Enter the Black Knights.
The West Coast-based quartet, made up of Crisis tha Sharpshooter, Rugged Monk, Holocaust, and Doc Doom (R.I.P.), made their debut on the Wu-Tang Killa Beez compilation The Swarm (alongside their fellow Cali-based brethren North Star, made up of Meko the Pharaoh and the currently penis-less Christ Bearer), with some winning appearances on The RZA's album Bobby Digital In Stereo and the Ghost Dog: The Way of The Warrior soundtrack in their collective back pocket. They recorded their debut album, Every Night Is A Black Knight, for Wu-Tang Records and set a release date in 2001. At the time, they were poised to at least hit the same marks as fellow Wu-affiliated band Killarmy. However, label politics forced the project to remain shelved, and nothing really came of the Black Knights. The group managed to get the rights and distributed the project through Chambermusik, a loosely-connected Wu-Tang offshoot label, some years back, but their moment had long since passed, after the defection of Holocaust, who pursued (and is still pursuing, as far as I know: I'm not his biographer) a solo career after spitting some stan-favorite verses, and the passing of Doc Doom, who was killed in 2007.
Reduced down to a duo, Crisis and Monk continued to work together, but the interest from the heads just wasn't there. The RZA still liked them, though, and kept them around in the studio so that they could at least stay warm and occasionally score a meal whenever the actual working rappers didn't finish their lunches. It was through the artist formerly known as Prince Rakeem that Monk and Crisis met the man that would forever alter the direction of their careers: John Frusciante, the former guitar player for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who is also known for his ability to be a musical chameleon, transitioning between genres and bands (he also worked with The Mars Volta for a time) like it's nothing 'cause it's nothing.
Frusciante was getting burned out with what he had been doing and wanted to explore new territory: producing a rap album. He started off with Rugged Monk and recorded a collaboration for one of his own solo efforts, and he liked what he heard so much that he and Monk decided to keep it going for as long as possible. Monk convinced Crisis to sign on, and once that happened, Frusciante decided to record an official Black Knights album. Well, actually, he ended up recording three official Black Knights albums, but whatever.
Medieval Chamber, their first batch of songs released to the public and the second full-length Black Knights album overall, was released in January of 2014, so I'm only a year and a half late to the party, so yay me. Its ten tracks are produced entirely by Frusciante, with no guest appearances to speak of, save for Frusciante himself, who appears to sing on some of the hooks. With Medieval Chamber, which smartly adopts the Wu's love of the word "chamber" but actually makes sense given the overall theme of the project, Crisis and Monk received the rare opportunity of a second chance at this rap shit, and with the likes of Frusciante behind the boards, they were able to not only expand their sound beyond their general Wu-ness and the G-Funk of their peers, but they could also expand their overall audience, since slapping John Frusciante's name onto your album automatically guarantees that folks outside of the general realm of hip hop will take notice.
As a bit of serendipity, I just found out today, while writing this post, that the second batch of songs from this pairing, collected onto an album called The Almighty, is scheduled for release next Tuesday. So you should expect that review in 2017, folks. We'll see you then.
After a battery of sound effects that could, I suppose, maybe sound like a castle's drawbridge opening and closing but is really just a bunch of gunfire (although sequenced well), Frusciante's moody instrumental kicks in, and Crisis immediately realizes his potential as an emcee. He sounds pretty fucking great, no bullshit, while Monk does his thing well enough. What surprised me is just how quickly these guys adapted to their new environment: although Frusciante's production never departs the hip hop realm, it's fuller and much more thorough than anything the Black Knights have ever dealt with before (except maybe the few RZA beats they've received). "Drawbridge" segues into your typical rap album intro shout-outs and ad-libs, but the journey to that point is fascinating.
2. THE JOUST
The beat comes complete with old school-esque drum work and some crooning on the hook that doesn't get in the way (although it is unnecessary, but to be fair, it almost always is). Frusciante's ability to form as fully-furnished a hip hop musical thought as he does on "The Joust" is commendable. Crisis, once again, supplies the winning verse, his boasts 'n bullshit making me wonder how he never managed to snag a guest spot on any of the proper Wu-Tang Clan projects. Rugged Monk's excitable flow falters yet again, but this time it isn't entirely his fault, as it appears that Frusciante broke up his verse into two sections just so I could write the sentence, "Rugged Monk lends two verses to 'The Joust'". But what I say 'falters', it just means he doesn't sound nearly as good as his rhyme partner, that's all.
3. MEDIEVAL TIMES
The brief skit that opens "Medieval Times" emphasizes how much Monk's normal speaking voice sounds like Raekwon's. Too bad he doesn't rap like him. Anyway, "Medieval Times" is, so far, the most West Coast-sounding track of Medieval Chamber, its slow drive down the block punctuated by a chorus that, per the liner notes, "embodies portions of" Depeche Mode's "The Sun and The Rainfall", which damn near guarantees that I'm going to enjoy this. And I did. Monk's flow sounds infinitely better over snail-paced beats such as this one, and he dominates the track, with Crisis lagging behind when he finally makes a vocal appearance. I knew Monk had it in him.
4. TRICKFINGERS' PLAYHOUSE
Frusciante's alter-ego, referenced throughout Medieval Chamber, comes out to play on "Trickfingers' Playhouse", which is essentially his own take on Dr. Octagon's "I'm Destructive", with its powerful, fast-paced drums and the distorted reading of Mike Tyson's infamous diatribe against a reporter (the "I'll fuck you 'til you love me" speech, if you're familiar) creeping listeners the fuck out. And just like Kool Keith did on The Automator's fantastic beat, Crisis and Rugged Monk "catch wreck" (do the kids still say that? Catch wreck?) over Frusciante's furious production, the boxing references flying as the song lands on the right side of "entertainment". This shit bangs.
5. SWORD IN STONE
Another slow crawl around, well, the studio, obviously, as a sample from Funkadelic's "The Song Is Familiar" leads Crisis and Monk down a path that has been traveled heavily before, but they still handle the journey like fucking pros. As I implied above, Rugged Monk excels when the BPMs are low, but this time around Crisis also picks up the slack, so even though the Black Knights won't "save hip hop", and even though Monk's declaration that you can "Google [him] on Yahoo.com" makes no fucking sense, the track still works, thanks to Frusciante's attention to detail and composition. Holy shit.
More banging drums accompany "Knighthood", the first track on Medieval Chamber on which the Black Knights specifically mention the late Doc Doom, although it also proves that this duo has recovered nicely. Crisis tha Sharpshooter's lone verse cements his place now as one of the better Wu-affiliated emcees, while Rugged Monk works his way around Frusciante's musical backing effortlessly. The chorus lends a haunted feel to the song, but "Knighthood" is very much a mission statement regarding the continued future of our hosts. Also, it sounds really good. Jesus.
7. DEJA VU
Although nearly all of the previous six tracks led me to create an online petition to bar The RZA from any future Black Knights release in favor of John Frusciante, "Deja Vu" kind of sucks. They can't all be winners, right? And of course, this was the song they shot a fucking video for. Over what I kept thinking was Frusciante's plodding version of the Irv Gotti beat from Jay-Z's "Can I Live", Crisis and Monk wax poetically about shit, none of it hitting as hard as they wanted because the overall speed of the instrumental is so slow that you're likely to fall asleep before it even ends. Groan. I suppose it's no coincidence that the title "Deja Vu" has nothing to do with the overall medieval theme the Black Knights had otherwise adhered to on this project and, as such, blows? No, I don't care that "Trickfingers' Playhouse" also doesn't fit that criteria: that song rocks.
Although it sounds like Crisis and Monk's vocals were recorded with a tin can in a tunnel, "Roundtable" is a step back in the right direction. Musically, Frusciante picks up the pace, layering samples on top of sampled while working in the actual verses, which aren't perfect, but definitely can't be considered "awful". Had it not been for the existence of the previous track, "Roundtable" would have easily been the worst track on Medieval Chamber, and it doesn't even sound bad. The chorus is too long, I suppose, but still.
9. KEYS TO THE CHASTITY BELT
When Rugged Monk tells a lady friend about "the science of life", I couldn't help but think of Tommy Wiseau in The Room shouting, "Do you understand life?" Anyway, "Keys To The Chastity Belt"'s very title barely sticks with the overall theme of the project, but hip hop heads shouldn't be worried that the Black Knights suddenly wrote a song for the ladies: come on, there aren't any women out there that would actively seek out Medieval Chamber anyway. Instead, this was really just an excuse for more boasts 'n bullshit, except sex is involved. The underlying music was pretty good, though, and it ends quickly enough to not annoy anybody, so there's that.
The final track on Medieval Chamber is "Camelot", whose instrumental sounds the most like something The RZA might produce today (I feel I have to add that qualifier, since we all know there's a distinction there). That isn't a knock on the music at all, but the verses from Crisis and Monk are lacking energy, as though they're merely tired at this point. Of course, for that excuse to make any sense, the Black Knights would have needed to have recorded all ten tracks on this album in order, and all in one session, which isn't very realistic. Anyway, this was too low-key a way to end things: the listener is left expecting more, since the album just...ends.
Unless you happen to be reading this post in Japan, in which case you're the proud recipient of the following bonus tracks. Everyone else on the planet, get thine ass to YouTube to hear these.
11. NEVER LET GO
The first bonus track features some fucking hard drums and a vocal sample from Anne Murray's cover of "Danny's Song", which, if you're anything like me, will remind you of Wet Hot American Summer, which is just goddamn hilarious. That sample is bizarre, but it doesn't not fit, if that makes any sense, and because the drums are so slow and methodical, Rugged Monk comes across fantastically. Crisis does alright for himself, too. In short, this was nice. So why in the hell did the Black Knights only give this song to Japan? (Technically, it also appears as a b-side that was given away if you ordered Medieval Chamber directly from the label, Record Collection, at the point of its original release, but still.)
12. WAYNE (REMIX)
The actual final song of the evening is a remix of one of Frusciante's own solo efforts, the instrumental "Wayne", which Monk and Crisis are given carte blanche to spit over. The original is another slow crawl, which automatically gives this remix the feel of a meandering roll down the avenue, which is always nice, at least until these motherfuckers start aping the nursery rhyme, "Row Row Row Your Boat" during the hook, which is stupid as all get out. I wasn't feeling this one. The music was alright, but there was no real need to add vocals to it. You can keep this shit, Japan.
THE LAST WORD: With Medieval Chamber, the Black Knights have actually conjured up something really fucking good. Surprisingly good. Shocking, even. Even though they're missing half of the goddamn group, Crisis and Monk take their playful back-and-forth to new heights, guided by the darker, melodic styles of John Frusciante, who handles the boards as though he had been creating rap songs his entire career. Although with some of his later Red Hot Chili Peppers tracks, he kind of was. Anyway, Medieval Chamber makes an excellent case for the Black Knights to stick around a while longer in this rap shit: I was pretty much ready to write them off, and I'm sure you two were right there with me. But seriously, this was entertaining as hell. Not every song is perfect, but enough of this works for me to actually justify a recommendation for a purchase. I look forward to what their second collaboration with Frusciante bears. What can I say? This album actually got the Wu stan inside of me excited again, and this year, that's been pretty fucking difficult for me to say. Go check this one out.