Gunz n' Butta by Cam'ron and Vado
From Raekwon to Pharoahe Monch and more, this spring has been a special one for hip-hop veterans. It almost reminds me of the autumn of 1998 with its embarrassment of hip-hop riches. Into this mix comes Cam'ron and his protégé Vado, with their album Gunz n' Butta (a phrase you may vaguely remember from 10th-grade social studies class). The album features many infectious hard-core party records, some of which have been burning up New York radios and clubs for some time, such as "Speakin in Tungs," "We All Up in Here" and "Hey Mumma" (the album includes instrumentals of the last two of these crazy bangers), and the more recent hit "Stop It 5."
The intense production, mostly the handiwork of Araab Muzik, is reminiscent of the music that used to rock clubs like the Tunnel and Speed in the early to mid-2000s, when Cam'ron and the Dip Set helped to make Speed into New York's hottest hip-hop venue. Gunz n' Butta is musically and poetically energetic; you could work out to it from start to finish. There is no soul-searching, no introspective track, no funny skits, no "Dear Mama" track. There's one romantic track ("Be With Me"), but it has one of the most ferocious beats I've heard in a while. Be warned: The album also features a strong dose of male chauvinism.
Cam has ushered along the careers of talented rappers such as Juelz Santana and Jim Jones, but it remains to be seen if Vado's career will reach the level attained by Cam's other protégés. Vado is a skilled but straightforward "monologic" rapper with little humor, one voice and one setting, whereas Cam, since his debut circa 1994, has been one of the most dynamic, lyrical, hilarious, ironic and innovative and diverse rappers to ever step in the booth. Vado has potential, but Cam carries the team. Also, Vado should vet his metaphors more carefully. In one chorus he compares himself to former 'N Sync manager Lou Pearlman, who has been disgraced on various fronts.
My favorite track is "F***-a-Freestyle" (produced by Antonio Jimenez), which is essentially two clever, bravado-dense freestyle verses over a slow and powerfully thumping piano-laced track. If there were still such a thing as music made for Jeeps (as they used to do in the early '90s) and driving around on a summer day, this would be it!
Another track that I predict will be a hit is the catchy "Lights, Camera, Action." To give you a sense of what it sounds like, here is Cam's intro: "Damn Araab. This that early '80s joint right here … This remind me of that R. Kelly two-step joint right here. My uncle might do the James Brown slide off this joint right here." I might do the James Brown slide off the whole album.
Musiqinthemagiq by Musiq Soulchild
Speaking of the old school, the ever consistent Musiq Soulchild's new album, Musiqinthemagiq, is a tribute to many eras and influences without veering into the realms of pure nostalgia or museum-ish re-creation. Fans of Musiq Soulchild will find much to appreciate with this at once lush and precise production, which honestly does not contain one bad song.
Back in 2001, Musiq made his debut as a crooner of mature, solid, somewhat emo R&B. I have a heretical confession to make: I'm not that interested in or enthusiastic about songs concerning relationships. Still, Musiq manages to catch my attention with lines like this in "Dowehaveto": "You just love the drama, cause you think it makes us real/all it do is cause us problems and only keeps me from showing you how I feel."
Musiq's voice is suberb here, and his lyrics (mostly) escape inanity. As for the sound of the music itself, his cheerful, radio- and party-ready single "Anything" (featuring the always entertaining Swizz Beatz) samples the remix (which is the party standard) to Central Line's "Walking Into Sunshine" (famously sampled by Marly Marl for the remix to LL Cool J's "Jinglin' Baby"). Still, here it manages to sound fresh and original; it's not just fishing for an easy hit.
I love the piano and strings on "Sayido," which has drums that remind me of the break beat used in Schoolly D's 1985 classic "P.S.K." "Silver and Gold" also features a break beat that was once often used by rap producers (probably most famously by Dr. Dre on "Deep Cover"). The excellently titled "Clumsylove" also features a variation on a well-known break beat, used by Eric B. and Rakim on "I Ain't No Joke." "Clumsylove" contains the memorable line, "Even though the two of us are old enough to know we know better, we still proceed into the bad weather."
But Musiq doesn't confine himself to paying tribute to hip-hop eras gone by. The best track on the album, by far, is "Lovecontract," a beautiful and perfectly produced bouncy, bright, bopping throwback to the early 1960s. Musiq should make an entire album of tunes like this. I think he might even be better at this sort of thing than contemporary-sounding R&B.
"Put this on a Zip disk, send it to your lawyer, [tell him to] file me under funky." Done. The indomitable Beastie Boys continue to fly the flag of old-school rap as a viable and exciting aesthetic that need not be discarded just because it was developed in the past. And thank goodness they are keeping the faith. History, I believe, will appreciate them for it. They understand the silly-seriousness and serious-silliness that exist in mystic harmony at the core of hip-hop.
The genesis of this album and its title is a little complicated. (Suffice it to say that there was never really a "Part One" released.) Longtime fans or admirers will not be disappointed, since the album is certainly on the level of the classic Hello Nasty and Ill Communication. The first lyric on the album (from Ad Rock) sets the tone perfectly: "Yes, here we go again give you more nothing lesser/back on the mic it's the anti-depressor."
And an anti-depressing album it is indeed. The group's last rap offering, To the Five Boroughs (2004), was a rather musically spare affair, but Hot Sauce Committee Part Two is much more vibrant in terms of production. Funky, futuristic, outer-spacey and full of experiments with the sounds of vocals. (There is also one instrumental track, "Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament.")
They pay tribute to KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions on "Too Many Rappers," featuring the great Nas in an unexpected collaboration. I felt like Nas was sort of inching away from his comfort zone and trying, somewhat halfheartedly, to fit in with the Beasties' sound.
I think it might have been better if Nas had fully adopted their hyperkinetic style (what a novelty that would have been!) or stuck with his usual flow. As it is, it feels too in-between. But it's a very solid track and it's good collaboration, though it's not all that it could have been.
Unusual recommendation: Don't download this album. Buy the hard copy. Why? Because the booklet doubles as a poster with awesome sketches (by one Mike Mills) of faces of real (i.e., famous) and fictional characters. Among those included are all three Beastie Boys (Ad Rock looks like himself in the "Sabotage" video), plus Anita Loos, Billy the Kid, James Baldwin, the Headless Horseman, Mary Mack, S. Claus, Muntazer al-Zaidi (who threw his shoes at George W. Bush), P.T. Barnum, Angela Davis, George Washington, Daniel Ellsberg (in 1971) and many anonymous figures, like "Actor," "Monopolist," "Cowboy" and "Mindreader." It's some kind of nod to the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album art or A Tribe Called Quest's Midnight Marauders.
Paul Devlin is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.