Wednesday, January 22, 2014

album review: 'lord steppington' by step brothers (the alchemist & evidence)

You know you've become a music nerd when you start following other people besides the actual artist when it comes to albums. Sure, the artist often has his or her own unique presence and style and you get some artists who will handle every element of their music - writing, music, production, everything - but not all of them do. And thus, there are other talents behind the scenes that deserve attention. In country music, for instance, since most modern country acts don't write all of their own music, it's a good idea to keep an eye out for certain songwriters. And in hip-hop, you want to keep your eye on certain producers, the people who have a reputation for creating beats and mixes for acts to rap or sing over.

Which takes us to the group we'll be talking about today. If you're familiar with underground hip-hop, you should be familiar with both of these men, both hip-hop producers and rappers in their own right. The first is The Alchemist, known mostly for being the DJ who works with Shady Records and Eminem, but he also has a selection of very well-received albums under his belt. The second man is Evidence, who I last talked about on his collaboration with LMNO on the team-up album After The Fact, which ended up making my list of the best albums of 2013. Now The Alchemist and Evidence have worked together plenty of times before, and they didn't really intend on doing a straight team up until they realized by happenstance that they had enough tracks for a full-length collaboration. So they called their new duo Step Brothers, brought together a group of underground rappers with whom they've collaborated over the past decade (which include Oh No, Action Bronson, Rakaa, Fashawn, and Roc Marciano) for verses, and they've now dropped a new album titled Lord Steppington. Now let me stress this: I've been psyched for this album since I heard about it months ago, as it reminded me a lot of the last underground hip-hop collaboration I covered, which was Run The Jewels by Killer Mike and El-P and was one of the best albums of the year. So how did this collaboration turn out?

Well, here's the funny thing: Lord Steppington by Step Brothers is an album that's effectively doing the same things as Run The Jewels, so let's the comparison out of the way right now: no, it's not better than Run The Jewels. But it's still damn, damn good, the first legitimately great album of 2014 and definitely worth your listen. At the same time, though, it's an album that requires both patience and a lot of repeated listens, because there is a lot going on throughout this record and neither The Alchemist, Evidence, nor their long list of collaborators are going to make it easy on you.

So let's start with the obvious selling point of this record: the lyrics. Like with LMNO's collaboration album with Evidence last year, Lord Steppington prides itself on being a defiantly anti-corporate rap album and has a marked focus on casting all manner of scorn and derision on mainstream hip-hop. And like with Run The Jewels (okay, I will stop making the comparisons, but I'm trying to make a point), this album gets there through superb, multisyllabic poetry and wordplay, emphasizing intelligence and hard work over luxury or popularity. But while it does have its fair share of 'Look at me, I'm awesome' tracks, Step Brothers go the extra mile and dump a load of nuance and subtext into the conversation, making things a whole lot more complicated. The two men often play off a contrast: The Alchemist raps with a more traditional hard-edged gangster stereotype, while Evidence provides deft commentary on the whole proceeding from the sideline and often delivers the more insightful, layered punchlines. 

So yeah, it's very much in the vein of how Killer Mike and El-P structured their interplay on Run The Jewels, but I'd argue Evidence and The Alchemist do things a bit differently. For one, the album doesn't really directly target any specific rapper (outside of a passing jibe at Nicki Minaj on the final track 'Just Step'), instead targeting the industry and mainstream rap scene at large through subtle jibes and insults that you'll miss if you're not paying attention. Both these men use their status as veterans to critique the vapidity and 'gangsta' image with a much harsher criticism by showing how shallow and immature wallowing in sex and money really is, and with songs like 'Draw Something', they focus more on the creative process and using raw intellect and cunning to elevate themselves. They cast themselves as collaborating lords, speaking above political or social boundaries (there's a fair bit of political imagery throughout the album) to a larger audience - and yet, there's a running motif throughout the album of an Indian lord trying and failing to get out of a parking ticket. It's a simple but effective metaphor that underscores the entire album - as well as The Alchemist and Evidence might consider themselves, they've both realized their 'power' has a limited radius, and one that only shrinks if they grow complacent. And even that power or fame could slip a way at any second, as underscored on the chilling track 'See The Rich Man Play' which parallels the hip-hop scene with a seedy, smoke-filled casino for haunting effect.

Now part of the reason why that song - hell, the entire album - is so effective is the instrumentation and production. I will say I was a little disappointed that Evidence only contributed production work on one track, but The Alchemist more than makes up for it with a really compelling fusion of music on the best tracks: the grimy, scratchy, heavily 90s-inspired hip-hop sound with beats and melodies that are derived from old school soul, jazz, classical music, and even hints of rock. The track 'Legendary Mesh' has this eerie guitar solo looping in the background that contrasts perfectly off of the chilling sleigh bells and pulsing futuristic sound, and it really creates an effective atmosphere - and really, creating atmosphere is where this album earns huge points for me. The entire album has this air of grandeuir that's fading and cracking around the edges, old school class that intentionally doesn't quite mesh with grimier production, and it's a perfect balance between opulence and sleaze. In other words, when this album references The Great Gatsby, it's a reference that makes plenty of sense with the instrumentation as well as the lyrics. That being said, there are seams that show in the production, particularly in some of the sampling with vocal tracks, as there are points where the vocals of the backing track clash a bit with the rappers, and it's a little awkward. A bigger issue comes up in the tempo - don't get me wrong, it fits the rappers in question and allows them to lay down some seriously impressive wordplay, but I can't help but feel a faster clip or a little more energy throughout this record could have made it a lot stronger.

Part of this issue comes to the rappers themselves - and as I've said, they're both great. I can count the number of poor rhymes or flubbed lines on one had for all the rappers in question on this record, and that's saying something. A few might take issue that a few of The Alchemist's lyrics can be a little corny - there are a lot of references to baked goods on this album and they don't always click - but my bigger problem comes down to the rapper's tone. I had this issue with LMNO as well in that the poetry was phenomenal, but the presentation could do with more energy or force, but this ties to the issue of how serious we should take this album. You can tell there are sly jokes that go over well, but for the most part these guys are playing things fairly straight - which isn't a bad thing and it works like gangbusters for the smarter, more incisive tracks, but it does make some of the bragging tracks don't land with the same impact. To put it another way, there were moments where they stepped hard in their delivery - I just wish they had stepped a little harder. And on that note, the hooks on this album aren't bad but they aren't great either, the nadir being 'Step Masters', where the chorus just sounded obnoxious to me and not in a good way.

So in summary, The Alchemist and Evidence put together a lyrically dense album with some potent beats and great textured production. It's the kind of album where having RapGenius open while listening can only help (and it's a shame that at the time of writing, RapGenius still didn't have all the songs transcribed yet) catch some of the wit flowing from line to line - it's a subtle record, and it's not looking to make things easy. It's not flawless, though: a quicker tempo, some tighter hooks, and a bit more energy could have made this album something extremely special. As it is, it's a great hip-hop album that has a lot of wit and nuance, earning an 8/10 from me and a recommendation. It is an album that has decidedly '90s' sensibilities when it comes to wordplay and some of the production - but when it's this smart, insightful, and well-presented, I can't deny that it works. Check it out.

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