Thursday, April 14, 2016

album review: 'lead poison' by elzhi

I've talked a bit before about regionalism in hip-hop, how certain areas cultivate certain sounds and styles of rap. New York hip-hop tends to be more opulent and proud, the West Coast trends towards more laid-back grooves and g-funk, the South is known for trap and hard, trunk-knocking bangers, you get the picture.

And yet if we cast our eyes to the city of Detroit, only one word springs to my mind: bars. Formerly the engine of the United States but now fallen into disrepair and poverty, to me Detroit has always been characterized by hard-edged MCs fighting their way out and building independence with sheer, mind-bending wordplay. Granted, I'll wholeheartedly admit a lot of this impression was probably crafted by an early liking for Eminem and seeing 8 Mile one too many times, but when you consider rappers like Eminem and Royce da 5'9'' or even more out there MCs like Danny Brown, one of the reasons they remain interesting rappers is how they construct their wordplay. And hell, even though I don't like Big Sean I'll give him credit for at least trying to hold up the legacy when he talks about his hometown.

And continuing in that tradition is Elzhi, former member of Slum Village which was most well-known as J.Dilla's group, though the two were not in the the group at the same time. For the longest time he was one of those MCs I had just not had the time to dig into - but I'm definitely glad I found time to check out his 2008 album The Preface, because it is just the type of hip-hop I really like. Great production courtesy of Black Milk, fantastic wordplay, and Elzhi delivering not just great bars but great stories, showing a ton of real promise and poise. Along with his mixtapes he also released a tribute to Nas' Illmatic in 2011, which is also pretty damn excellent... but let's get real, it's been nearly five years since we've heard an Elzhi project. This one was funded through Kickstarter back in 2013, but after extended delays we finally have it. Was it worth the wait?

Well, I have to be honest here, this is a review I've been sitting on for a bit, because it's definitely an interesting listen and probably sure to satisfy many of Elzhi's fans hungry for his brand of imaginative and layered bars. It's certainly clever and reflects the sort of MC who inspires a die-hard cult following... and yet I get the feeling this record should connect with me on a deeper level than it does, and I'm struggling to pin down why that is. I want to say this is a great release, I'm just not quite sure Lead Poison quite gets all the way there.

So let's start off with what many have deemed the problem: the beats and production. Elzhi's producers - who include Oh No, Bombay, 14KT and a fair few others - have given him a selection of beats that are a little tricky to quantify: for the most part they're melodic, anchored in pianos or liquid guitars or steadily thrumming basslines, often times dipping into soul sampling in the backing vocals or the slight hints of horns or strings. And while I could easily point to Bombay not quite delivering as well as he could - there are a few points that I'm just not fond of how he chopped the sample, most notably on the closer 'Keep Dreaming', but the reality is compared to when he worked with Blu on Good To Be Home, the overall production quality is pretty high. Maybe a little too high - there's a real clarity to many of the sounds on this record that didn't quite have the texture or grit I was quite expecting - the drums are dirty and have some percussive impact, most notably on the percussive roil near the end of 'The Healing Process' - but then the very next track 'Cloud' you can barely hear them. And sure, I mostly get the point of having the beats and production fade into the background so you can put all of your attention on Elzhi's bars, but then you get the oddly flabby instrumental outros that run long like on 'February' or 'Cloud' or 'She Sucks', though the live, psychedelic vibe on the last track really did click for me. And it's not like there isn't hooks here - 'Egocentric', 'Two 16s', 'Hello', especially 'Alienated', there's some flows that really do stick in the brain - but I can't help but feel for as interesting and layered of an MC as Elzhi is, you think his production might be able to add more texture or grit, especially if he doesn't want to compromise the low-key vibe of the album. 

But okay, if this is Elzhi's comeback, why go for something low-key in the first place? Well, now we have to dig into lyrics and wow, there's a lot to unpack here. For starters, let me state that for as much as Elzhi's flow reminds me of Nas, Elzhi has a knack for setting up his bars and punchlines in a way that can be complex, but still accessible if you're willing to put in the time. And make no mistake, that's crucial when on many of these tracks Elzhi is tackling high concept ideas and clearly cares about keeping his audience invested in the flow and narrative. And that's another thing I deeply appreciate - as much as there are moments that can feel disconnected on this record, a closer look shows this to be a remarkably cohesive record, especially from a lyrical standpoint as Elzhi plants and pays off punchlines across the entire album, the most notable coming through on the ending of 'Keep Dreaming', where the track ends with the missing second verse from 'Cloud', done a capella to impressive results. And yeah, I shouldn't even have to tell you that Elzhi can spit complex, polysyllabic rhyming patterns with quotable lines that go on for days, but what impressed me was his delivery: this is a record that carries a lot of frustration and pent-up emotion, but by downplaying most of it Elzhi draws you into his headspace, and he's got a lot to get off his chest. The overarching symbol of this record is a depressive cloud that rains poison, only exacerbating the leaden pain and darkness inside Elzhi, so right from the very first track when he's confronted by an older and wiser version of himself from the future - yeah, friendly warning, this record can get a little odd - he translates that lead poison into the scratching of the pencil you hear across the record.

And from there, Elzhi does what he does best, with so much detail that you can picture every scene: telling stories. 'Introverted' and 'Weedipedia' shows the reason why this record took so damn long to be released: he was fighting weed charges and community service, praying every day his colour wouldn't get called to work. You get the high concept pieces like 'Hello', where Elzhi raps from the perspective of an song itself, confused and desperate to be heard as it assembles and composes itself in lyrics and beats and yet fitting perfectly within the theme of the record. Then you have moments like the tragic 'Two 16s', where he gives thirty-two bars describing two teenagers, a young dropout and dealer and the girl he got pregnant and abandoned, and in the course of a misunderstanding she has some guys gun him down, or the openly melancholic 'February', where he mourns the string of losses and his struggle to see them through. It's on these tracks where the lyrical theme becomes potent: namely, how to struggle with internal demons, be they his own pride on 'Egocentric' - with the loaded implication that pride could very easily destroy him; or the cloud of depression that hangs over it all, even when you get moments where things could well be getting better. Coupled with feelings of loneliness that manifest on 'Alienated', that leads him to getting lured into a trap on 'She Sucks' where his inner demon is let loose in a borderline schlocky vampire riff - easy parallel with depression and toxic ego there as well - this record develops the most pathos when you realize there isn't really an easy answer or much of an answer at all. It's not curing depression but learning to live with it, controlling his ego and keeping it on just enough of a leash, not just burying those emotions for foolish pride but letting the truth come out. And if that leads to a lonely path... well, honestly, this is where the record can hit some tricky notes for me. Don't get me wrong, I really loved the acceptance of 'Alienated' and the high concept 'Misright', where he goes through a string of failed relationships tagging each alias with the prefix 'mis', but 'Friendzone' was not a track that connected whatsoever, even if the self-awareness did alleviate a bit of the sting. And then there's the ending - thematically it makes sense, showing how even if you've regained your strength and control depression never quite leaves you, but it ends an already low key record on a downbeat note, and I think it could have been handled a little better than just chopping out a verse from an earlier song to wedge in at the end - strikes me as a little clumsy and overly blunt.

But as a whole, I'm not going to deny this record is the return to form that Elzhi fans will have been craving, full of great writing, real cleverness, and a thematic cohesion that really holds it together. I don't know if it's better than The Preface or Elmatic, but it certainly is his most personal record to date and I can definitely see this record growing on me as more notes of cleverness come through with every listen. As such for me, it's a light 8/10 and definitely a recommendation, especially if you're a fan of lyrical hip-hop and an MC with real imagination and soul. Definitely check this out, you won't regret it.

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