By not quite as large a margin as one would think, Taylor's recent Reader Review for the ultra-rare Ultra Boogie Highlife, from Alvin "Funkghost" Harris", was still one of the most popular submissions to the site in its seven-year history. This could easily be chalked up to two distinct factors: (a) people like reading about rarities and "lost" albums, and (b) it doesn't hurt that Taylor was offering up a copy of the album for download, since it can't be found anywhere and all. But the fact of the matter is that Ultra Boogie Highlife is a hidden gem that, hopefully, reaches a wider audience that can appreciate its sound and its messages.
At the risk of sounding even more conceited and self-important than usual, that is probably something that Funkghost himself considered when he sent me a press release for his new album, Caviar Taste, the same day that the review was published. Fourteen years after the truncated release of Ultra Boogie Highlife, Alvin finds himself drenched within a hip hop culture that has evolved far beyond his original sound, forcing him to make a choice: should he stick with the nostalgia circuit, dropping single after single of late 1990s-esque boom bap and catering to a specific demographic of hip hop head, or should he upgrade himself to the new millennium and act like the new artist he technically isn't?
Unsurprisingly, he went with the second option.
That is by no means a slight against the decision: if you want to be heard, it usually helps to attach yourself to a vehicle that will get you listened to. Caviar Taste features thirteen tracks and nearly as many producers, all of whom appear to have a general understanding and appreciation of what our chosen genre sounds like today, from the trap-infused Southern vibe that infiltrated hip hop so gradually that nobody noticed until it was too late, to the meditative, abstract-ish, free-flowing instrumentals the popular Canadian rapper-slash-wheelchair-enthusiast Drake uses to convince his fans that he's a deep thinker. Which is usually problematic, so it's up to the lyrics to help carry the overall project: thankfully, the lyrics themselves are what Taylor praised the most in his write-up, and Funkghost's flow appears to have been untouched by the ravages of time.
Unlike its predecessor, Funkghost is pulling out all the stops to ensure that people will actually get to hear Caviar Taste, selling it for digital download on both iTunes and Amazon (*cough* go with Amazon, it will help the blog out *cough*). The guest list is light, as I suppose our host felt the need to reestablish himself without the added distraction of collaborators (although he does farm out a bunch of the hooks, as rappers are wont to do), but that just leaves more room to showcase his own lyrics, delivered with a confidence that comes with there being pretty much exactly zero expectations for Caviar Taste, since most heads will think of Funkghost as a brand new artist from Tampa, Florida.
You two readers know differently, though, and yes, that does make you better than everybody else.
1. SWISHERS / OVERDOSE (FEAT. FRED NICE)
Funkghost has obviously been paying attention to current rap trends, as "Swishers / Overdose" is two songs in one, just like a lot of artists tend to do these days. But hey, there's no rap album intro, so I'll take it. The Downtown Music-produced "Swishers" finds our host utilizing a beat that sounds like someone locked John Carpenter up inside a trap house, which is intended as a compliment, while Funkghost updates his flow for today's hip hop fan with great results. The J Breezz-handled "Overdose" doesn't hit the same highs (pun not intended), though. The instrumental is alright, but the Fred Nice hook disrupts the flow, so even though our host's bars sound just as good as before, it just doesn't hit quite as hard. Also, "Overdose" doesn't really have anything to do with "Swishers", so I have to question why our host felt the need to combine both on the same audio track.
2. NEVER GO 2 SLEEP (FEAT. REY FONDER)
Epik The Dawn's instrumental is much more subdued than the two we've heard thus far, but its hypnotic quality will suck you in, and guest star Rey Fonder's Tyga-meets-Big Sean-esque hook (no, wait, get back here, I'm not finished) is catchy in a way that could gain it a wider audience without compromising our host's sound. Speaking of which, Funkghost's verses are chock full of punchlines and braggadocio, delivered with the confidence of a man who didn't necessarily feel the need to release a follow-up album immediately, thereby making the heads come to him. Also, the Solange-in-an-elevator reference proves that at least most of Caviar Taste is made up of new recordings and not just fourteen-year-old vaulted tracks just now seeing the light of day. This one was pretty nice.
3. TALK THAT (FEAT. CEE JAE)
I didn't care for this one. Paul Cabbin's instrumental just flat-out isn't for me, and Funkghost's lyrics, focused premarily on him basically being impressed with a female more-than-a-friend, will most likely fall on deaf ears, as Cee Jae's hook most certainly will drive listeners toward the next track almost immediately. Hey, you can't win them all.
4. WHAT YOU NEED (I GOT IT)
I understand, I truly do: if Funkghost is going to mount a comeback of sorts, the only way he can be seen as anything approaching relevant is if he reaches as wide an audience as possible, playing to both genders. That's why love raps exist in the first place: if there was no need for him to cater to the females in the crowd, LL Cool J's catalog would (a) feature nothing but aggressive cuts, and (b) would be a quarter of the size of his actual discography, if that. So Funkghost spitting for the ladies I get. What I didn't understand was the creative choice that causes him to perform "What You Need (I Got It)" in nothing but distorted vocals. Because women love to hear that shit when men coo in their ears? Probably not.
5. XTRA FLY
Okay, now we're back to the boasts 'n bullshit, with Funkghost pulling up to the club in style. "Xtra Fly" features a Tweek Beats, um, beat that borrows a line from Kanye West's "Touch The Sky" (come on, you know which one) so as to show off one of our host's main influences for Caviar Taste, and while it's poppy to a fault, it's still entertaining. Funkghost's bars once again steal the show, as he spends this quickie of a track hitting on a woman with a face "just like Ellen Barkin", whose name you probably have never heard dropped into a rap song before, at least this year, anyway. A nice swing back in the right direction.
6. YSL LOGO
Our host uses the closing moments of "Xtra Fly" to promote his label, Grand Extravagant Entertainment: the O.P. Sopa-produced "YSL Logo", in contrast, boosts the profile of an unrelated brand that really doesn't need any further promotion, the clothing line of Yves Saint Laurent, but hey, it's been about five minutes since I've heard a rapper shout-out a fashion designer, so here we are. It helps that this track is pretty earworm-y, even if the hook is a bit frustrating. Aside from that, better than it really has any right to be.
7. DEAR LORD
Rappers speaking directly to the deity of their choosing is nothing new in our chosen genre: most artists have a rather complicated relationship with their God, and that usually makes for some sometimes-compelling, at-least-interesting music. Funkghost is, of course, no exception, using a low-key Scott Supreme instrumental to have his prayers heard. Our host admirably sticks with the theme throughout the entire running time, begging for forgiveness and asking for protection over his family without ever once coming across as someone who believes he's simply entitled to these requests because of his status or wealth. In short, he sounds humble, so even though "Dear Lord" doesn't really work as an actual song (you won't need to hear it a second time), Funkghost still prevails.
8. INSIDE AND OUT
Would have benefited from a different chorus and, as such, an altogether different title. The 2 Fresh instrumental is alright but manageable: any decent rapper could easily elevate the material with some shit-talking mixed with a dash of audacious boasts. Funkghost easily coasts over the beat, bragging about his money and also about how he spends his money, but the hook fucks everything up for me. Still, some of you two may find something to like on here, as the rest of the track is okay.
9. END OF THE WORLD (FEAT. JAVON BLACK)
O.P. Supa's instrumental sounds like someone parked a melting carousel in the studio, but in this case, that isn't a good thing: the beat is annoying as shit. Because of that, Funkghost's bars (and, by extension, guest Javon Black's overlong hook) suffer as a result. Our host's punchlines and boasts don't land, floating above the atmosphere created by the music, never to be received since listeners will almost certainly skip straight to the next track, which has got to sound more post-apocalyptic than this shit does.
10. ROCKIN NEVER STOPPIN
That hook may force you to hit the 'next' button, it's that stupid. I urge you two to resist that urge, though, as our host sounds better over the Downtown Music concoction (one that a lot of Southern artists would kill to rhyme over) than he has over the course of the last few tracks. The beat on here is, of course and by design, light years away from anything on Ultra Boogie Highlife, but that album dropped in 2000, so it would kind of have to be. Lame-ass title aside, this song actually is pretty entertaining, and you'll probably find yourself blasting this one out of your car speakers if you're one of those folks who enjoys angering up your neighbors.
11. LIGHT UP THE MOON
Thank you, album credits, for informing me that "Light Up The Moon" contains elements of a Selena Gomez song entitled "Stars Dance", and yes, the sample is just as ridiculous as you have imagined it to be after reading that sentence, even if you're like me and have never actually listened to a Selena Gomez song so you have no clue if it is representative of any of her other work. That last statement is unfairly biased against Selena Gomez, I admit, but I really could give a shit right now: with all of the music released as each day passes, it's impossible to listen to everything, so I've made my choices. Although the song title is admittedly cool, there isn't much else on "Light Up The Moon" worth mentioning, as Funkghost's corny (and censored on my copy, for fuck's sake) bars just don't stand up next to the rest of his thoughtful, clever rhymes throughout Caviar Taste. Groan.
12. STRONGER THAN BEFORE
After a bizarre interlude that took up all of the previous audio track, which is how we will all now refer to "Light Up The Moon" as, Funkghost swings for the fences with "Stronger Than Before", a song that rights the ship. Epik The Dawn's Marvin Gaye-sampling instrumental is put to good use by our host, who sounds like a Freddie Gibbs type dipped in cologne and swagger, his confidence shining through in his bars. This is probably what you two came here to see, folks.
13. PARADISE GARAGE / TASTING IT
Just as it began, Caviar Taste ends with a track that contains two separate, unrelated songs. "Paradise Garage" bangs, as Downtown Music's beat fires on all cylinders (and even includes a familiar sound bite for those of you who are fans of Pusha T's "Numbers On The Boards"), coming across as an amalgam of Kanye West and 2001-era Dr. Dre. It segues into a low-key instrumental around the five-minute mark, capping the song with Funkghost's "music for the diaspora", taking place over one of those drum-less numbers Aubrey or Kendrick might purchase for themselves. After a brief interlude, Paul Cabbin's musical backing for "Tasting It" closes out the project as our host spits without any vocal filters or goofy distractions, impressing the hell out of anyone who somehow got this far into the album and was still undecided about dude's flow. Even in this new hip hop era, it's good to know that those with genuine skill are (sometimes) able to acclimate successfully.
THE LAST WORD: So here's the deal: Caviar Taste is almost the polar opposite of Ultra Boogie Highlife when it comes to its overall sound, but that's not just by design, but also as a sign of the times: hip hop just flat-out doesn't sound like Ultra Boogie Highlife anymore, no matter how much I complain about it. If you allow the various instrumentals to breathe, however, what you'll find is that Funkghost's flow is virtually unchanged from his fourteen-year-old debut album, and his lyrics remain the main attraction in his catalog. Caviar Taste is not a perfect album: as you can tell above, there are a few tracks that I really don't need to listen to ever again. But the good and entertaining far outweigh the handful of questionable moments, and Caviar Taste feels like a natural progression for Funkghost as a result. It may take you two a couple of listens, but I think you'll ultimately enjoy this one.
That Reader Review of Funkghost's Ultra Boogie Highlife that everyone keeps talking about.