Sunday, July 5, 2015

album review: 'every hero needs a villain' by czarface

So I occasionally get asked by non-fans of hip-hop how I can excuse the lyrical content, which can focus on crass materialism, unbridled hedonism, rampant drug abuse, and violence. And normally after I roll my eyes - seriously, what genre beyond the most sterile of bubblegum pop or any art hasn't touched on all of these subjects in some form - I often inform them that there's different varieties of hip-hop and how seriously you can take them. Now some of the more political material like on Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly I take very seriously - and even with that and a far less violent message compared to the incendiary material from Run The Jewels, you're still going to get cretins on FOX News misinterpreting it and trying to ram down a message of promoting violence. Seriously, the only time FOX remotely gets close to discussing hip-hop or the black community with any sort of credence is - ironically - when Killer Mike is a guest star.

But there's always been a competitive element to hip-hop and that tends to mean confrontational language is used, often with violent imagery, and when you start treading towards horrorcore or gangsta rap, things get a little trickier, especially when you acknowledge while it might be entertainment for the consumer or the critic, it might be very real for the artist creating it who grew up in that environment, and consideration and empathy should be shown. Of course, there's another way: make the violence so hyperbolic and exaggerated that it almost becomes like a cartoon. It doesn't mean the message is any less potent, but it's conveyed in a different way - analogous to the way Tarantino smuggles his 'message' movies through the guise of b-movie exploitation. Run The Jewels can walk this line, and so can Action Bronson.

And this is where we run into Czarface, half the underground hip-hop duo 7L and Esoteric, and half the Wu-Tang Clan member Inspectah Deck. I'll admit not always being the biggest Wu-Tang fan - part of it is that I just haven't had the time to fully unpack and decode all of their albums across their storied history with several solo members having full discographies of their own. But Czarface interested me, if only because the lyrics overloaded with references to comic books, pulp sci-fi, and pro wrestling merged with sample-heavy old-school production reminded me a lot of MF Doom in a good way. I guess if I were nitpicking, I wasn't the biggest fan of their debut, which was solid but occasionally lacked killer standouts and did drag a little by the end, but with a stronger feature list than ever, I figured I'd give the sophomore record a listen - was it worth it?

Well, yeah, it was worth it. And honestly, Every Hero Needs A Villain by Czarface is one of those albums that really doesn't give me a lot to say - it's uniformly solid and pretty damn hysterical throughout the vast majority of the album, basically taking the formula that worked on the debut and amplifying it to great effect. If you liked the debut, you'll love this, because it's basically a more colourful, more punchline-overloaded brand of it with better guest stars and significantly stronger cuts. And if you like east-coast-inspired boom-bap with a real sense of humour, great chemistry, and a personality rooted in the goofier, pulpier elements of nerd culture - and I happen to like a lot of that - you'll have a ton of fun with this, even if it's not exactly writing the book in hip-hop.

So let's talk about our two MCs - and honestly, they're both solid as hell in terms of technical wordplay and construction. Inspectah Deck is a little more calculated and his cadences are a little more structured, but Esoteric often hits punchlines that are a little funnier or a little more clever. Both of them can swap verses back and forth and they've got a lot of chemistry - honestly to the point where I did struggle a bit to tell them apart. They've got similar vocal tones if you don't listen for the subtleties. There are a few points where I find the rhyming can slip a bit, and for nearly an hour of constant spitting some of the bars do start to run together a little bit, but really, so much of it is of such high quality that I've got no complaints. It also helps that the majority of their guest stars are on their A-Game. Method Man's verse on 'Nightcrawler' is awesome - hell, all of 'Nightcrawler' is awesome, but we'll come back to that - GZA was solid on 'When Gods Go Mad', and while I was initially hit and miss on Juju from The Beatnuts' verse on 'Junkyard Dogs', I did warm to it after a few listens. My favourite verse on this album comes from R.A. The Rugged Man on 'Good Villains Go Last', but that's more because it was so hyperbolic it just became hilarious in the best possible way. Oddly, I didn't love MF Doom's verse on 'Ka-Bang!' - it was incredibly well-structured, but the free association vibe of the content didn't really connect as well as I wanted. The other verse I didn't love was Meyhem Lauren's verse on 'Deadly Class' - not a bad verse, but Inspectah Deck and Esoteric were on a different level, and it showed.

Granted, there's another major player who deserves a lot of credit here, and that's 7L working with Spada4 on the production - and wow, a lot of this really clicks with me, mostly through the usage of more live drums with great texture to supplement the slightly lo-fi, sample-heavy production. And really, the few moments where I feel the samples ran a little long - most notably the 'Han Shot First' argument on 'Red Alert', only slightly redeemed by the exasperated British interviewer - or the beat and synth choices didn't really come together like the slightly off rhythm high guitar lick on 'Deadly Class', these moments are far outshone by the places where things did work. The biggest change is the interjection of heavier, more rock-inspired beats and instrumentation, which is only a positive when you're dealing with subject matter that very much is larger than life - or thinks that it is. So the strings that punctuate the melody on the chunky riff of 'Czartacus', the ominous chug of 'The Great (Czar Guitar)', the beefier, noisier percussion against the warped guitars and sleigh bells on 'Junkyard Dogs', the explosive progression 'Sgt. Slaughter', the fantastic cymbal timbre on 'Even Gods Go Mad' against the horns and guitar, the multiple change-ups that still felt cohesive on 'Escape From Czarkham Asylum', and the melodic switches from bass, guitars, and fragmented keyboards on 'Sinister' are just awesome. And then there's 'Nightcrawler', easily my favourite song on the album with a distinctive melodic groove and a ridiculously memorable chorus against fantastic textured drums - other critics have already pointed out the easy comparison to early productions from RZA, and yeah, 'Nightcrawler' definitely earns it. 

This takes us to lyrics and themes... and honestly, this is where I have the least to say, because really, Every Hero Has A Villain is pretty simple in terms of casting our intrepid MCs as fearsome gangstas lyrically decimating a mainstream that can't hope to hold up with punchline after punchline. And there are so many good bars from song after song interweaving references, samples, or just damn great wordplay that I find more every single time I work my way through this record. It's not especially serious - although viciously castigating a less lyrical scene in hip-hop always wins points with me regardless - but then again that's part of the point. Less capable MCs might rely on pop culture to make their material interesting or compensate for a lack of personality, but Esoteric and Inspectah Deck use it to pepper their already-strong material with a ton of flavour that frequently is really funny along with being cutting as hell. And as such, this section could easily descend into me listing off great punchlines, but that also takes away a bit from the jokes and some of these, you want to be surprised. And while I do find some of the samples to be a little too broad - the Superman reference on 'Sgt. Slaughter' in particular fell a little flat for me - it does kind of fit the pulpy vibe.

In the end, this record will not be for everyone - if you can't groove with the slightly silly, definitely over-the-top, MF Doom-meets-Wu-Tang style, I understand why. And even though I have zero problem with the boom-bap style and definitely thought they brought enough heft and ruggedness to the guitars and drums, I can see where some will consider this dated, even though I'd strongly disagree. But me... Every Hero Needs A Villain by Czarface is so much fun, I can't help but recommend it. An easy 8/10 and definitely a recommendation for any hip-hop fan, particularly if your tastes run a little nerdier like yours truly. But even if they don't, if you want to hear some kickass lyricism and great beats, definitely give this a listen - you won't regret it.

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