, this does sound louder than most of Dante's output, and there is a guitar at least somewhat involved. However, if this is any indication of what our chosen genre missed out on, then holy fuck, did we dodge a bullet, because this shit is terrible. Three-plus minutes of Mos Def shouting clipped phrases, most of which are the asinine song title, does not make for an enjoyable listening experience. This should be an immediate skip. Proof positive that Rawkus chose the participants on Soundbombing III by choosing name-brand artists and not by exerting any sort of quality control. Bleh.
This interlude is so long that it shifts the focus onto our hosts (specifically Cipha Soundz) and away from the overall project. Which is not only unnecessary, it's highly questionable. Just exactly what is this album supposed to be?
5. CREW DEEP (SKILLZ FEAT. KANDI BURRUSS & MISSY ELLIOTT)
Thankfully, Cipha and Choc end their skit prematurely in order to allow Skillz to introduce his own song, “Crew Deep”, which was also released as a single. (It also appears on his aborted sophomore project, I Ain't Mad No More, which was supposed to have been released by Rawkus but was ultimately shelved, and is now best known for being the subject of the previous post.) Unfortunately, it doesn't hold up in today's competitive climate. The Hi-Tek beat consists almost solely of an audio sample looped from the Sugarhill Gang's “Rapper's Delight”, and Skillz slows his own flow down to mirror it, which isn't that good of an idea: by doing so, you can almost telegraph each and every punchline. Fellow Virginia resident Missy Elliott contributes a hook and ad-libs, which was supposed to be a big deal, I think, considering that she was the biggest name to appear on Soundbombing III back in 2002, and Xcape's Kandi Burruss also appears somewhere, but that doesn't really matter, because this shit was dull.
6. MY LIFE (KOOL G. RAP FEAT. CAPONE-N-NOREAGA)
Noreaga comes across as a total fanboy during the intro, proclaiming his admiration for Kool G. Rap in a downright endearing manner. So it's an unfortunate turn of events that the actual song is fairly generic. The hook, apparently performed through the late Roger Troutman's talkbox, explored the exact same goddamn territory as Pharoahe Monch did on the earlier “The Life”, except Monch manages to make you feel that he did what he had to do to better his life because there was no other choice, while everyone on here sounds like they just fucked over people because they're dicks, smiling through the shit-talking. Which was an awful choice. G. Rap and both halves of CNN sound bored over V.I.C.'s paint-by-numbers boom bap, as well. A disappointment.
7. ROUND AND ROUND (REMIX) (JONELL FEAT. METHOD MAN, PHAROAHE MONCH, & KOOL G. RAP)
Apparently producer Hi-Tek is never fucking satisfied, as this is his second remake of his Jonell collaboration “Round and Round” (which originally appeared on his Hi-Teknology). (The first remake appeared on the soundtrack for How High, and featured the Method Man performance that carries over to this alternate take.) The beat remains the same, as do Jonell's vocals, which still sound alright, but this particular track wasn't exactly worthy of this much attention. Pharoahe Monch and Kool G. Rap, who had nothing better to do, obviously, contribute additional throwaway verses, neither of which help explain why Hi-Tek, a Rawkus employee at the time, didn't see fit to just give Monch and G. Rap an altogether different beat to flow over.
8. YELLING AWAY (ZAP MAMA, TALIB KWELI, & COMMON)
Admittedly, Afro-Pop singer Zap Mama is an inspired choice for a compilation of this nature, especially since Soundbombing III abandoned the idea of only featuring artists signed to Rawkus Records. However, none of that matters is the music is boring, though, and that's where I stand with “Yelling Away”. Common and the overworked Talib Kweli, who has yet to turn down a guest spot on anyone's project, stop by to turn this into a hip hop track by the slimmest of margins, but you just won't give a shit.
Another overlong skit, although at least this one was recorded with the clear intent to promote the project. And the fact that the quick potshot taken at the expense of Rawkus made the final cut is kind of funny to me.
10. WHAT LIES BENEATH (Q-TIP)
Finally, something somewhat interesting. Kamaal takes to the microphone over a self-produced mood-setter that sounds lifted from a lost album recorded during A Tribe Called Quest: The Ummah Years, although his actual verses are aggressive as shit, just like he was on his solo debut Amplified. Q-Tip injects energy into the proceedings with his shit-talking and charisma, so although there isn't really all that much abstract poetry present on “What Lies Beneath”, it's still enjoyable as hell. At least it isn't about that Robert Zemeckis movie.
11. THE TROUBLE IS... (THE BEATNUTS)
A forgettable entry in the Beatnuts canon still manages to sound more intriguing than most of Soundbombing III, which is downright sad, since this track isn't very good at all. Sure, both Psycho Lester and Junkyard Juju make appearances, but this was so bland that I would have preferred Cipha and Choc merely recording a quick sound bite from the duo promoting the album, instead of having them contribute this bullshit.
12. PUT IT IN THE AIR (TALIB KWELI & DJ QUIK)
Kweli apparently doesn't get his own solo song on Soundbombing III: instead, he has to share with a bunch of random acts. Even with his limited verbal contribution (and the fact that this also appears on Kweli's own album Quality), this is truly more of a DJ Quik track, as his instrumental not only dominates the conversation, it also sounds so much different that everything else on here that you can't help but nod your head in agreement. Kweli sounds more invested in his lyrics and flow when performing over beats that are outside of his comfort zone, so overall “Put It In The Air” was alright. Not great, but not bad, either. You probably won't skip this one, although you definitely won't remember all that much from it, either.
13. THEY DON'T FLOW (NOVEL FEAT. SKILLZ)
Skillz returns, alongside singer-slash-rapper Novel, to complain about the current state of affairs in our chosen genre. The thing is, their points, while valid, are the exact same points everyone makes, including myself, and at some point, and I'm entirely guilty of this too, you just sound like you're whining about how you don;t adapt well to change. Probably doesn't help that neither artist provides a compelling argument, either: hell, Novel resorts to random threats during his second verse. Meh.
14. RHYMES & AMMO (THE ROOTS FEAT. TALIB KWELI)
Kweli is forced to share the spotlight once again on “Rhymes & Ammo”, a Roots song that also appeared as a bonus track on Phrenology. And, even when presented within this context, it isn't very good. Le sigh.
15. SPIT AGAIN (COCOA BROVAZ FEAT. DAWN PENN)
After an overlong intro made up of simple scratching, Tek and Steele step into the booth and bore everyone the fuck to death. Okay, that's not entirely fair: Curt Gowdy's beat wasn't terrible, and at least Smif-N-Wessun make a valiant attempt to entertain...someone. Not me, though: their decision to run their performances through a reggae filter, but not consistently, makes this a puzzling listen that most listeners simply won't even fucking bother with. Guest star Dawn Penn's vocals probably don't help in this regard, either.
16. ON THE BLOCK (R.A. THE RUGGED MAN)
Crustified Dibbs (finally) pops up to remind the listener that there are tons of better albums out there to listen to, all of which are from artists who the Soundbombing crop look up to. His old school tribute is decent, although Jocko's beat is too simple for my taste, but all it really accomplishes is reminding me that I'm listening to Soundbombing III instead of any of the other, better artists named on here. And that makes me angry, and then depressed.
17. OUTRO (CIPHA SOUNDS & MR. CHOC)
Cipha and Choc end Soundbombing III by paying homage to the ending of Eric B. and Rakim's “Paid In Full”. Not very original, but I love “Paid In Full”, so I'll allow it. Besides, it signifies that our national nightmare is finally over.
FINAL THOUGHTS: I've heard some useless compilations before, but Soundbombing III is one of the only ones I remember as having absolutely no soul. By which I mean that you can almost count each individual dollar the Rawkus executives truly believed they would be making with each passing bar. Nearly everyone manages a phoned-in performance (except for Q-Tip, who I assume just didn't have anything else better to do the day he recorded his contribution), and the entire album is put together so poorly that even the songs lifted wholesale from other projects sound cheap and unfinished, which is a criticism that makes absolutely no sense when read aloud, but fuck it, a label sampler where most of the artists featured aren't even on the label also makes no sense. It's almost as though Cipha Sounds and Mr. Choc were added to the process at the last possible moment so that Rawkus could shift most of the blame onto their shoulders, even though the two deejays did absolutely nothing wrong to deserve that fate. This is like the The Matrix Revolutions of Soundbombing, which makes its predecessor the The Matrix Reloaded, both films that completely and utterly suck. Yep, that comparison checks out: move it along, people.
BUY OR BURN? Neither. If I saw Soundbombing III choking on the sidewalk I would sidestep it and go along my merry way, and I encourage you two to do the same.
BEST TRACKS: “What Lies Beneath”