Curren$y & Alchemist- Covert Coup

Every track on Curren$y’s new mixtape Covert Coup starts with short tight samples looped into deep, dark, sneaky music. It’s the same kind of beat that Alchemist has thrown behind hard as nails rappers like Mobb Deep for years. This time, though, it’s not Prodigy’s anti-flow of pain and fearlessness that barks over the backdrop; it’s a smug, loose, New Orleans drawl that doesn’t gently tip toe over the beat. It’s the voice of someone with no time to waste who rips bar after bar; images clever enough to match the fragmented beauty of the beat. He just goes for maybe two and a half minutes or so, and then stops, no hook. The songs are named after either his or Alchemist’s favorite line from the track (“Success is my Cologne”, “Scottie Pippens”, “Double 07”) and then he just lets the beat play.  If you listen closely, you can hear him underneath it all. He’s not rapping, he’s just mumbling- maybe chanting way behind the music…Jet Life, Jet Life…Jet Life, Jet Life. It doesn’t feel like a creative ad-lib that he is stamping the song with. It feels somehow like the focal point of his artistic presence.  An artist so centered in who he is that this skill, this achievement of a track is just…Jet Life.

Being both a fan of Alchemist and Curren$y, I was very skeptical as to how this would work. . The fear was that with Alchemist these tracks would be so muted they would bore the most devoted listener. A rapper this fearlessly Southern in not just content, but intonation over a producer who makes a very specifically grungy and stark East Coast, dirty Timbaland boots music can sound like two things that shouldn’t be in the same room. The result, happily, is the opposite. Alchemist proves that he can make his sound work for any really skilled artist and Curren$y proves that he leads the song no matter who is producing it. A lot of credit has to go to an artist like Curren$y who works with great producers and proves that he has a good ear for his own sound. He knows better than I do when he’s not taking a risk at all.

Covert Coup is offered as a free EP, but it’s not. Both Alchemist and Curren$y create a ton of music. Alchemist is not only handing out tracks for everyone’s album, but puts out his own records quite regularly. Unlike other producers that do this; however, his quality rarely slips. Curren$y put out two albums last year (Pilot talk 1 and 2) and another mixtape, Return to The Winner’s Circle, this year. Covert Coup is ten tracks deep, which could easily be considered an album, but for artists as proficient as these two it feels short. Calling it an EP acknowledges that they probably could have done ten more.

“Full Metal” is probably the most devastating track in terms of smashing you with mind-bending bass and completely unique content. Curren$y opens with “Ugh, I call my brother sun cause he shine like/ noon time, Alaska on the turnpike/maneuvering my GT5, my nerves is ice.” The imagery is completely his own; I have never heard any rap artist lyrically talk about the way the sun looks at noon in Alaska. It’s not deep or spiritual but it’s a fresh image that paints a picture of a thoughtful person even while layering Braggadocio.

All of the features are impressive.  Fiend, who is beginning to sound like Rock from Heltah Skeltah, is especially notable; but no one comes close to Freddie Gibbs who has one of those magical moments where he feels like the future of Hip Hop. His speed rap alliterative stripped down gangster persona fits perfectly over Alchemist’s grimy murk.  But even as Gibbs has his moment, you can almost see Curren$y nodding his head in the background unworried. His verse on the track works in Cobra from GI JOE and Cobra Kai the villainous organization from Karate Kid. He’s playful while being somber, and so when he throws control of the track to Gibbs, it’s because he’s the closer but everyone fits. He is never outshined; no one is ever more interesting.

Nothing is more re-listenable than Covert Coup. No beat will hook you like “Ventilation” Or “Full Metal”. A thousand different lines will stick sideways in your consciousness. Download this tape, so you can imagine me with headphones waiting for the bus and muttering Jet Life over and over again.

You can download Covert Coup here

http://covertcoup.currensyspitta.com/   (they email you a link)

-Dan O.

Elzhi’s- Elmatic

Nostalgia is a tricky thing. While it can be used as a reference point by artists to extend and offer their own ideas, it can also it can be a leaning post for lazy artists attempting to piggy back our collective consciousness for chance to be noticed.  It takes a lot of hard work to actually create something artistically worthwhile that is steeped in familiar material.

In a shout out on Slum Village alumni Elzhi’s reimaging of Illmatic, Detroit legend Houseshoes heralds the project. He says that it makes sense the Elzhi has recreated Illmatic, and… he’s kind of right.  Elzhi sounds a little like Nas during that time period, and while Nas may have been one of the first purveyors of Alternative hip hop during a time when Hardcore was king, Elzhi has been one of the few artists competently carrying the torch that Nas helped light. But even if Elzhi is the most reasonable choice for this task, the “cover album” is a relatively new thing in Hip-Hop. Beck can recreate a classic rock album and no one will flinch, but once you start to rebuild a classic Hip-Hop album, maybe THE classic Hip- Hop album, it’s easy to fail: even harder to prove that you aren’t style biting.

Thankfully, Elzhi avoids these trappings effectively. By using a live band to recreate the beats, and using the original material as more of a spring board for his own rhymes and concepts, Elzhi makes Elmatic his own.  Whether Elzhi is reminiscing about his upbringing and influences on “Memory Lane” or weaving narratives about intimate physical and mental violence in his home city On “Detroit State of Mind” Elzhi may use the spirit of the tracks, but it never really feels like he isn’t being true to himself. His ideas are much more microscopic than Nas’, even when he, infrequently, lifts the original lyrics (Rapper’s I monkey flip ‘em/gorilla stomp ‘em /I’m out here with the dealer’s pumpin’.)

Up and coming Detroit soul band, Will Sessions provides competent recreations of all of the Nas beats.  The band doesn’t just slavishly stick to the original sample loops and drum patterns, but attempts to play them as a live band would, stretching them and adding extra flourishes. The crisp organ stabs and double bass plucks on “Represent” are an interesting reworking of the murky sample used by DJ Primer, while the cleanly recorded and mixed Jazz piano on “The World is Yours” is simply a pleasant touch.  Instrumentals are also extended with mixed results.  “Life’s A Bitch” is stretched, with a clearly Miles Davis inspired trumpet solo and bits of “Yearning for Your Love” by the GAP Band. One the other hand, tracks like “One Love” are uninterestingly extended and it feels like Elzhi and the band were just trying to beef up the tape’s run time.

Elzhi’s a pretty good rapper, and even though he may not always reach Nas’ lyricism, he certainly comes close.  There are plenty of little gems to mine; “My Soul Caliber is like Namco” for instance, will have nerds chuckling and quoting for a few months, and even if concepts don’t always work (the transportation puns on “Memory Lane” may elicit a few groans) they don’t really cause the project to falter. If the goal of this exercise was for Elzhi to tie up the loose ends between the Alternative Hip hop of the 90’s and the Underground hip hop of the last decade, he’s done a very nice job.  Nas’s classic was extremely influential to both the sounds and the words of the underground scene, and Elzhi’s Elmatic encapsulates this fantastically. Elmatic is not a gimmicky project at all. It is the work of an artist using his influences as a reference to engage his audience in a new way, looking back at the past, but not leaning on it.

You can download Elmatic here

http://elzhi.com/

-D.L.

Waka Flocka Flame- Benjamin Flocka

Waka Flocka Flame is the quintessential Goon Rapper.  An incompetent lyricist with a simple flow, Flame is an unflappable hook machine with a decent ear for beats. In 2010, he found himself on many 2010 year end lists with Flockaveli, an intended mixtape – turned – album, that proved that once again many Hip hop heads were ready to forego hot lines and slick flows for Crunk style beats and ignorant fun.

And now we have Benjamin Flocka, the 2nd mixtape of 2011 from Flame.  After Salute Me Or Shoot Me 3, a soupy mess of limp conflicted gangsta clichés and tagged up club bangers, Flocka attempts to center himself by returning to what he knows best:  insanely fun, addictively scream-able hooks over minimalist, trunk knocking beats. Tracks from Salute Me or Shoot Me 3 are here in a less tagged form.  “Clap” produced by Southside Beatz is mixed more professionally, the gothic synth lines brought to the forefront over its simple Dirty South drum pattern. Waka’s nursery rhyme, earworm chorus is free of the tags, disorienting drops, and demands to “Turn that back!” that made it a less cohesive song the first time around. Still, many of the tracks that were recycled from Salute Me Or Shoot Me 3 do not fare as well. “Watch My Power Spread” is still too long a slog and the chorus is a 8 bar load of bullshit about wearing red and green clothes, it’s cumbersome and unwieldy- even as Bricksquad crew member Wooh Da Kid drops his best verse to date.

The new tracks make the best argument that Flame may be able to still eke out an existence in Hip Hop without Lex Lugar constantly holding his hand. UK Beatmaker Southside Beatz handles some of the better production on Benjamin.  Standout track “Kill The Parkin’ Lot” is monolithic, with its hard driving, bass drum heavy beat and it’s fantastic chorus, while Murky strip club night banger “Spazz out” is close to delivering the same satisfaction as Flockaveli’s single “No Hands”.

Like some of the best of Waka’s output, it’s a decent addition to his goon rap persona, but ultimately non-essential.  He still feels like he’s featuring on his own tracks, providing the hooks and the irrelevant 16 as he’s easily lapped by almost every feature on the tape.  Papoose delivers both the best and worst lines on Benjamin Flocka (I’m crowned like the heights were the Jewish live? Yuck) and many of Waka Flocka’s faceless crew are starting to evolve. (Most notably Slim Dunkin, and Wooh Da Kid)

It’s hard to make an argument that Waka Flocka will be as relevant to hip hop more than he was last year. Beyond being hated by the “pure” rap fans, Flockaveli seems like the benchmark, and every other tape after it may be decent, but will never reach the same recognition. His unapologetic apathy towards evolving as an MC means that everything that comes out after will most likely see diminishing returns.  The honest truth is that if he’s not growing, and everyone around him improves and finds their voice, Waka may find himself merely a feature on future Bricksquad endeavors- forced to scream their hooks.

You can listen or download Benjamin Flocka here

http://www.livemixtapes.com/mixtapes/13339/waka_flocka_flame_benjamin_flocka.html

-D.L.

Big K.R.I.T- Return 2 4eva

DJ’s try to bolster their reputation by building stables of emcees that they helped discover. This does two things, it increases their reputation by putting an important artist on and, it ensures that when they put together a compilation album they have enough people to throw on massive posse tracks with air horn…a lot of air horn. DJ Khaled has Ace Hood, DJ Kay Slay has Papoose, and so on, and so on. In New York City, if your demo gets in the right hands you can find your niche.

That’s not how it works in Mississippi. Even after years of Southern Rap chart domination, most people think of Atlanta and Texas as the major points of interest. Most Southern rap artists end up with no publicity, making music on their own: completely on their own.

Where discovered artists can get an inflated sense of self-worth, a do it yourself MC/producer like Big K.R.I.T (King remembered in time) will get the opportunity to craft his signature sound without outside meddling. If he wants a beat to feel like UGK and Outkast mixed with 8ball and MJG no one is there to question it. When K.R.I.T. Wuz Here came out last year, and hit the top of everyone’s “mixtape of the year” lists, he was signed to a record deal and now he has put together the follow up.

The least interesting part of his rise to prominence is the off- putting comparison some make to T.I. I’ve read this many times, but have never gotten any details, just that he sounds like T.I. and that’s it. The only good guess is that we still deal with a lot of confusion in how to understand these artists. The only other major rap star from Mississippi is David Banner who sounds nothing like K.R.I.T. so the T.I. reach comes from the fact that TIP has always been lyrical and the best example of a “new school” “lyrical” southern rapper. This is incorrect, because they have little in common in subject or sound, and people like me who think too much find strained comparisons like this insulting to an artist who is obviously not being listened to properly for his own music.

Return of 4eva masters a level of contradiction that made albums like Me Against The World so artistically unique. The pimp songs are followed by humble songs about believing in yourself; the baller songs have distinct anti-baller retorts just a few tracks away. It took a while for me to try and figure out what was more impressive the production or the lyrics. I ended up ignoring the question and just enjoying the music. He’s always been a superb MC, and at this point the music is almost as innovative.  It takes that UGK, Deep Texas, sneaking prominent bass line and gives it a spotlight behind the most well placed soul samples. The songs have that slow rolling smoker feeling you get from Wiz, Curren$y and the gang, but turned up and stuck in the old Geto Boys south. The anthems jump and smile at you like Outkast, The “Return of 4eva theme” is a great example, especially since an Outkast line from Ms. Jackson is used for the chorus. The song is probably my favorite of the year thus far but not even my favorite on this mixtape if that makes sense.

“Rotation”, “My Sub” and “Time Machine” are dedications to the music  he listens to while riding in the vehicle in which he reminisces. “My Sub” is brilliantly catchy and minimalist, with enough bass to live up to its chorus. American Rapster is an affirmation of his character starting the verse “They say that money makes the world go round/you never lost till you lose your crown/ and they don’t love you till your underground…” Lightly chanting voices in the background give way to the beat and become one with it- there is gospel in a lot of the production, it doesn’t just sound like UGK or Outkast: it sounds warm, and soulful, and spiritual, and its intended that way. It makes perfect sense for one of the most personal and engaging MC’s in the world to somehow make Ray Charles Hip-Hop that can brag, boast, and cry with the same breath, in the same bar.

The features go something like this: Bun B never lets you down, Chamillionaire really bites into the concept, David Banner is terrible, and I am almost as tired of Raheem Devaughn as I am of Ludacris and his lyrical decline.

“Songs like Shake It”, “Player’s Ballad”, and “Get Right” are effective and fun but are about fun and the joy of having it. Too much rap about the good life makes a person as invested in his music as K.R.I.T. go the other way. There is a three song point in this mixtape where it can’t be compared against others. There are other mixtapes this year that have made incredibly catchy and fun riding music, but from track 18-20 there is nothing like Return of 4 eva.  “Naive Individual Glorifying Greed & Encouraging Racism” is further evidence that K.R.I.T. never overdoes anything. Using sparse and gorgeous pianos and horns alike, he knows the place every sound should begin and end. Lyrically, he’s aggressive “I don’t want to be another nigga trying to sell you something/ don’t know shit but try and tell you something/ Tap dance if you want him too, could have fed the hungry/but he bought those jewels.” It’s not just a song attacking the industry but one of those rare songs that seem to be attacking his own player instincts: his own songs. It’s these layers of earned depth that leave you impressed. “Free my Soul” builds on the piano and lets it predominate, he sings and stops the fun pace of the album dead in its tracks in order to connect with the listener about the difficult balance between spirituality and Hip-Hop as an industry. This song and “The Vent” that comes after it, are songs I don’t want to describe: I want you to hear them. Posting lyrics would not do proper service to how they are delivered, how dense and tender and resilient each second is. I will leave you with a quote that pretty well says it (from Free My Soul) “I don’t rap I spit hymns/ my God’s bigger then them…” When you go 21 tracks deep without a track I have to skip, you win. And when your high points are unmatched you earn a lot of fans. People like me.

You can download Return of 4eva at

http://returnof4eva.com/  (they shoot you a link)

-Dan-O

Welcome to Free Music Empire

Welcome to the first post at Free Music Empire, a site devoted to reviewing the latest Hip Hop mixtapes.  Over the last decade, Mixtapes have  become a dominant force in  the genre, rendering the scene a digital mess of Datpiff uploads and blogs. Aside from a few reviews here and there, we here at Free Music Empire have noticed a large gaping hole in music criticism that we hope to fill. Our tastes at FME range from the most ignorant Goon rap, to the Alternative Hip Hop scene so, hopefully, we will suggest something for you.

Thanks and good reading!

D.L and Dan-O