Thursday, July 30, 2015

album review: '25/8' by lmno & mr. brady

You know, LMNO, there is such a thing as flooding the market.

For those of you who follow this series, you're probably aware that this is the fourth time I've covered LMNO in two years, a rough-edged California MC with a reputation for a relentlessly monotone delivery and yet bars complex and thought-provoking enough to redeem it. What he's also known for is his insane release schedule: in one year he dropped ten albums of material with various producers and collaborators, to the point where it got exhausting just to keep up with him. And yet I still do - mostly because his collaboration album with Evidence After The Fact was excellent and I'm still convinced he can deliver something of that quality.

Now one of the better received albums from that crazy year was called Banger Management, which paired him with Mr. Brady, an MC whose lower tone and softer delivery actually made LMNO's conspiratorial rasp sound energetic and lively. The two have collaborated plenty of times since, and this year they sought to put together a new project, the instrumentation handled by New York producer Asthetic. And for the most part, I was interested in this - yeah, I know, four projects in two years on this channel, but LMNO can bring up interesting material in his bars, and Mr. Brady would offer good contrast. So, how does 25/8 turn out?

Honestly, I've been struggling with this one. My plan was to cover this a week or so ago, closer to when it dropped, but with every listen through 25/8, I'm left with less to really dissect. And sure, part of it is because it's a collaboration album that doesn't have as deep conceptual ambitions as LMNO's previous work, but part of it is that I feel like many of the lyrical concepts have been thoroughly explored on previous records that I'd just be repeating myself. 

I will say that this is probably my least favourite record I've covered from LMNO to date - and as usual, it's got nothing to do with him. In fact, where I might have come down hard on some disconnected lyricism on Bronze Age, he steps up his technical wordplay and flows to a much tighter level on this album, with bar after bar connecting with multi-syllabic rhymes, and he has definitely improved as a more expressive and emotive MC. Now granted, part of that might be placed in contrast with the lower, rougher tones of Mr. Brady, who might opt for more personal framing to add some punch to his work but isn't quite as polished of an MC, with a fair few flubbed rhymes and not always staying on focus with LMNO as well as they could. They do have chemistry in trading bars and some good interplay, but it's hard not to get the impression that LMNO is on a different level when it comes to stage presence and personality, and that's not even touching content.

And if you've listened to an LMNO project before, the actual bars here shouldn't surprise you: socially aware material castigating mainstream rap for forsaking quality, a mainstream society fragmenting under its own weight and decaying institutions, and hustling on the edge to extract whatever they can to survive. Unsurprisingly, the subject of plenty of songs is systemic police injustice, and you can tell both LMNO and Mr. Brady are straining at the leash to fight back harder beyond their words, and they're both quick to call out mainstream rappers who talk about death in their bars but who have never come close to even addressing political subject matter or actually living the life, preferring to wallow in debauchery. And at this point, LMNO and Mr. Brady are done trying to save them, and in their more thrifty, hard-working lane, they can succeed while the rest topples in upon itself. You get a few more conceptual tracks - the drug trips of 'Loaded' that features them defeating inner demons only to be rejected by polite society, the night terror of 'Hush' that shows them tracing their roots to insecurities beyond their control - but for the most part the bars loosely sketch out the picture of two MCs comfortable in their underground lane... but in a sense, that looseness part of the issue, because it's hard to get a sense of urgency or real danger from this record. Sure, LMNO's conspiratorial rasp does a lot to help, as does Mr. Brady's more personal stories told with a darker tone, but I find myself looking for more drama in the stories or more confrontation, and it doesn't really materialize.

And a major part of that is the production, which might be the most fragmented and ramshackle beats that LMNO has ever picked up, loaded with grimy, rough-edged electric guitars, textured percussion, and burbling borderline-chiptune synthesizers. And while I have warmed a little to Asthetic's production... the majority of the synth tones just do not work for me at all, mostly because they slip off rhythm and really don't fit well with the atmosphere of the tracks. Take 'Rearrange', for instance - putting aside the fact the opening line sounds like it was composed on a cheap Casio keyboard, we then get a warm scratchiness over the rest of the beat that doesn't match at all with the synth tone. And sure, LMNO sounds fine over it - he can rap over anything with a beat - but when I commented about how these synths could work when I reviewed Bronze Age, I meant more that the tone itself could have more bite and edge, not just being supplied by a filter, which actually occurs later on this album on the song fragment 'Street Art' with its low, fuzzy gurgle. And the exasperating thing is that without that bite in the tone itself, the higher fidelity synths don't match all that well with the roughness of the rest of the mix like on the whirling cascades against the dusty beat and pianos on 'Tough Gets Going', the oily squealing blare on 'Loaded' that feels like a drug trip in the worst possible way, and then the transition from the piano and mournful strings to this ugly oscillating chiptune on the back half of 'Hunger Pains'. Now that's not saying there isn't instrumental moments that do work here: the choice to bring in rougher guitar tones is a good one across the board, and it pays big dividends on 'Pavement' and the title track; the strings that show up on 'Hunger Pains' and 'New York Minute' sound great, and the warped, spacey synth against the very clean jingle of the percussion on 'Clean' worked surprisingly well for me

And yet, the more I listened through 25/8, it didn't grip me as much as I wanted. I've seen a few reviews that suggest that LMNO is on autopilot these days, and I don't quite buy that, especially as his delivery has noticeably improved. But for a collaboration album like this, looking for a sense of urgency or vitriolic fire or even a level of deeper insight that doesn't come through leaves me feeling disappointed. So for me, this album is getting a strong 6/10 and a recommendation, but there are better LMNO projects. And if he happens to see this review: dude, as an MC I'm only enjoying your delivery and lyrical construction more and more, but this album felt comfortable for you, and I think you could stand to push yourself and your collaborating producers even harder outside of that comfort zone, you've got more capacity. Because if the last four releases I've reviewed have proven anything, you can definitely spit - I want you to focus it and refine it into special.

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