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

Review #7: Adoni$- “Drugs, Sex and Fears”

By Mathieu N. Frasier

Part 1. An Introduction

Drugs, Sex and Fears” is a mixtape released by the amateur rapper Adoni$.

That’s all I know about it.

Adoni$ didn’t get back to me to provide any further information for the introduction, so I really can’t tell you about the emcee’s history, his level of success, or how many mixtapes he released. This is kind of lucky for me, because I’m rushing this out to reach a deadline. (I actually reached it this time, which is crazy considering how poor my work ethic is.)

Regardless of having absolutely no information to write a solid introduction about the emcee, you’ll probably receive all the information you’ll care to know about him from this review and his mixtape anyways. With this in mind, let’s dive in.

Part 2. The Review

Drugs, Sex and Fears” is another one of those amateur released mixtapes where the emcees don’t have any original production, so I can’t break down the beats and tell you what’s good or bad about them. (Which might actually be beneficial for me, because I’m trying to rush out content that’s both helpful for the artist, and short enough to actually have readers stick around to finish the post. Despite the fact mixtapes with stolen beats are usually a clear sign of a lousy tape, at least it means I can brush through them that much quicker.) As for whether the beats have been arranged or chosen correctly to make the mixtape feel like a complete work as opposed to a bunch of songs thrown together, the latter seems like a fitting end for the equation.

In regards to our host, I’m not quite sure what he was going for, but by the time he stops rapping I’m sure it’s going to change into a very different product. Adoni$ has a distinctive, cartoon-y style that separates himself from other rappers, which I commend, but besides this I don’t many positive things to say about him. He presents himself as one of those “rapper’s rapper” types, where main subjects include boasting, and main drawing points involve lyricism. The problem is he sounds like he started rapping about 3-7 months ago, and really doesn’t have the boasts or lyricism to make him a Canibus (pre-“Rip The Jacker” era) or Chino Xl. (Fucking, any era is amazing!) So instead of getting lines like “I rip raps, hardcore raps rushin’ you to the floor mat, put you in the figure four, break your thorax” or “Put it on, one class of car I can afford has not been built, I can’t afford cookies that’s even though I’m label mates with Milk,” we get lines like these:

Be running a muck
Fucking a slut
My nuts in her butt
Go rough in the mud
Or hard in the paint
So much bars in the tank
I’m starting to faint

Lyricism was never about the words you use but how you use them, so I’m going to go ahead and give this guy credit for not trying to rhyme giant words like “photosynthesis” or “paleontologist.” (As a rapper, this is an important technique to hold in your arsenal.) That being said, poorly used small words are just as bad, if not worse, than poorly used complicated ones, so there’s really not much to commend here. I’ll give him points for not trying to stick with one rhyme scheme, and for having a unique enough style to separate himself from most rappers I can think of, but I’ll deduct points for flow, which consists of several awkward pauses where our host waits for the beat to catch up to him. This, as one would imagine, makes are host sound very unnatural.

Our host also has a habit I’ve attacked in the past, which is letting the rhymes dictate his subject matter, as displayed in the following example:

Welcome to lyrical combat, we on that
Score one, And-One like balls back
This verse has more word play than a cross word puzzle, run
Lines when I hustle, but I start with blocks
Wolf down your food, so I stab your flock
Leave you chickens headless, like a retarded cock

The bars above come off as a barrage of unrelated concepts strung together by our host’s rhymes. The messages are cryptic and often random, like the mention of “And-One” and lines like “Wolf down your food, so I stab your flock,” which hosts two ideas that seem completely unrelated. You have to question if he would write this ambiguously had he not been deliberately looking for rhymes.

Granted, most emcees let their rhyme schemes and sentence structure dictate the direction of their sentences to a certain extent, but a good emcee should let his rhymes revolve around the content as opposed to having his content revolve around his rhymes. Lyricists are essentially writers, authors and poets, and much like their literary predecessors, an emcee’s craftsman ship should be used to make an idea or vision interesting as opposed to letting their craftsmanship form their concept.

Finally, Adoni$’ subject matter, whether it’s established by his rhymes or simply made from his own creativity, is, more often than not, boring. Take this short verse for example:


I’m like a tornado with a time bomb inside I learned
The lesson, my pen through lyrical homicide, I rhyme
Back-to-back, play on words, smoke the blunt to get to sleep
Began to shake at first, night terrors create the birth
Premonitions of a fatal curse, got up out of bed
Dragged a comb across my head, my friends search for the path
They are lost instead

The lyrics have very little rhyme schemes to keep it’s listeners interested, it’s imagery is limited, and the content is generally ambiguous. Our host speaks of “premonitions of a fatal curse,” as well as his friends being “lost” when they “search for the path,” but he doesn’t elaborate on what any of this means. There’s a similar problem with the simile at the beginning, as there is absolutely no hint as to how he is “like a tornado with a time bomb inside.”

Part 3. The Epilogue

Status: Not Recommended

As much as I still hate delivering this kind of bad news to artists, I simply cannot recommend this mixtape. Our host’s style and subject matter does sound natural in context of his own character, and his creativity is unique in contrast to many other emcees, but that alone is not enough to recommend a mixtape littered with awkward pauses, poor sentence structure, forced rhyming, and boring content. The negatives clearly outweigh the positives.

My first piece of advice to Adoni$ is to continue writing, because nothing’s going to make you a better lyricist than becoming familiar with words and using trial and error to find out which patterns work and which ones don’t. (That being said, don’t let further progression with your skill interfere with your overall writing style and subject matter, because it’s clearly different from other rappers, it seems natural to who you are, and it might have potential for future verses.) Secondly, study description. When you tell an anecdote, I should be able to see it play out in my head, and that’s something I currently can’t do with your work. (I recommend listening to more Ghostface Killah and Raekwon for this. The imagery on “Sonny’s Missing” is magnificent.) Lastly, change your flow so that you speak in full sentences, as opposed to sentence fragments. The speech difference between rapping and talking should be a subtle one, so the audience doesn’t realize the real effort being put into it. When you rap in sentence fragments, it’s just going to draw the audience’s attention to this aspect of your art, thus distracting them from the overall product.

Work on these tips first before working out your other issues.

Review #6: ZD (Children Left Behind- “Today is Forever; Tomorrow Doesn’t Exist””

Part 1. An Introduction

Today Is Forever; Tomorrow Doesn't Exist cover art

By Mathieu N. Frasier

Today is Forever; Tomorrow Doesn’t Exist” is a mixtape made by Florida based Hip-Hop duo ZD, and is surprisingly not the name of a Terrence Malick movie. The duo consists of two twin brothers who haveno alias’, and was put together after their friend (the guy on the bonus track) suggested the three of them make a Rap group. Together, they put together an experimental mixtape which reduced their friend’s input to just one track for reasons I’m not quite sure of.

Today is Forever; Tomorrow Doesn’t Exist” also happens to be a concept mixtape primarily following the ways in which people fall victim to depression. The stories are told by one narrator in a first person view, (unless the track has guest appearances) and it’s both twins playing the same narrator. ZD, according to one of the members, have rapped much more aggressively in past projects, hence why the group name was altered to “Children Left Behind” for this mixtape.

And that’s pretty much all I have to say about them for the intro. For those who dare to look further, read beyond. For those who fear what lies ahead, turn back now and may you live your life in comfort and ignorance as opposed to knowledge and horror. (I’m tired.)

Part 2. The Review

This is another one of those mixtapes in which the beats were chosen from already established Rap artists and not produced by the emcees I’m reviewing, or their associates.  So, once again, I can’t really discuss the production on this mixtape. All I’ll say is that somebody did a great job choosing the beats they were going to use, as well as the order in which they’re placed, because the instrumentals really keep a consistent feel that stays true to their rapping style. It may not leave room for variety and the chance to flex their skills in multiple areas, but it certainly helps make the mixtape sound like a complete and mastered work as opposed to just a pile of songs.

The best way I can think of to describe our narrator, (or hosts, considering it’s two people playing the same narrator, who as far as I can tell acts as several different people. How does this concept work again?) is a hybrid of Jay Electronica and  Slug of Atmosphere, but unfortunately cornier than both of those guys. He’s got that Jay Electronica quality of sounding triumphant and desperate, but without the hunger or strive to prove himself, giving off the feel that the vocals are much more about self expression than it is about wanting to be considered the best. (This is shown in lyricism, but similarities are easier to see in their deliveries, both of which are cold and stiff. But unlike Jay Electronica, who really gives off a feel of standing strong despite having been withered down by the realities of life, ZD only sounds like they’re going for the same effect but can’t quite master it. It almost makes them sound like they lack emotion as opposed to sounding like they’re trying to hide it.) Technical skills, although present, almost seem to be included unintentionally, as opposed to blatantly or even subtly. For example take these lyrics from “Dreams Money Can’t Buy.”

My heart aches ’till my heart breaks
But I’m getting tired of being in the halls ways
Entered the kitchen, somebody turn the heat on
Because I’m going to infinity and beyond
Every journey begins with a first step
And every death begins with a first breath
What I say is farfetched
So if you’re standing there, you won’t fully understand it.

 It gives off the effect that our host is just using his skills unknowingly, and that its presence is only a consequence of his attempts at expressing himself. The sentences are crafted well enough and you can tell when listening to the mixtape that the words are coming out relatively how the author intended, but as opposed to complexity in simplicity, any notion that complexity was involved is thrown out the window.

With all that said, our narrator’s best song on the mixtape is probably the first, “War is Beautiful,” the one song where he actually does seem hungry and set to show off his skills, and also has nothing to do with the concept.

This ain’t that sing-song, tight jeans, white teens rhymes, these
Bars straight from the jaws of the streets
Emcees is deceased when we come to speak
Rhymes too real for wannabes to feel
It’s the catalyst with the flow that astonishes
Eating Whack rappers, digesting amateurs
‘Cause what y’all trying to do ain’t Hip-Hop
I make grown-ups think, y’all make kids bop

As for the Slug quality, the story telling, concepts, and imagery used by our hosts really reminds me of him, and considering this album mostly deals with ways in which people fall victim to depression, of course Slug, the proclaimed “emo” rapper, would come to mind. Looking at songs like “Devil in Desguise,” I can’t help but think of songs like “The Woman with the Tattooed Hands“, another song using the presence of a woman as a device for storytelling and thematic exploration of religion. (Although there’s a huge difference in the beginning of the songs, like how ZD doesn’t really feel like they have a concept set up in their beginning and sort of just seemed to have stumbled across one shortly after the emcee started writing, while Slug seems to have started his song with a concept in mind.)

I’ve given the opinion before that Slug is one of, if not, the most clever emcee when it comes to these sort of analogies, concepts and storytelling, and he’s clever in a hell of a lot of other ways too, so it’s no surprise that I’m going to say Slug has an advantage over ZD in this aspect. (Along with being more clever, he’s a better lyricist with a better delivery and flow, and, sadly, he’s far less pretentious.) But, as stated earlier, the members of ZD are certainly no slouches at storytelling or imagery or solid lyricism. (Although their concepts and analogies might need a bit of touching up.

Of course, this mixtape has it’s problem’s and the best way for an artist to master a chosen craft is to understand their faults and work on them, so let’s discuss those issues. The first one: Emotion. Our Narrator (our hosts) brings a lot of passion and emotion, which in some cases is fine, but either the lyrics bring too much emotion for the mixtape’s own good, (which, on an entertainment level as opposed to an artistic level, they do) or the delivery doesn’t bring enough of it. The lyrics tell of a person who is tortured by loneliness, artistic, ethical and philosophical struggle. He’s angry and he’s sad and he’s hungry and he’s tired. He wants it all, but he can’t get any of it. But from the delivery I would barely be able to tell, because our hosts show about as much humanity as a blank computer screen. Listening to their lyrics with their delivery is like having discussions with people through text message. There’s still humanity there and it shines through in the words or the ideas or the small rests in between sentences when the text your reading features a semi colon, but it’s a fraction of their humanity and it has very little in common with meeting someone in person. In a concept album where your main theme is exploring people’s depression, (which one of the members told me directly, so note that I’m not just assuming this) being able to capture that humanity and emotion is essential.

And I’d also like to point out that despite the narrator reminding me of a blank computer screen or a pitch white sheet of paper, it’s hard to have the same sort of imagination shaping the vocal tones or moods of our narrator as it would be reading words from a book, website or newspaper article. As a result, our narrator’s mechanical delivery seems less human than most (at least, that I can think of) pages of text. This is, by far, my biggest problem with this mixtape.

And finally, this wouldn’t be a very good concept album review if I didn’t discuss the concept, so let’s talk about that. First of all, the first song has very little to do with the concept, which is obviously a fault, even if it does still serve the purpose of a “disclaimer,” as one of the members of the group stated in an e-mail. I’m sure I’m not the only person under the firm belief that concept albums (or mixtapes) should follow the concept throughout the whole album, (or mixtape) so the fact that the very first song has nothing to do with it kind of irks me. It doesn’t add anything except a hyped-up opening, and a hyped-up opening probably could have still been done well while staying within the duo’s chosen theme. At any rate, the first song sounds fine and actually works as a good intro on terms of sound, but should have more to do with the rest of the product.

Throughout most of the mixtape, the concept is pulled off well, although there’s still a lot of room for improvement. The scenarios are surprisingly well established and performed to a degree that’s, at the very least, satisfactory, but more often than not you might find yourself wishing you were listening to artists who pull off the strengths of our protagonist more effectively, such as the two artists I’ve compared ZD to already. After all, if you could have Serloin steak for the same price, (free off the internet) why the hell would you settle for No Name brand? And maybe this is the literary snob being built up in me from my brief period in university, (God damn snooty English professors)  but I do feel like ZD tells a bit too much when they should be showing. When I think about albums like Amerikkka’s Most Wanted or The Marshall Mathers LP, the things that make me so attached aren’t the themes and emotions of the characters themselves, it’s how those themes or emotions are used and explored, like when Ice Cube tells an entire story about a robbery in the suburbs gone wrong before even hinting towards any cultural or societal double standard, and when that hint is thrown into the open it makes the whole story show depth on the character/host. (On a side note, this is also one of the reasons I think Amerikkka’s Most Wanted is vastly underrated, particularly in contrast to “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back“, which, although was innovative in the production department, never lyrically captured the story telling or anger or depth of Ice Cube‘s lyrics for his solo debut.)  In contrast, look at a song like “I Demand Respect“, which comes off less like a character or concept exploration and more like a sketch of what the narrator thinks he is without providing room for speculation into whether or not he really is this person.

Finally, I want to discuss the guests on the mixtape. Alyssa Marie seems like a good enough lyricist, keeping up with our narrator, and she explores her character’s perception about as well as our narrator does. I still find her kind of boring (although I’m not quite sure why) and her delivery comes off just a bit forced, but for the most part she did her job quite well.

The other two guest appearances don’t do as much for me. Let’s start with AKBAR, because why the hell not? First of all, he doesn’t really seem like he fits in with the rest of the mixtape on a conceptual level. Alyssa’s cameo made sense because she played a character who was directly related to the protagonist, and her perspectives and depression told us more about the psychology and personal issues of the character played by ZD. But AKBAR plays some random guy who has similar problems as the main character in only one song. Imagine you were watching a movie, and the protagonist is at a bar talking to the bartender about his crippling depression. A stranger passes by and hears the protagonist say one thing that relates to his own story, so the new guy decides to tell a tiny bit about his own depression in the same area. But then after, the new guy’s words are never acknowledged again, and the theme they were talking about is completely dismissed. That’s what AKBAR‘s cameo is like.

The last song is a bonus track, and off the top of my head, here is my criticism.

  • Soft delivery for a battle track
  • Forced rhyming
  • Sentences that are silly to incomprehendable in meaning (“Hope you ate your Wheaties because we’re harder than Tweetie, cutting rappers like Sweenie/ Sorry sweetie, can’t go to relationship meetings cause you’ve been exceeding the meaning of boyfriend and girlfriend/ please, and I’m eighteen not even season, don’t want to get married, very, very scarry I’d rather watch Harry Potter“)
  • Poor flow and awkward rests between bars.

Basically, everything I said in my last review could apply to this guy.

And I think we’re good.

Part 3. The Epilogue

Status: Recommended

In all honesty, I am in fucking shock that I liked this mixtape because when I saw the cover, and the name Today is Forever; Tomorrow Doesn’t Exist, my expectations were about as low as they could get. In fact, I got myself prompted up to review some painfully corny and over-the-top-passionate Rap music by downright mediocre emcees who’s main knowledge of Hip-Hop came from Rhymesayers records and a couple of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis concerts. But luckily our hosts are quite the talented and stylish emcees, providing an appropriate amount of technical lyricism and flow, and keeping with a unique and refined style that works quite well, despite the fact that making it a bit more unique and refined might not be a bad idea.

But unfortunately, despite my positive review over all, there are still faults I found with the mixtape, some of which I expected before hearing it and were only certified afterwards, and then others I didn’t consider until I heard it and realised they were a problem. Our hosts are still over-the-top-passionate and corny, although maybe not as much as I had initially expected, and they still have issues with their presence and delivery, particularly in contrast to their lyrics. My advice to the proclaimed “Children Left Behind” isn’t necessarily to tone down their passionate lyrics and feel, (although that might help them as well) but to use their delivery to accentuate their passion and convince us it’s really there, and to change their delivery to accentuate the colour in their voices and make them seem human. (Even if they’re not.) As mentioned earlier, ZD‘s delivery feels mechanical and somewhat stiff, and their voices almost sound too computerized, even if I don’t know how many–if any at all–vocal effects were actually used. ZD needs to overcome this and make us believe in their struggles, as well as their humanity. Among everything I’ve criticised, I think this is the main thing ZD should work on.

But overall this is a pretty good effort, even if it’s not a must listen for Hip-Hop fans.


P.S. I don’t think I was in the best mood when I wrote the criticism for this review, and I was also trying to rush something out because I’m tired of being late all the time with this blog, so I’m sorry if the criticism seems too harsh. And anyone else’s opinions on the mixtape would be vastly appreciated, because I do think discussion on the works would help the artists.

Review #5: DGAF- “The Other Guys”

By Mathieu N. Frasier

Part 1. An Introduction

DGAF, or Don’t Give A Fuck for those of you who rally against initials, is a group hailing from North Texas composed of MC Ritual, (formerly of the group “Deuce Mob”) Big Dick Vic, and Psychdelliq, formerly known as “Syko.” Together they bring us “The Other Guys”, a mixtape named after the Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg movie of the same name.

This is the group’s first joint release, and, although MC Ritual does have a bit of a reputation as a rapper due to his “Duece Mob” days, this mixtape didn’t really help them gain much notoriety or credibility in the online Hip Hop community. Is there a reason you’ve never heard of DGAF? Are they a secret buried deep underground waiting to be discovered, or are they secrets that we can do without knowing? Are they a diamond in the rough, or the rough covering the diamonds? Let’s dive in for a closer look.

Part 2. The Review

First of all, I want to make it clear that all of the beats on this mixtape are taken from other rappers and musicians. This means that for me to comment on the beats would be unnecessary, because it would not be relevant to the creative and technical qualities of the artists I’m reviewing. The only thing I’ll say about the instrumentals is this: they suit the styles of our hosts, which makes perfect sense considering that our hosts hand selected them in completed form, and added no altercations to the beats’ sounds.

The most difficult part of doing a review, for me, is giving out negative feedback, because I’m a lot more focused on helping artists than hurting them. I’m also very sympathetic to the artists that send their work to someone only to have it criticised, mostly because I’ve been one of those artists myself in many instances. (However if I didn’t want to criticise people I probably shouldn’t have dedicated a blog towards it.) Unfortunately, I don’t have many positive things to say about this mixtape, but I’ll try to talk about the positive things before I talk about the negatives. The first positive thing I can say is that every rapper on this mixtape is bound to go up hill from here in terms of technical skill and overall sound if they put in the work and dedication needed to do so. Two of these guys, Psychdelliq and Big Dick Vick, are at the very start of their Rap careers/hobbies, so progress for them seems to be inevitable, just as long as they keep trying to obtain it. As for MC Ritual, he still sounds like he’s only begun rapping recently, even if he had been in an official Rap group before. If my own past is a good point of reference, this is going to be close to, if not, their darkest stages as emcees, so they really have nowhere to go but up in terms of everything from lyricism, to concepts, to vocal presence, to charisma, to anything else that they try to work on, just as long as they’re lead in the right direction. As for other positive attributes of DGAF, they have good chemistry with each other, and they really do fit together naturally as a group. And there are points on the mixtape where they show beyond basic, and sometimes even creative, examples of emceeing. Take this excerpt from “We Gon Take It”, for example:

Feeling like a king, off with their heads is the message I bring
To these bitch-ass niggas that desire a throne
Each one more fake than the last carbon copy clone
I tear all these wannabes into pieces
Devouring all these scrubs like Reeses

There are a few kinks in this excerpt that need to be worked on, (although mostly it’s only in small word choice, like changing the word “that” in the second bar to “who”, and maybe changing the last line of the excerpt, as well as the lines that follow, to something else)  but there’s also a lot of quality lyricism in there as well. We have subtle rhymes that help get the message across and bring us towards the primary rhyme scheme, (for example the end of “wannabes” rhyming with the beginning of “pieces”, and, more importantly, “heads is” and “message”, which helps craft a line that reminds me of a watered down Big Pun) some useful analogy and alliteration that helps create a clear and entertaining picture, (the “carbon copy clone” part) and an interesting change in rhyme scheme that helps keep the listener interested in the vocals. (“To these bitch-ass niggas that desire a throne.”) So this goes to show that, at least at certain points, we do see some lyrical skill on the mixtape.

But our hosts show more potential and current skill in flow than any other technical areas. In fact, when it comes to their ability to flow, it’s the only technical attribute the members of DGAF managed to pull off impressively and naturally, at least more often than not. There are moments, such as on the song “Why You in the Game”, where they should try to Rap more rapidly in order to fit the style of the instrumental while still being interesting, but, in most instances, our hosts flow exactly how you’d want them to when taking their lyrical style and subject matter into consideration, as well as their instrumentals. And they manage to avoid a mistake that many amateur emcees fall victim to: trying to flow beyond their limitations. Many emcees will try to flow a certain way when they lack the ability to do so, not only on a level of breath control but also on a level of vocal colour and cadence. This is a common mistake that many rappers make, so kudos to DGAF for avoiding it. (Except for on the last verse of “Why You in the Game”, which shows why they didn’t rap faster for the whole track”)

Because the rest of this review is based around the negative aspects of this mixtape, I think it would be easier for me, and the readers, if I did a run down of some of the things that were done wrong instead of following typical reviewing format. Despite the numbers, I want to make it clear that I’m listing these problems in no particular order. So here we go:

Problem #1. Delivery

All three of the emcees on this mixtape sound like they either a) are bored with their own antics and don’t care about sounding enthused or buyable as the characters that their lyrics portray, (which the name Don’t Give A Fuck would suggest) or b) simply haven’t overcome their fright of recording and haven’t gained the proper abilities (or opportunities) to record convincingly. Either way, their delivery walks the fine line between boring and aggravating to listen to.

When rappers boast about outrageous things, like when Canibus says he’ll “body slam two oxes (and) drop a mule” or when Rakim says that he’ll “stick (his) dick in your ear, and fuck what you heard“, it was never important that the listeners didn’t believe what the artists were saying. It was only important that the emcees seemed to believe it themselves. I don’t expect anyone to believe, for example, Lloyd Banks when he says, “I’m putting twelve shells in your mouth, like a carton of eggs.” But when he says it he comes off sounding like the type of guy who would really believe his own words and, through delivery and vocal presence, he portrays the type of person who very well may do something that deadly. (And tedious.) This goes a long way in terms of helping audiences with the listening experience because, just like we needed Clint Eastwood to be buyable as The Man With No Name for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly to be a great movie, or just like we needed Al Pacino to be talented and charismatic enough to make Tony Montana a cultural icon, you need your rappers to embody the character they’re portraying in order to make a great Rap album. (With exceptions that I’ll only get into if asked, mostly because writing about it here seems unnecessary.)

Problem #2. Technical Lyricism

This is the chorus to “This Game is My Bitch”

This game is my bitch
So when it comes to this
We are the shit
We keep creating music
because there’s no “off” position on the fucking “Genius” switch

For starters, you see the simplicity in the rhyme scheme here. You might remember that in my last review I talked about the subtle complexity that came with Psyonik’s lyrics. Unfortunately, those techniques don’t really come into play on this mixtape, at least in most instances. With Psyonik’s lyrics, where you saw several hidden examples of assonance, internal rhyming and other poetic devices that worked towards keeping his lyrics interesting and enhancing the listening experience, the members of DGAF do not display these techniques most of the time. Instead they treat us to poor sentence structure and rhyming that ranges from bland to forced. As opposed to complexity in simplicity, a technique that has helped legendary rappers like Guru and Ice Cube, and is even used by people like Big L and Tupac who are often considered the greatest emcees of all time, we are treated to simplicity in simplicity, otherwise known as simplicity, which usually doesn’t work out in terms of creating the best entertainment.

To be fair, this is the chorus. And if there is anything I’ve learned from listening to Rap music for eleven plus years, it’s that rappers writing quality chorus’ is a rarity. Along with that, this is only an excerpt of lyricism from one of the emcees in the group, so there’s a very good chance that the two verses on the song, written by the other two members of DGAF, will do a much better job. So let’s take a look at that.

This is an excerpt from the first verse:

Revolutionizing the game, the power’s in our hands
French Revolution, guillotine to all opposing our plans
Leave you breathless, headless with no thoughts of your own
Faster than the speed of light and coming right at your dome
With words that pierce through ignorance with power
Indifference towards issues is fiercely devoured
Caught you by surprise, these lyrics leave you startled
Betrayal won’t be taken lightly: Benedict Arnold

And this is an excerpt from the second verse:

Sitting here, making music in the middle of the night
Our vision is quite advanced so you’ll never see our sight
The beat is my battle field. 
On it there are several weapons that I wield
And no I ain’t a trickster, none are concealed
So try your best to test
I am open to opponents
But in reality there is no contest
Talking like you better, it’s foolish nonsense
A better mic is not the only thing in which you need to invest

When we look at the excerpts above, we can make out some examples of internal rhyming, multi-syllabic rhyming, alliteration, and assonance, but more often than not these techniques are not only underused, but they’re not used appropriately when they are. A lot of the rhymes here are not only boarder-line boring, but also come off as forced. When you’re setting up main rhyme schemes to be one syllable, (such as, in the first verse with words like “plans” and “hands”, and “own” and “dome”) it usually sounds pretty amateur, and even distracting from the song, which is why multi-syllabic rhymes are considered so important. But at the times multi-syllabic rhymes are used, they still don’t come off as natural, and they don’t really add to the construction of the lines. Using multis doesn’t mean a damn thing to your song if you’re not using them in a constructive and strategic way, and that’s not really something that I can find in these excerpts.

I’d also like to point out that most good rappers don’t follow just one or two rhyming words in a line, they actually have a lot of subtle ones to fill in the blanks, and even use those to give the overall messages of their lyrics more “flavour”. I decided it would be a lot easier to demonstrate these things with an example, so take a look at this excerpt from Method Man for Limp Bizkit’s “Rollin'” remix:

Check my, dangarous langu’atrocious, 
When I let these nuts hang, focus it’s Wu-Tang. 
What the fuck’s a Hootie And The Blowfish 
I wave my black flag at the roaches 
Who approches, these twin supasoakers 

Looking at Method Man’s verse, a lot of the rhymes and sounds are being used to bridge the gap between bars. The primary rhyme scheme uses the words “‘trocious”, “focus”, “Blowfish”, and so on, but syllables that rhyme with “hang” or “Wu”, along with some of the other words in the verse, are rhymed frequently as well. And looking at the unconventional line structure, many of the rhymes blend in, but still make a large impact on the listening experience.

In contrast, take a look at the DGAF lyrics in the second verse one more time. There are a few internal rhymes that do not follow the verse’s primary rhyme scheme, but not many that come off naturally, and when we do look at the primary rhyme scheme it seems pretty uninspired. A fairly large part of creating quality Rap lyrics is using words that the audience wouldn’t think of. When, instead, you think of words like “night” and “sight; or “field”, “wield” and “concealed”; you don’t really do much to exceed your audiences expectations, or even imaginations.

Finally, this writing tip: Don’t use passive lines like “a better mic is not the only thing you need to invest.” As a writer, your lyrics need to sound natural, and like something that could actually be said in a conversation. Nobody would talk like this, and as a result, you shouldn’t rap like this, either.

Problem #3. Concepts and Creativity

In all of the examples above, you see a consistent lack of creativity. DGAF has presented us with cliche after cliche after cliche, with a few original ideas and lines thrown in-between that just don’t seem to be pulled off well. (For example, the line “you a giant toilet cloggin’, full of nasty shit” from the songWhy you in the game?”) We hear the talk about how our hosts “don’t give a fuck” and their boasting about things like how the rap game is “their bitch”, and, without any new spins on the statements or present authenticity in what they’re saying, they rarely manage to be entertaining. Every once in a while they’ll say something that I don’t hear many rappers boasting about, like, for example, formerly being “Rudolph, the awkward nose reindeer“, but even when it’s original and seemingly natural, the lines are still corny and not crafted very well.

But along with needing to be creative and different so that people will want to listen to an artists work, a technique that DGAF already only occasionally puts into place, there’s also an entertainment factor that limits the creativity of entertainers who want broad audiences. Being creative in a way that stands out from the rest of the crowd is only half the battle. The other half involves knowing which aspects of your creativity and individuality will be likable, or even relatable, to your audience, and that’s something that occurs even less on this mixtape than DGAF’s creativity did.

As for song concepts, there’s nothing really ground breaking. A lot of it is Battle Rap, which is fine because competitive nature is a big part of Hip Hop culture and I’d actually make the argument that some of the most artistic Rap music is of the type, but the other concepts here don’t really have anything new either. There’s a song about general hardships of each group member, ( the song “Never Give Up”) a song about wanting and needing money, (the song “Money on my Mind”) and a song about how feeling your music and enjoying making it is the most important part of your product (the song “Feelin’ It”). I’m sure we’ve all heard songs with these concepts before, and even though songs don’t necessarily need to be original to be enjoyable, it would certainly help if they were.

Problem #4. Imagery and Story Telling

There are, on this mixtape, a few examples of imagery being used appropriately as well as effectively enough to make us envision what the emcees in question intended to implant in our minds. Usually it’s relatively simple, like when one of the emcees says “I’m feeling shackled as if I was held down by chains” or when one of the emcees mentions “flow so icy, I use it as a hockey rink“, but, regardless of it’s simplicity, it is still imagery, which does help keep things interesting. That being said, there’s not much of it, and the imagery that is brought to mind doesn’t hold up to high standards. Basically, compare DGAF’s “Don’t Give Up” with Nas’ “The Message”. Both are based around story telling and both are based around dealing with their personal hardships, but it’s probably of popular opinion that “The Message” is the more substantial piece.

The main problem, at least from what I can tell, in context of “The Message” being superior to “Don’t Give Up” is Nas’ ability to conjure up emotions and explore the song’s themes without coming out and telling you the thoughts and feelings. In story telling, from traditional literature to Rap lyrics, there’s a rule about showing and not telling, which means that you should be discussing things that happen as opposed to talking about how you personally feel about them, or the mind states of the characters involved. Obviously there have been many good writers in both mediums that have broken this rule, and much of the best works have a mix showing and telling together in a way that makes the story more interesting. But DGAF, as opposed to telling about the events in their life in such a manner that could help us understand their psyche, they come out and give us their perspective on themselves and the events in their life, completely throwing subtlety out the window.

Problem #5. Punchlines

Punchlines, as the title of the phrase would suggest, are meant to pack a punch for the audience, something that really leaves a strong impact on the listener. Usually this means something that is clever and funny, like a play on words or a joke involving popular to obscure cultural references. With that in mind, here are some of the punchlines from DGAF’s “The Other Guys” mixtape:

My Mind’s connected to so many things: system link.

I’m here to start a war like my name was Mars

And you’re missing the brains: no smarts

All these damn copies, it’s Attack of the Clones

Maybe once you were Superman, but now you’re just Christopher Reeves.

With the exception of the last one, which is borderline clever but falls flat due to over used subject matter, none of these punchlines have the ability to catch people off guard and impress, or prove as humorous to it’s general audience. And, in other instances on the mixtape, there are punchlines that are clever in subject matter but simply aren’t crafted well enough to get a laugh. (“I keep money on the brain, just like a tumour, I can’t control it” and “Put a hash tag on my green because it’s fucking trending“, for example. And as a tip for the “money on the brain” punchline: this would work better if the noun, in this case the tumour, was the word being rhymed with. That helps catch people by surprise.)

Part 3. The Epilogue

Status: Not Recommended.

As stated earlier, “The Other Guys” doesn’t provide anything new in terms of lyricism, flow or style, and the few times the members of DGAF debatably have an original and creative line or concept, the craftsmanship is too poor to make the listener care about it. Also, despite how natural our hosts sound with each other, they still don’t manage to sound natural as their characters which causes the performances of their lyrics to be distracting and boring, if not aggravating.

This is pretty much the template for what inexperienced rappers sound like, from their first day all the way to the end of their first year. They get better each day they practice, but their skills usually stay within the same general range. My advice to DGAF is pretty much the advice I would give to most rappers starting out, which is to build up some experience as lyricists, try to display confidence on the mic without sounding like you’re forcing it out, try to avoid cliches and favour your individual characteristics so that you distinguish yourself from other emcees, and try to obtain feedback from specific persons or groups without exposing your work to the masses so that you get the advice you need without ruining your chances in the public eye. Most importantly, practice.

Good luck in the future.

Third Update: Feedback and Future Plans

You may have noticed that the format for this review is different than it was for the former few. I’m hoping to get some feedback from any readers that this blog may have so that we can determine which format we should keep going with. If you have a preference, please add it to the comments section.

And if your opinions differ from that of the authors, even if you are an author on this website yourself, I’d really love it if you posted it in the comments because discussing the products could really benefit the artists who send in their mixtapes.

I’m still looking for a forth writer, and I’m planning on putting due dates on reviews. On average, I’m expecting this blog to produce three reviews a month, and then once every Thursday when we accept the fourth writer.

If you’re an artist who sent in a mixtape, I’m sorry it’s taking so much time to review your work. I’ve been spending a lot of time trying, but obviously not enough time, and I do think I could be working harder. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Review #2: Psyonik “Black Velvet: The EP”

By, Mathieu N. Frasier

Part 1.  An Introduction

Following up our last Rap Genius tournament competitor is Psyonik, a man who was not only placed as the top favourite among judges during the qualifying round but has also earned third place among the four finalists of the tournament. Like the artist from my last review, Psyonik has gathered a cult following from Rap Genius, albeit on a larger scale, and is often given acclaim from the Rap Genius community, although the acclaim may be for completely different reasons than Isaiah. Where Isaiah G. was seen as someone who was battle hungry, providing punchline after punchline almost like a boxer with his opponent backed into the ropes, Psyonik was praised on a level of consciousness, much to the liking of emcees such as Black Thought, Brother Ali and KRS-One.

Below is my review of Psyonik’s “Black Velvet” EP, (actually the official title is “Black Velvet: The EP”, but let’s not get too wrapped up in the specifics) an online mixtape in which Psyonik speaks on topics ranging from a brief meeting with a woman in an airport, glorification of classy behaviour, and, in typical rapper fashion, his own inflated sense of self worth. But the question on my mind, and I’m sure this is the question on your mind as well, is, just how much does this confidence hold up? Is Psyonik really as good as he says he is, and just how effective is his music in spreading consciousness and capturing mood? Well, let’s take a look.

Part 2.  The Review

This EP shows a lot of technical skills in terms of lyricism and it’s topped off with a somewhat unique flow and delivery. There are a lot things that Psyonic, as an emcee, and especially as a conscious emcee, is doing right on a level of vocals and writing. He avoids a lot of amateur mistakes, keeping his rhyme scheme more focused on being consistent to the mood or tone of the song as opposed to being designed to impress. As opposed to going out of his way to sound technical and complex which, ironically, manages to make many amateur emcees sound sloppy and uneducated in their respective craft, Psyonik never over does anything in terms of rhyme schemes or sentence structure. The techniques are subtle, and make our host sound refined and almost professional as opposed to hungry, or even aspiring for that matter. (Which, in context of his style, is most definitely a good thing.) On “Tip Your Glass”, our host says:

I graduated from this swag, now it’s modus operandi
Bikini on the bottom of my chick, call her Sandy
You bust a lyrical back flip I’ll pop the brandy
Messin’ with these young mothers while I’m tryna’ make the Grammys

A lot of great lyricism, especially for conscious emcees, doesn’t bombard you with noticeable rhymes and big words, and even the great lyricism that does still keeps those words relevant to the subject matter and keeps them seeming natural in relation to the craft of lines. There’s a complexity in simplicity here that Psyonik is clearly using to the best of his abilities, and it gives him a sense of refinement and professionalism. On the surface, you only see the “andy” rhyme scheme at the end of each sentence, but when you break it down further, you see the “op”, from the word “operandi” rhyming, or creating assonence sounds, with “bottom” or “pop”, and small rhymes like “flip” and “chick.” You might think these small rhymes don’t have much impact on the line but, in a lot of cases, these small, almost unnoticable internal rhymes help hold verses together. (If you listen to Guru of Gang Starr, you’ll see this happen a lot. ) This also helps because it makes him sound as if he has nothing to prove, even when he’s boasting. (Which is somewhat oxymoronic, but if I’m going to let Jay-Z get away with it, I don’t see why I won’t do the same for this guy.) As a result, Psyonik, when he wants to, can have a battle style that makes hungry emcees look like amateurs, and comes off as so effortless that if an emcee shows more skills than Psyonik, or has a better verse in general, Psyonik’s calmness and ability to sound effortless in his work could fool the audience into thinking he wasn’t even trying to compete, and ultimately make him appear to be the more talented of the two.

The production on this mixtape compliments the tone and style of our host just as much as the lyricism and vocal presence. The instrumentals provided have a very easy going feel, from the piano strikes on “Tip Your Glass” and “Francesca”, to the sampled moaning and soft percussion on “Green Tea Swag”, and even to the synthetic sounds of “Delilah.” The hardest instrumental on the album, and it still stays consistent to the rest of the EP, is “Mr. Main Event” which incorporates horn and piano samples, what I believe to be a boxing bell (or possibly a light sounding gong, I’m not really sure) and, of course, a few sharp hitting drum sounds, among other things. In order of where these beats are placed on the mixtape, they seem to mesh into each other about as well as I could imagine them, and every instrumental on the EP blends well with the vocals. Nothing about the instrumentals stand out very much, but they have so much chemistry with our host that it seems somewhat insignificant.

Psyonik’s lyrics are well written and highly poetic on the technical side of things, and it would be hard for me to pick out a flaw with his line structure, especially considering how well he uses his technical qualities to fit his own tone and style. Every lyric goes well with the music being supplied, and Psyonik is no hack in the beat department either. However, problems do arise when you take the meanings and ideas behind the lyrics into account. Psyonik is clearly a conscious emcee, or at least that’s the style he seems to portray, and, for the record, that falls into the range of sub-genres of Rap music that I a) listen to a lot, and b) know a lot about. From Mr. Lif to Brother Ali to Tupac Shakur to Killah Priest, conscious Rap is, and always will be, a welcome meal in my daily musical diet. (Which, as of last week, is completely free of high fructose corn syrup.) As mentioned earlier, Psyonik does play the part of a conscious emcee well, at least for the most part, but he sounds like just another conscious emcee. If you look at Common, Black Thought and Talib Kweli, they all fit in the same category when you think of different types of rappers, and they are all very reminiscent of each other, but each one of them adds a different kind of flavour to their overall sound and feel, and they each present different ideologies and concepts in their lyrics. Common has his preachy, yet confused style, where he searches through his life and mind state in order to find the truth and brings it to the audience as further speculation. (See “The Sixth Sense” and his verse on “Respiration.”) Talib Kweli presents his stream of consciousness as if, as opposed to searching for the truth, he already knows the truth, as he makes statements and presents his lyrics with such conviction and confidence in what he says. (See: “Hostile Gospel pt 1” and “Get By”) Black Thought, who is probably the most versatile of the three, has a higher tendency to evoke passion in his delivery and lyrics, (although it is matched by a few songs from the other two members of this trio, such as “Get By” by Talib Kweli, once again, and “Respect for Life” by Common) and he’s the best story teller of the three. (Even “I Used To Love H.E.R.” by Common, although a better song, doesn’t have as much substance in terms of imagery and pacing as songs like “You Got Me” or “Make My” by The Roots.) These three emcees are probably some of the most similar conscious rappers I can think of, but all of them bring something different to the table, and do a prominent job separating themselves from each other. And once we start getting into guys like Slug of Atmosphere, or Swamburger from Solillaquists of Sound, distinctive attributes only become more noticeable. But as for Psyonik, he doesn’t seem to be doing any one thing more effectively than any of the rappers listed above, or any other well established conscious emcees for that matter. He doesn’t have the imagery of Black Thought, he doesn’t have as much introspective as Common, he doesn’t have the authority of Talib Kweli, he doesn’t have the cleverness of Slug, and he doesn’t have the rapid style and constant stream of conciousness that Swamburger has. Even the sense of refinement and professionalism that I mentioned earlier is already being done by Jay-Z on a higher scale, so I’m having a hard time seeing how Psyonik stands out in a positive way. I’m also having a hard time understanding what would make me want to turn on “Black Velvet: The EP” when I have so much music from other rappers who not only have more depth behind their lyrics, but also have more refined and exploited specialties that help distinguish them from other artists?

Another problem I have with our host is that what his lyrics describe seem kind of vague, at least in some cases. Take these lyrics from “Green Tea Swag”, for example:

You hate it on the inside – but say you love it
You know nothing about the situation but you judge it
You never step back – just thinking
Mind looking the Titanic – sinking
Headlights blinking – car’s still rollin
Checkout this mess that you tossed you soul in
And you thought odds were slim
That you’d end up looking like most of them
And now you’re stuck in the middle of such a bad riddle
Cow’s over the moon the cat’s playing the fiddle
And you don’t know what to do
The world expects great things from you
So you try to perform you try to show em that you’ll always know em, they’re
the reason you write songs and write poems
Now the Green Tea’s brewing, such a cold morning
Life is the story this all just goes on

I find it hard to tell whether Psyonik’s lyrics are sticking to one constant concept with this verse, or if he’s brainstorming and touching upon different ideas. There seems to be no set up or hints towards the meaning of his statements and similes, only words that, without direction, could be attributed to a variety of things. Do you remember those “connect the dot” activities that came in kid’s colouring books?

That’s what this reminds me of. When I was a kid I would ignore the numbers next to the dots and, as a result, the rabbits or the chickens that I tried to draw would never actually show up on the paper. Instead I would have a bunch of strategically placed lines that were meant to replicate the shape of a classic, recognisable figure, but were actually just strategically placed lines that looked like they were placed at random. I put a lot of thought into where I would draw my next line, but for some reason I never thought of the significance of the numbers. In the present, had I not been following the numbers I wouldn’t have found out that the arranged dots above are the outline for a telephone.

A crummy looking telephone, but a telephone nonetheless.

It seems like, to me, Psyonik is arranging his dots but leaving the numbers off the page. In order for his lyrics to be coherent in terms of the message he wants us to uncover, he has to have at least some theme or idea established. Hints towards the theme or idea should be subtle, but not so subtle that it becomes ambiguous. He needs to provide the numbers so that the dots can be connected. But unfortunately, Psyonik’s lyrics in this verse cross the thin line between subtle and ambiguous. To be fair, this is only one song on the entire mixtape that suffers from this problem on a large scale. Most of the other songs are pretty clear about the messages they want to convey, (with a few lyrics here and there that don’t follow this standard, but this only brings us to another problem. The other messages don’t seem to have as much ideology and social consciousness representative in the lyrics. Besides “Francesca”, “Green Tea Swag” seems to be the song with the most depth, but that might only be due to the fact that the lyrics don’t really help me understand what Psyonik’s trying to get at. (Although I’m giving a lot of credit for “Francesca.” Simply put, that’s a damn good song and it’s relevant to a topic that I haven’t heard tackled in music. It’s no masterpiece, but I couldn’t imagine what Psyonik could be doing better in context of his styles and abilities. It all seems to fit into place about as well as it possibly could considering the limitations of the emcee behind the piece, but at the same time I don’t know how another artist could do the concept more justice. All in all, this was a job well done.) You could make the argument that Psyonik’s music isn’t meant to propel ideas of social consciousness, at least to the levels of the emcees listed above, but considering the overall tone and style of the mixtape, from the beats to the lyrics to the flow to the delivery, the lack of social consciousness suggests an inconsistency in the music.

Part 3.  The Epilogue.

Status: Highly Recommended.

Had this not been so short, it would of only recieved a “Recommended +” mark, but at five songs and approximately fourteen minutes, it’s hard to not “Highly Recommend” listening to it. All of the music here is good music, and Psyonik is proving himself talented technically as an emcee, and talented as a producer. The problems with this album are mostly that of a conceptual basis. The mixtape is corny, but corniness in Rap music is easy to live with. Common is corny. RZA is corny. EPMD is corny and they’re in my top ten favourite Rap acts of all time. Psyonik might take the corniness a bit too far, but it’s probably not totally necessary to work on. I could see him working around that and putting out a lot of solid, and even successful, albums, but his corniness is something he should probably work on changing anyways. More importantly, our host provides no new ideas or perspectives and, considering the whole conscious feel of this album, it presents itself as inconsistent. Reading the lyrics, it almost comes off as if the consciousness this album implies is simply a bluff, and that Psyonik is mostly playing off the consciousness of other emcees. Our host also, despite doing a lot of things right on a level of sound, simply does not have the ability to leave a lasting impression on a large scale. Had “Black Velvet: The EP” been released on a wide scale, I could imagine it being forgotten about pretty quickly.

There is a reason that AZ, despite having the technical abilities of Nas, could never break out of the “underrated” category: he doesn’t stand out. His music has always sounded like Nas-light, with a bit more exploitation of his own lyrical abilities and a lot less social consciousness and ability to feel like a fleshed out human being. Like Psyonik, AZ is very skilled technically and in terms of lyricism, delivery, flow, and so on. But without being somewhat different in the eyes of the audience, appreciation is going to be limited, regardless the technique and talent on display. So, beyond anything else, I think Psyonik should try to be more original. He should think of themes, epiphanies and ideas that other rappers are simply passing over, and if he has any eccentricities or obscure personality traits that aren’t shining through in the music, he should try and exploit it appropriately.

Despite those flaws, this mixtape is most definitely worth your time. Give it a listen and judge for yourself.