After multiple mixtapes and false starts, Alan "The Alchemist" Maman finally managed to release his debut album, the long-promised 1st Infantry, ten years and a few weeks ago, thanks to the help of the Koch graveyard system, which had been floating hip hop albums onto store shelves with little to no publicity since God knows when. To celebrate, Alan decided to take a shit near a fabricated street curb in front of a green screen, which, honestly, isn't much worse than what most other artists put on their album covers.
Although he began life as a rapper (as one-half of the little-known duo The Whooliganz, better known for their ability to be name-checked in a pub quiz more than for any actual music you'll ever get to hear), Alan quickly transitioned into the role of producer, aligning himself with two separate factions within our chosen genre: the Soul Assassins collective (including his mentor, DJ Muggs), and the Infamous Mobb, Mobb Deep's coterie or ne'er-do-wells. In doing so, he developed his signature style: hardcore street music, heavy on the menace and minus any of that pesky "optimism" that occasionally infiltrates hip hop. This served him well: in short order The Alchemist's beats were in high demand, as every single goddamn rapper in the world, it seems, wanted to prove their tenacity and rough disposition with Alan's music chirping in the background.
1st Infantry is Alan's debut album, which is something I mentioned earlier but am now repeating so as to make this sentence longer. It features nineteen tracks, most of which are actual songs, all of which are self-produced, so as to give our host complete creative control over his output. Alan was so meticulous with this project that songs he recorded that were originally intended for the project were scrapped and shuffled off to die in mixtape heaven: in fact, only one previously-released track intended to promote 1st Infantry actually ended up on 1st Infantry. To fill the gaps, Alan called upon all of his famous friends, and a few not-so-much-so, to contribute verses and hooks: the guest list most certainly sold a lot of people on this project if, like myself, they weren't exactly enamored with the host's inconsistent production work. (Oh, come on. You already knew I felt that way.)
Alan sticks to the boards for the most part, but being that this was his album, he took it upon himself to unleash some rhymes as well, and for a lot of you two, this was probably the first time you heard The Alchemist actually spit some rhymes. You'll be happy to know that he isn't bad at it, either, although there's that well-known phrase about sticking to one's day job that escapes me at the moment.
Anyway, 1st Infantry sold enough copies to backpackers and fans of New York street talk (even though enough contributors on the project, including the California-grown Alchemist himself, came from other places, rendering that last description nonsensical) to warrant his continued existence as an "artist", which is why you'll come across a new Alchemist project on the Interweb every couple of years or so. Hell, I've written about a few of them myself. Everyone has to start somewhere, you know.
A self-congratulatory rap album intro, one that briefly revisits some of Alan's past successes while promising more of the same for 1st Infantry. Which can be a good or a bad thing, depending on what side of the fence you tend to scream from.
2. DEAD BODIES (FEAT. THE GAME & PRODIGY)
Alan's first two artists of the evening are frequent collaborator Prodigy (of Mobb De...seriously, I shouldn't have to write that every single goddamn time, right?) and a pre-fame The Game. (His Aftermath debut, The Documentary, was released the following year.) For being quite possibly his first song that the East Coast paid any attention to, obviously because of the Alchemist production, Jayceon fails to impress: he drops all of the names you would expect, but he doesn't yet sound confident enough to deserve any praise, while Cellblock P doesn't fully embarrass himself, but also doesn't seem very invested in the proceedings. (It is a bit weird to hear these two shout-out each other, even though “Dead Bodies” was recorded long before Mobb Deep joined G-Unit and started attacking Jayceon for defecting from the very same crew). Al's instrumental approximates a stroll through the city after midnight set to his version of a Dr. Dre beat, which is to say that it wasn't all that bad, although I wish there was a bit more variety. Ah well. No big deal.
3. YOUR BOY AL (INTERLUDE)
Silly, but kind of enjoyable. Still, isn't it a bit too soon to throw in another interlude, Al? Let some more of your songs play first next time.
4. THE ESSENCE (FEAT. THE LOX)
If “Dead Bodies” was Alan's try at a Dr. Dre prescription, “The Essence” is his attempt at aping a Swizz beat. So, as you might have expected from that description, the instrumental on here is merely okay, and more than a little but simplistic. However, Swizzy's frequent collaborators The Lox rip it to pieces anyway, so the actual music was a bit of an afterthought for me. Jadakiss and Styles P. both turn in long-as-fuck verses that sound cold and calculated: Kiss may never be able to give our chosen genre a classic album, but in short bursts, he sounds inspired. Sheek brings up the rear, but although he's completely dismantled by his teammates, he still does alright for himself. Not bad.
5. HOLD YOU DOWN (FEAT. PRODIGY, NINA SKY, & ILLA GHEE)
If I'm not mistaken, “Hold You Down” was 1st Infantry's first (and only?) single, which helps explain the hook, performed by duo Nina Sky. Easily one of the most accessible tracks in Alan's catalog, as he tries to contrast the hook and general tone of the song with verses from Prodigy, Illa Ghee, and himself, which was actually a pretty savvy move, considering that this was the single and all. My problem with this song is that none of the pieces manage to fit together. Cellblock P never sounds comfortable, Alchemist sounds like Cellblock P, and Illa's verse should have been recorded by Twin Gambino instead. The ladies of Nina Sky are cute and all, but I still wouldn't have used “Hold You Down” as an excuse to bring them back into the game. That's probably just me, though.
6. INDUSTRY RULE 4080 (INTERLUDE)
This skit is actually kind of funny, especially some of the line readings from the record executive character (“Say word?”), but ultimately I like this interlude merely because it briefly reminds the listener of the bleak masterpiece our host painted for Mobb Deep's “When You Hear The”, and not because of the pretty blatant A Tribe Called Quest reference in the title.
7. STOP THE SHOW (FEAT. STAT QUO & M.O.P.)
Here's my theory: Stat Quo hasn't received any defined level of success in our chosen genre because his very rap name alerts consumers that he isn't bringing anything new to the table, as he is more comfortable “sticking with the status quo”. Ironic, in a “Alanis, that's not irony, that's just a series of unfortunate coincidences”-kind of way. Although the fact that Stat Quo truly doesn't bring anything new to the table doesn't help matters in the least fucking bit. Over a relatively thumping Alchemist heat rock, Stat sucks all of the oxygen out of the room, leaving M.O.P.'s Fizzy Womack no air to breathe, leading to an uncharacteristic weak-ass amateurish verse. Only Billy Danze escapes this car wreck with minor injuries. Next!
8. D BLOCK TO QB (FEAT. HAVOC, BIG NOYD, STYLES P., & J-HOOD)
Continuing with his tendency to bring random artists together, Alan recruits his friends in Mobb Deep's camp to ride along with Styles P. and one of The Lox's underqualified weed carriers for “D Block To QB”, a song celebrating the collaboration between D-Block, The Lox's extended family, and apparently the entirety of Queensbridge, since that song title makes no goddamn sense, as only Havoc and Big Noyd, from Mobb Deep and friendship with Mobb Deep, respectively, appear. Anyway, aside from a piss-poor performance from J-Hood, this song actually bangs, as Noyd, Styles, and Havoc all step up over Alan's dramatic instrumental. Noyd's random homophobic comment makes no fucking sense within the context of his verse, but I still enjoyed this one enough, I guess.
9. BANGERS (FEAT. LLOYD BANKS)
G-Unit's Lloyd Banks runs on 50 Cent Jr.-mode on “Bangers”, which is an unfortunate title for a song that isn't very good (especially today, when Miley Cyrus has taken the word and made it her own). Over a subdued, incomplete-seeming instrumental, Banks delivers two unpromising verses and a shitty, overly-wordy sung hook, neither of which ever add up to much. The less said about this bullshit fucking song, the better.
10. WHERE CAN WE GO (FEAT. DEVIN THE DUDE)
Houston's Devin The Dude takes 1st Infantry in an entirely different direction, using Alan's pleasing instrumental to rationalize why a sexual relationship with a female friend probably isn't a good idea. Devin's stoner flow lend “Where Can We Go” some lackadaisical charm, affording him the credibility to get away with a couple of the more unsubtle lines on here. But this shit was pretty good: Devin flows over Alan's beat like water splashing onto the carpet after I accidentally kicked the glass over, and just like that carpet, your brain soaks up the track. Devin leaves things open-ended as well, which was a nice touch: it would have been very easy to take this song to its obvious conclusion. Nice show of restraint.
11. IT'S A CRAZE (FEAT. MOBB DEEP)
The fourth song on 1st Infantry to feature involvement from Mobb Deep and/or its affiliates brings both halves of the duo to the forefront, together at last. Havoc and Prodigy must rhyme over damn near anything Alan hands them out of some weird sense of social obligation or something, because the beat on “It's A Craze” isn't very good, and that title is corny as shit. My guess is that Alan spotted them both for funnel cakes and cotton candy at one of those semi-annual street fairs Queensbridge is known for, and now they are forever in his debt. Or something. Regardless, this song is instantly forgettable.
12. FOR THE RECORD (FEAT. DILATED PEOPLES)
Given my obvious love for Dilated Peoples, which is pretty well-documented on the virtual pages of HHID, it shouldn't surprise anyone that I didn't care much for this song. Alan's beat wasn't all that bad, but Iriscience and Evidence weren't the best fit for it, as it moves slower than their natural speed, resulting in a track that I looked forward to hearing the end of. The high praise for The Alchemist during the second verse from both players is probably why “For The Record” made the final cut of 1st Infantry. Oh, and that whole “The Alchemist and Dilated Peoples already had a working relationship” thing. And the whole “Alan and Evidence are part of a duo called Step Brothers” thing. But I digress.
13. BOOST THE CRIME RATE (FEAT. J-HOOD & SHEEK LOUCH)
The Alchemist goes three for three with his D-Block songs on 1st Infantry, as Sheek Louch and J-Hood carry “Boost The Crime Rate” over the threshold and into their marital bed or some shit. J-Hood still isn't a very good rapper, but he sounds much better than he did on “D Block To QB”, and Sheek does his whole “he just tries harder” thing, successfully manhandling Alan's unorthodox but hot instrumental. I wish Jada and Styles has stopped by, as they would have destroyed this shit, but I'm satisfied enough with what I have.
14. STRENGTH OF PAIN (FEAT. CHINKY)
Mobb Deep's go-to for a quick misplaced R&B hook, the unfortunately-named Chinky, gets a solo showcase of her own, singing about struggles in life that have fuck-all to do with her current position, rolling with the Infamous Mobb (even though an uncredited Prodigy seems to introduce her and provides ad-libs). 1st Infantry doesn't really have room for two R&B smoke breaks (as Devin the Dude already used it up), and Chinky is unable to captivate an audience for the duration of an entire song, so this shit was a bust. Alan's instrumental was alright, I suppose, and it was interesting to hear a track on 1st Infantry with a hook that asks why the artist's father left her, but that doesn't mean that it was any good.
15. A SOUL ASSASSIN'S TALE (INTERLUDE)
Funny, in that Alan seems to take the wrong lesson away from his conversation, but whatever, it's still an interlude. You don't really need to listen to it.
16. BANG OUT (FEAT. B-REAL)
After an interlude that name-checks the Soul Assassins collective, Alan's second home, it makes sense that both DJ Muggs (with an uncredited cameo) and B-Real, both of Cypress Hill fame, would appear on the very next track. Unfortunately, “Bang Out” is no throwback to Black Sunday: B-Real's nasal tone clashes horribly with Alan's instrumental, which probably would have worked better had it been handed to The Lox or a different like-minded crew. I didn't realize this write-up would become such a goddamn lovefest for The Lox, but here we are. Anyway, the beat is too high-energy for someone who takes pride in the sheer volume of weed they ingest per day to follow.
17. TICK TOCK (FEAT. NAS & PRODIGY)
The only track from Insomnia: 1st Infantry Mixtape Vol. 2 to actually make the final cut of this project. Al's beat is relaxed enough for Nasir to feel comfortable, but the fact that, at least on my copy, one of his curses is censored while the rest of his swear words escape unharmed makes so little sense that I couldn't get into it. Cellblock P, with his umpteenth appearance on here, actually sounds like he caught a glimpse of his old rhyming self in an antique photo frame and unlocked the part of his brain where he holds all of his actual decent performances. Yeah, that last sentence was ridiculous. Get over it.
18. PIMP SQUAD (FEAT. T.I. & P$C)
The Alchemist tries to branch out by venturing to the South, as T.I. wins the prize for being the artist most likely to cause consumers to do a double take when they hold 1st Infantry in their cold, dead hands. Too bad the interest wanes the very moment Cliffy and his P$C team pick up the microphone: the beat was okay enough, but the guests never acclimate to their surroundings, and the marriage is never consummated. Still, it's nice to know that Alan is at least aware that hip hop is produced in locations outside of New York and California.
19. DIFFERENT WORLDS (FEAT. BIG TWINS)
Alan ends 1st Infantry with a duet alongside Infamous Mobb's Twin Gambino, and they pass the mic back and forth so fluidly that there's little wonder why they still work together to this day. “Different Worlds” is still a curious song, though, because while Twin describes his childhood growing up in the streets, hustling and running from the cops, Alan admits that his own upbringing was “proper”; he always wore nice clothes, paid attention in school, never truly wanted for anything, and one of his best friends was motherfucking Scott Caan (of Hawaii Five-O, Ocean's trilogy, and Whooliganz fame, if you count Caan's dope verse on that Step Brothers project from earlier this year). It's weird to hear a rapper brag about how good he had it as a kid, but Alan owns his lifestyle, which I can respect. This wasn't a bad way to end at all.
Because this is the music industry and all they want is your fucking money, The Alchemist re-released 1st Infantry later in a deluxe edition, including a couple of bonus tracks and a DVD of behind-the-scenes footage (of what, recording this album?). As I don't have that version, I don't know what the extra songs sound like, but if you happen to be privy, do tell.
FINAL THOUGHTS: The Alchemist's first actual album also happens to be the first time that he proves that too much Alchemist can be a bad thing. The overstuffed 1st Infantry is filled with industry connections that do nothing to prove that Alan has his ears to the streets: rather, it makes him look like a guy who was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. While some of the guests actually put in some good work (mostly the various members of The Lox), most of these folks give throwaway performances (especially both halves of Mobb Deep, a crew Alan runs with on a regular basis) that they were probably surprised to see end up on an actual retail release, but it may not be all their fault: a lot of Alan's beats on 1st Infantry try too hard to sound menacing and ultimately land on this side of “meh” (which makes it strange that he would later release the instrumentals to 1st Infantry separately, but okay). There are some gems on here, but hardcore Alchemist stans have not only found them already, they've already stopped reading this part of the review since I dared to say that the beats were mostly “meh”, so they won't notice when I call all of their mothers whores. I kid, I kid. But seriously, this album should have been a much tighter EP, or at least Alan shouldn't have asked people to actually pay money for this shit.
BUY OR BURN? A burn is sufficient.
BEST TRACKS: “Boost The Crime Rate”; “The Essence”; “D-Block To QB”
Catch up with some more of Alchemist's stuff by clicking here.