Sunday, September 15, 2013

album review: 'after the fact' by lmno ft. evidence

Some of you who have been following my reviews are probably wondering why, in comparison with most music critics, I don't tend to cover a huge amount of hip-hop or rap music, that outside of the major releases (and sometimes not even including those), I don't tend to hit up every single mixtape or underground album that gets dropped. 

And believe it or not, I do have a reason for this: I simply do not have time. I'm serious here - given than I want to cover other genres besides hip-hop or rap, I simply do not have time to cover everything that gets dropped. If I chose to dedicate myself to just covering hip-hop or rap I'd have a better chance of tackling most things, but I bet I'd still be utterly swamped.

But here's the other, unfortunate fact, and that is that I'm kind of getting tired of the direction that modern rap is taking. I've mentioned in previous videos that I don't think trap instrumentation is a good fit for modern rap music, how the dour, humourless, often creepy beats are a bad tonal fit for brag rapping, and much to my frustration, they don't really seem to be going away. And sure, while the retro direction Eminem appears to be going in looking intriguing and I'm cautiously optimistic, I'm also aware that The Marshall Mathers LP II will likely never live up to the high, high expectations Eminem is trying to create.

So perhaps it was the best possible time for me to go back to the underground and check out the newest album from LMNO, a very prolific white rapper from Long Beach signed to Up Above Records from the hip-hop crew the Visionaries. LMNO has been around since the mid-90s, and he has released a ton of material over the past several years, particularly in 2010 where he dropped ten albums. And while I highly doubt all ten of the albums were solid, it does point to a rapper who has a lot of experience and who has refined his flow into something truly potent. So, teaming up with producer Evidence (from Dilated Peoples), he released After The Fact this year after taking 2012 off, and on a recommendation, I decided to take a look. So what do I think?

Quite frankly, it's great. It's exactly what I needed coming out of the past few weeks - a surge of excellently-produced, well-structured rapping that actually bothers to be about something and occasionally has something to say. It was a huge breath of fresh air, and I'm really happy I got a chance to check this album out. And while I'm not sure it's going to land on my Top 10 list of the year, it's definitely a strong contender.

Let's start with the element that immediately got a huge sigh of relief from me: the production. Dear god, the production on After The Fact is goddamn great, with each track showing signs of real grit and texture that I really appreciated. Not to state the obvious, but it sounds like it was lifted straight from the underground - the mid-to-late 90s underground in particular, with record scratches and rich, expansive, sample-heavy soundscapes that sound like they were recorded on location. And what's best about all of it is that the production lets all of the elements blend together seamlessly into an interesting, well-composed whole. I've said in the past that the best production is that which is not noticeable, but given as many albums I've heard with mediocre-to-disastrous production recently, this is a welcome shift that's organic and was clearly fitted together with professionalism and skill.

And on top of that, the instrumentation is solid as well. As I said, it's a refreshingly old-school album - possibly even a throwback - but it also shows why all of those elements work in the right context. The instrumentation of this album is often rooted in catchy acoustic instrumentation or fuzz-saturated samples, with the beats being simple and yet distinctive enough to give each track a unique atmosphere. Hell, even 'Long Range', the track that seems to be the closest thing this album gets to modern instrumentation, is well-structured enough not to sound generic and (unlike most trap instrumentation) it matches the content in the lyrics. There are songs on this album that remind me a lot of mid-to-late 90s production from Dr. Dre, and that's a high compliment to Evidence who put these instrumentals together. If I were to have a bit of a complaint, I would say that the squealing sound at the top of the mix on 'March Madness' was unnecessarily grating, but that's one song. A larger issue comes up not with momentum, but in the instrumental 'energy' of this album - while it does match LMNO's delivery quite well, I'd argue the album, despite being a slow burn, doesn't really reach a climax or a point where the instrumentation kicks it up a notch. It's very solid, don't get me wrong, and there are moments where the instrumentation is the best part of the song on tracks like 'No Risk No Reward' and especially 'The Correction' (my favourite track on the album), but if there's a payoff to that slow burn, it's muted at best and thus left me feeling a little cold at the end of the album.

So let's move on to talking about LMNO himself and his rhymes, and I'll say it right now; this is what rap lyrics should look like. Multi-syllabic rhyme schemes, every lyric flowing naturally into the next, precisely, well-composed poetry, and the skill to load every song with multiple memorable punchlines. You can tell there was a lot of thought and effort put into each line of this album, and man, it's refreshing to see. LMNO delivers his lyrics with the skill and ease of a professional rapper, and all of his guest stars deliver as well. This is the sort of rapping we only saw in the mainstream for a brief time, and man, did I miss it.

And while I wouldn't say the topics of the rapping are all that different from what is common in the underground, there's a lot of nuance that I really dug throughout these lyrics that support the central theme of this album excellent. The album's title also could double as the theme of the album - it's an album looking backward, filled with reflexive hindsight and an impressive lack of nostalgia (well, other than the instrumentation). Take songs like 'Yearbook', in which LMNO reflects upon formative events of his school years, supported by a melancholy chorus and an ambiance that seems to capture every moment anyone sits down and cracks open a yearbook to reminisce. What also seems to be apparent is a fair amount of simmering bitterness against the direction that hip-hop has taken, where it never really quite explodes into rage, but definitely manifests in a certain disgust for the simplification and dumbing down of the modern rap scene. But even more than that, it's also an album that takes a fair amount of stock in how modern society has seemed to evolve, both economically and socially, not entirely condemning it but not praising it by any stretch of the mind either. These are lyrics that actually have something to say and the correct framing to say it well, which makes the album incredibly immersive and only enhances the texture and feel of the tracks, giving them more than a significant amount of weight and potence.

So, with all of that in mind, why doesn't this album rise to the top for me? Well, two reasons. The first is LMNO's delivery - make no mistake, it's not bad and it does match the mood presented by the instrumentation very well, but it's also rather low-key. It doesn't really build or escalate and thus it feels a little calculated, not quite as organic or emotionally driven as it could be, which I think could have made LMNO's message hit a little harder. On top of that, while this album does have a great flow from track to track, there is a lack of truly gripping hooks throughout the album, particularly on the second half. Don't get me wrong, the songs aren't bad, but when the hooks are there, they aren't all that impressive. And while I get that the message is the real star of this album - a reflexive and very honest look back at how things have evolved and changed - the presentation of said message could have afforded to be a bit better.

Yet with all of that in mind, LMNO and Evidence have made a great album with After The Fact, and one that I can recommend without hesitation. If you're a fan of underground hip-hop and you haven't checked out this guy's material, I highly recommend you give his newest album a serious look. The wordplay is superb, the production is organic as all hell, and the themes and messages of this album are nuanced and articulately realized. This is a thinking man's rap album, and it's definitely worth your time. For me, it's a strong 8/10, and a wish that this sort of intelligent rap music with something to say can rise to the top again. 

But even if it doesn't, LMNO and Evidence have proven with this album that the underground won't disappoint.

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