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Because listeners often have to isolate the familiar before recognizing innovation, it makes sense that everyone is comparing 9th Wonder to DJ Premier and Pete Rock. And because such comparisons inevitably provoke backlash, the much-hyped 30-year-old producer is already enduring criticism from purists who mock his reliance on snare drums and soul music, and sniff that he’s not fit to carry those other guys’ crates.
Primo and Rock, remember, weren’t quite the hired hit-makers that big-name producers are today. They both made their names by producing entire albums for a sole MC, creating tracks for others artists on the side. With a solid foundation act in Little Brother and steady side gigs making beats for the likes of Jay-Z and Destiny’s Child—not to mention full albums for folks such as Murs and Kaze—9th seems to have adopted more than just his predecessors’ signature sounds. He’s also adopted their entire philosophy of production. Jean Grae has said that the young North Carolinian is one of the few producers who cares about how a whole album comes together, which is as true of him as it was of Primo and Rock back in the early ’90s.
The main thing that separates 9th from his elders is that he’s not trying to be cutting-edge. He uses new methods, but he essentially tries to re-create the feeling of golden-era hiphop. A 9th track is neither hard-core nor candy-center-soft. It has actual drumbeats instead of hand claps. Its samples tend toward the obscure rather than the overfamiliar. Best of all, it manages to sound both vintage and modish at the same time, evoking Premier and Rock, sure, but also up-to-the-minuters such as Just Blaze and Kanye West. 9th is that rarest of music makers: a revivalist who manages to avoid being a duplicator.
On the new Chemistry, the producer hooked up with venerable Brooklyn-based rapper Buckshot, surely thinking it would be easier for him to sound like the early ’90s if he worked with a genuine early-’90s relic. Buckshot, meanwhile, must have believed that collaborating with the producer of the moment would help the comeback of his crew, the Boot Camp Clik, and its record label, Duck Down. These differing motivations, however, were directed toward a common goal: making the old sound new again.
What’s remarkable about the result is not that it does, but that 9th and Buck have used each other’s credentials and skills as an inspiration rather than a crutch. Buck could have relied on 9th for modernity, but he instead took on the difficult task of updating his lyrics without losing his personality. 9th could have reasoned that listeners are transported back to 1993 whenever they hear Buckshot and slacked off on production, but he chose to keep up his tireless tightrope act of balancing the middle-school and new-school influences in his music.
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On “He’s Back,” Buckshot takes the risky step of recording a blatant comeback track. All sorts of rappers have made comebacks, but announcing one’s return is sure to shorten a second coming: It’s a way to make some noise about jumping back on the scene when your music can’t do the talking for you. “Now that he’s back/The feedback is we need that,” Buck rhymes. “Givin’ more jewels to the seeds that/Can’t get what I got ’cause I got what they need/And they need what I got ’cause over here they spray weed.” 9th, meanwhile, continues his affair with the Gamble and Huff catalog, sampling a line from Billy Paul’s “What Are We Going to Do Now That He’s Back” and setting it to a sinister, seesawing keyboard line.
The track is typical of the Buckshot/9th Wonder dynamic. They both come dangerously close to embodying stereotypes—the washed-up rapper giving it another shot, the young producer obsessed with the past—but they always sidestep typecasting. For Buck, it’s the understated way he “[comes] around just to drop some facts.” For 9th, it’s turning in an unadorned beat that stays out of his MC’s way—and keeping the whole track to a tidy 1:52. Together, they undermine the whole triumphant-return vibe so much that you’re hardly surprised when Buck offers his dry-eyed take on “the new phenomenon”: “Don’t believe that/Belief is blind faith.”
For “Now a Dayz (That’s What’s Up),” Buckshot again sticks his neck out. He drops an anti-gun rhyme that longs for the days when fists were the street soldier’s weapon of choice. 9th allows the MC to show his age over a convulsive beat that’s bare even by his standards, leaving the stop-the-shooting message to carry things. “They don’t use fists now, they’d rather use clips/On the streets now all I see is this/Everybody got something to bus’/But if you’re real, then you will knuckle up/That’s what’s up!” goes the chorus. Buckshot sounds like someone’s oldass uncle reciting them, but his bloody images of hand-to-hand combat in the verses cut the sentimentality.
On other tracks, 9th is the one who works against the teachings of the new hiphop handbook. “Food for Thought,” one of 9th’s strongest Chemistry compositions, is a haunting track layered with cooing vocals; wise words from Jay-Z, Guru, Talib Kweli, and Nas; and plenty of scratches, which should grace his production more often. Buckshot gives up a lot of showy little metaphors, running from “bread” to “butter on toast” to “beef” to “bananas.” But he keeps it all low-key, never overshadowing or distracting from 9th’s uncharacteristic beat. “No Comparison,” by contrast, is near-boilerplate 9th: a kick, a snare, or a high-hat here, a distorted vocal sample there. Again, the track succeeds because Buckshot doesn’t try any fancy tricks, giving you plenty of opportunities to notice just how intricately that sample has been manipulated.
The only time the album slows down is when the duo decides to allow others inside the laboratory, which interrupts their quiet synergy. Phonte is, as always, hilarious on the requisite ladies-are-scandalous jam, “Birdz (Fly the Coup),” and Sean Price (aka Ruck of Heltah Skeltah) and Big Pooh put down some quality verse over “U Wonderin,” but the extra voices nearly spoil the mood. 9th’s steady beats and Buckshot’s deep voice lull you into a pleasant trance—outside noise, no matter how interesting, is a distraction. So are the crowd-pleasing moves on “Side Talk,” on which Buckshot engages in ever-popular threats against some unseen foe while 9th drops equally predictable horn riffs.
But those are quibbles. Not a single one of 9th’s tracks is poorly paired with Buckshot’s verses, and not a single lyric is too grimy or too sweet for the music beneath it. On “Chemistry 101,” Buckshot breaks down the duo’s recipe for success. “Mix a pound of underground,” he rhymes. “A cup of Buck/A fifth of some 9th Wonder for the DJ to cut.” The formula is a good one. But the most important instruction Chemistry gives to others looking to cook up a similar project is unspoken: Don’t overmix. Some ingredients are supposed to keep their flavor. CP