Review #9: J-Smooth-“Mahalo”

By Mathieu N. Frasier.

Part 1.  An Introduction

Between 8th and 9th grade, a Warren, Ohio resident was “dicking around” with his friend and practicing the sacred tradition of rhyming words with other words, and trying to maintain some sense of rhythm while doing so. That resident became J-Smooth, the creator of my current subject, “Mahalo.”

Today, he plays local shows at his University, and has just recently played the Mill Street Fest. (Don’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of it.) A fan of such Rap acts as Atmosphere and Odd FutureSmooth is featured on local Ohio blogs, despite not “really fuck(ing) with Hip-Hop super hard as far as influences go,” as he put it in a recent e-mail.

Part 2.  The Review

Starting with the instrumentals, they’re a pretty mixed bag, in more ways than one. Some of them are fine, some of them are bad, and some of them are lifted from other artists. (I like the beat, but Tyler was enough. I really don’t want to listen to another guy rap over the Odd Toddlers instrumental. Even Veggies was too much.) While songs like “PSA” and “Bangin’”  have semi-ferocious drum beats well mixed with low-fi bass lines and interesting melodies, the choppy piano loop on “(Not Such An) Easy Living,” the reversed drum break on “Capt. Crunch,” and the amplified whatever the hell that is on “Gold” don’t do much for me. Then there are songs like “Mahalo,” which has a good instrumental as is, despite still being able to see potential for something better. Had he replaced the redundant backing keys with expert mixing, I feel the beat could have a more powerful feel.

But the rest of the beats are redundant, boring, or stolen.

Lyrically, J-Smooth is superior to many other amateur lyricists–at least, from the ones I’ve heard–and you can especially see this in the song “Closing Statements,” where our host sounds like he’s putting in more effort into his lyrics than anywhere else on the mixtape.

Well, this is my disguise

A piece of organized cacophony

In a battle between where I’m at

and where I outta be

I’m in the game for fame

But is that what it offers me

I’m seeing others who can feel the same

way as what I often see

Despite being forced, the primary rhyme scheme works on a level of sound, and it’s nice to see more than basic internal rhyming in the middle of the lyrics, even if they, too, aren’t quite subtle enough for Rap critics or aspiring lyricists, and probably won’t have the same effects in terms of sound as, for example, Psyonic‘s internal rhyming. Most of Smooth’s lyrics aren’t quite as well written as the ones here, but our host is clearly on the right track in this regard, even if there is still progress to make in other aspects.

In terms of lyrical content, J-Smooth is exactly the type of rapper who would have a song titled “Capt. Crunch.” He’s another one of those emcees who doesn’t take himself seriously, not in an Eminem way, but in a “Thrift Shop“-esque, “I’m going to use my corniness as my niche Rap style” way. (And, of course, he regularly makes mention of his whiteness, a habit I’ve grown tired of long before Macklemore‘s “Damn, that’s a cold ass honkey,” and not soon after realizing guys like Vinnie Paz and Aesop Rock were dominating the underground Rap world.) Smooth‘s boasts range from subjects like being a native of Antarctica, to watching “old-reruns of George Lopez,” (as opposed to new reruns) and “passing other rappers like (he’s) riding in the go-carts.”

Of course, it’s not what our host does, it’s how he does it. De La Soul rapped about daisies, crocodiles, potholes and talking fish on their first album, and they still pulled it off. (Sure it wasn’t literal, but the content and imagery was still there.)

But, where it was never easy to take “3 Feet High and Rising” very seriously, it never came off as downright corny, at least to Rap music standards, something I certainly can’t say for “Mahalo.” Where De La Soul can perform their obscure and ridiculous lyrical content with ease, finesse, and even dignity, J-Smooth not only doesn’t perform his lyrics with the vocal delivery necessary to pull his content off, nor write with the lyrical craftsmanship, but he also plays off his content as if it’s a joke in itself. This may or may not be intentional, in fact, I’m certainly willing to accept Smooth‘s obscure boasts were just him trying to be himself, but regardless, it doesn’t quite work or make the content appealing to me, the listener. (Although, admittedly, this could be just personal taste.)

One of our host’s biggest problems as a Rap vocalist is the softness in his delivery, which makes his braggadocio hard to take seriously. Let it be known throughout the world: If you are going to rap as a character, which it would seem all rappers do, (and not just in the “hardcore” sub-genre) you have to make it seem, at least, natural. Otherwise, you’re just distracting from the work as a whole.

It’s just like a movie. You’re not going to be emotionally invested in the character if the actor who’s playing him is bad, and you’re not going to like the movie if that characterwho, remember, is played by a lousy actortakes up over 90 per cent of the screen time. The directing for the movie could be perfect, and so could the script, but as long as Ben Affleck is reading his lines in front of your television screen for an hour and forty minutes, you’re going to want to pass on watching the film. Similarly, you’re going to pass on any soloist whose vocal performance highly contradicts his or her own subject matter. Bottom line: if you’re going to boast about the things you’re good at, boast with confidence.

Luckily, our host’s delivery is far more irritable than his flow, which actually comes off as quite natural and easy going, with very few moments of seeming mechanical, and even less of including actual stuttering or awkward pauses. It’s kind of like Ice Cube from the late 80’s to the mid 90’s,  as his flow is simple and certainly not astounding, but suits our host’s style and doesn’t distract us from his lyrics and content. (However, he’s clearly missing Ice Cube‘s blunt yet razor sharp delivery, let alone his angry, bitter and savagely clever lyrics, which the flow is (seemingly) designed to compliment. Of course, our host isn’t Ice Cube at all.)

My point is this: J-Smooth needs to come up with a delivery that compliments his flow, and needs to make sure the combination of his flow and delivery compliment his lyrical content. I am in no way implying he should rap about ill treatment from police officers or kicking pregnant ladies in the stomach. (Of coure, I’m not stopping him, either.)

And, while I’m still on the subject, there are moments where J-Smooth‘s flow could still be a bit more natural, particularly on songs such as “Bangin‘” and “Windex.” But overall, the flaws don’t damper too much with the experience as a whole. (Even Killer Mike doesn’t have a totally natural flow. Ever heard him on “Untitled.”)

Finally, let’s discuss the one non-Rap song on the mixtape: “Soups Whatever.” The instrumental here is more enjoyable than any of the other (original) instrumental work on the tape, including the three beats I earlier mentioned I enjoyed. Similarly, so is our host’s delivery, and his lyricism always seems natural and even more creative than usual, possibly because he doesn’t feel he has to fit the role of a rapper. As a result, he sounds totally in his element as a country(?) singer, coming off as pleasant, natural, and even original. This is opposed to our hosts Rap work, where he sounds somewhat forced, dull and downright corny, among other things.

Basically, if J-Smooth regularly performed songs like this, I might enjoy one of his shows. But as a rapper, I can’t really see that happening just yet.

Part 3. The Epilogue

Status: Not Recommended

Despite having a somewhat refined flow, and more interesting technical lyricism than some of the other artists reviewed here, our host doesn’t have enough going for him on this mixtape to warrant attention from the average listener. Although you may hear an artist who will potentially get better–despite having already developed to a certain extent– it’s not worth your time to tune in to see his potential just yet.

J-Smooth shows too many problems with his delivery, which, as mentioned earlier, can be a vast turn-off for anybody’s listening experience. Like B-Real before the release of Cypress Hill‘s first album, our host has to play around with his vocal delivery until he finds something that works for him and his style. Meanwhile, although his technical lyricism is sound enough, he has to learn to write lyrics in a way that makes the content seem funny, or dignified enough for the audience to not cringe while listening to it. Besides this, our host’s issues are somewhat small. He needs to put in a bit more polishing on his rhymes and his flow and his imagery, but the aforementioned two are the most discouraging issues needed to be fixed.

Instrumental wise, our host needs to keep the following things in mind: backwards drum sounds rarely work; layers are great as long as they don’t sound redundant, and do whatever the hell DJ Premier and EL-P are doing to make their beats sound so refreshing. (I really don’t know how to give advice on good beat making.)




Review #8: Schmandarin-“The Genius Bar”

Review #8: Schmandarin-“The Genius Bar”

By Mathieu N. Frasier

Part 1. The Introduction

Welcome to the Genius Bar (Deluxe Edition) cover art

My subject for today is “The Genius Bar,” a product of rapper and producer Shmandarin.

Shmandarin comes from Warren, Ohio. He was influenced to make a mixtape in 2011 because his friend was doing it, and because he started listening to Mac Miller. The mixtape was also an attempt to surprise people he knew in high school.

“He wouldn’t go all out and drop a mixtape,” thought many of Shmandarin’s high school acquaintances, probably.

They were wrong. He did drop a mixtape. It was called, “The Genius Bar.”

The Genius Bar‘s” title, as I’m sure you can tell from the name, let alone the picture, comes from the “genius bars” in “Apple” stores, (the electronics company, not the fruit) which “offer help and support for “Apple” products,” according to Wikipedia. (I’ve never been to an Apple store due to environmental restrictions, so you’ll have to bare my ignorance on the subject.)

Shmandarin is only known locally, and he’s a “die-hard ‘Apple‘ fan,” as he mentioned in a direct e-mail. That rounds off pretty much everything I know about him.

Let’s get this review started.

Part 2. The Review

I’ve said before I’m really no expert on the production aspect of Hip-Hop music, and I actually enjoy quite a few beats that other Rap listeners either dislike or are indifferent to, so when it comes to my judgement on instrumentals, you’ll have to take it with a grain of salt. But from the expertise I do have, (I am a “Hip-Hop head” after all) I’m far from impressed by our host’s production. Most of the instrumentals range from boring, to irritating, with the exceptions of the songs “Ridiculous Swagger” and “Aristocracy.” (A song I will get to very shortly.)

Songs like “Ham” and “Narcotic” have mind numbing baselines constantly buzzing at you, while songs like “D-Day” and “Intimidation” are almost empty and repetitive enough to put you to sleep. A couple of the beats on this mixtape seem to be intended as club and dance songs, such as “Never Believe” (not the Ministry song) and “Aristocracy.” (Which has a phenomenally 80’s drum break and almost had me nodding my head when Schmandarin brought in the baseline. See, I told you I’d get to this song shortly.) The beats themselves might be able to get people moving in the clubs, but I think they need higher audio quality and professional mixing to make more distinguished individual sounds, as well as heavier sounding compositions. But it was a close call.

Probably the most interesting beat on the album is for the song Audacity, which is reminiscent of EL-P‘s “Fantastic Damage” album, but without being as heavy, or bombastic, or melodic. It’s low-fi, and it certainly jumps right out at you, but it’s not as pleasing or original or dense. Nonetheless, it really stands out from the rest of the instrumentals in style, even if it doesn’t surpass it in substance.

When the production reaches the point of being tiresome, our host manages to keep us awake with a delivery that suggests enthusiasm, but not energy or authenticity, making his braggadocio somewhat hard to listen to. Listening to his delivery on “D-day” particularly, it comes off as if our host is just kind of saying his lines as opposed to trying to rap them out, as his voice is mild and rarely gives off the feeling of being more than flat. For the record, this certainly works for some rappers, but where for rappers such as Guru, of Gang Starr, it made him sound cool and too confident to have something to prove, all it wound up doing for Schmandarin was make him sound amateurish and oblivious to the performance aspect of rapping. As a result, our host’s delivery sounds less like a cool guy who just makes good music without effort, and more like Dr. Evil.

On a level of flow as opposed to delivery, our host provides what seems to be the bare minimum of what might qualify as such, as brief pauses and connections are made in basic patterns reminiscent of the first couple of musical notes I learned in elementary school. On the song “Ham,” our host raps

Driving-home on-the-highway, the-troops-is-on-my-trail

I slowed-down and-waved so-I wouldn’t-go-to-jail

It all sounds a bit unnatural, but Schmandarin‘s biggest offence when it comes to flow is simply being uninteresting. Taking Tech-N9ne on “Mental Giant” as an example, it’s forgivable Tech always sounds like he’s trying to keep up an interesting and impressive pattern , particularly because his flow is interesting and impressive. In fact, as much as I encourage natural delivery in many instances, when it comes to double time rapping like Tech N9ne on “Mental Giant” or Eminem and Royce Da 5’9 on “Fast Lane,” it makes very little difference.

But, unfortunately, Schmandarin‘s flow is basic, boring and unnatural, with several awkward stalls during lines and a very formulaic flow structure. Instead of sounding fast and impressive like Tech-N9ne, or slow and natural like Biggie Smalls, we get a sound reminiscent of Schoolly D., but unfortunately without the charm.

For the record, Schoolly D. is awesome. But, it’s the year 2013.

Also making the braggadocio hard to listen to is the content itself. Let’s start with an example:

This is your captain speaking, so here’s your transmission

It’s about to hit you like some nuclear fission

Radiational diseases like the girl you’ kissin’

The good life, that’s what you’ve been missin’

Writing passive sentences is usually a terrible idea, not only in Rap lyrics but in everything, and Schmandarin‘s work is no exception. In most cases, you probably wouldn’t say, “All the cat food was eaten by cats” in a standard conversation about cats, (or their digestive systems) you’d probably say, “Cats ate all the cat food,” because the latter takes much less effort to say, and gets people involved in the action being described much quicker, as opposed to letting them know the subject well before they start progressing in the activity. (Basically, passive sentences are like giving away the punchline to a joke, then providing the context for the punchline. E.g. “To get to the other side. That’s why the chicken crossed the road.”)

I’m sure there are places where passive sentences can work, but in most cases it’s probably in a rapper’s (or writer’s) best interest to avoid them, especially when he or she is trying to force a rhyme at the end of his or her sentence. Using passive sentences, in most instances, is a sure-fire way to show the listener you had to force a rhyme, or that you weren’t creative enough to follow up your last sentence sufficiently.

As for the “This is your captain speaking” beginning, this alone was fine, but that statement itself hints towards Schmandarin‘s rap being a transmission. There’s no need to tell us this. Also, don’t just tell us the transmission will “hit (us) like some nuclear fission,” show us. The “captain speaking” line sounded like a signal to just start right up.

Lastly, Schmandarin‘s technical lyricism is simple, and less than engaging, as he uses sentences with basic language and minimal sound pattern. When it comes to complexity in line structure,  it’s important to note technical lyricism and rhyme schemes aren’t something to just give rappers bragging rights or impress pseudo-intellectual Rap listeners, they also help keep the listeners interested in the song and lyrics, and create standout lines even when you don’t know they’re there. (I believe I showed this in my DGAF review when I compared the members of DGAF with Method Man and Redman on Limp Bizkit‘s Rollin‘ remix.)

But Schmandarin shows little understanding of this. His lyrics often seem to only have intentional rhymes at the end of each bar, with little to no internal rhyme being authored in-between. But chemistry of words in terms of sound is just, if not close to, as important as the content when it comes to making any written work effective, so, as a result of Schmandarin denying us technical lyricism in many instances, it only helps insure his lines fall flat.

And speaking of those lines, our host’s content is confusing if nothing else. I can’t tell if he’s a comedy rapper, or just a rapper with a humourous personality, but either way it doesn’t work for me. (Except for when he straight up mentioned, without warning, he raps “about Apple and Vanilla Coke.” I don’t know why, but I found that hilarious.) If he’s trying to be comical, he’s going to have to gather a better understanding of the English language, just like any English speaking vocal performer, in order to perfect his craft. And if the comedy style he’s going for is ‘lame rapper rapping about boring, everyday products like Vanilla Coke and iPhones,’ our host’s Josh Tobin-esque delivery fits the style like a glove, but he still has to find out how to write jokes in an effective manner.

In contrast, if our host is trying to just be a rapper–one with his own sense of style, culture and interests–he simply has to find out how to incorporate his style and personality into his vocals naturally, and, mostly, just get a lot better in the areas I already pointed out. Having a personality, although very helpful once skills are established, means nothing when the lyricism is dull, the flow is generic, and the delivery is flat.

Part 3. The Epilogue

Status: Not Recommended.

Rather than listening to the mixtape, listen to everything I mentioned and didn’t review, from the Ministry song to Jay Electronica. (And don’t forget Schooly D., the proposed creator, or “Godfather,” if you will, of Gangster Rap.) With the exception of beats like the ones for “Aristocracy” and “Ridiculous Swagger,” as well as a couple of throw away lines like “I rap about Apple and Vanilla Coke,” the mixtape ranges from really boring to irritating, as mentioned earlier. (Especially the chorus’. Don’t get me started on the chorus for “Ham.”)

As for my advice to Schmandarin, I still can’t figure out what it should be. What is this guy going for? I suppose the best tidbit of advice I could give is for Schmandarin to increase his lyrical skills, as those are relevant in Rap music whether you’re doing a parody or a straight-up Rap song. It’s subtle, but technical lyricism usually helps the artists vocals sound good and definitely helps them stay interesting, as our minds are designed to find patterns in things we pay attention to. Besides that, either change your flow, your delivery, your flow and delivery, or just get better at doing them both, because right now it only works if your going for that Denny Blazin lame, middle-class white guy, comedy Rap.

And if that is what you were going for, well done on that part.

The Genius Bar