In the past year, Swizz Beatz has defined the sound of rap’s pseudo-underground, crafting tracks for Nas, DMX, and Jay-Z, despite his droning, mechanical technique. Unlike the hearty deep-rooted loops proffered by true-schoolers DJ Premier and Pete Rock, Swizz Beatz’s tracks sound as if they were produced on an assembly line. It’s a style that perfectly complements the pseudo-underground, a place populated by MC clones.
Ryde or Die Vol. 1, a compilation of tracks authored by Swizz Beatz, features many of the rappers prominent in the pseudo-underground. The usual suspects weigh in: Lox, Jay-Z, DMX, and Big Punisher. But Ryde also makes use of an undistinguished band of rookies, including Drag-on, Infa-Red, Cross, and Eve, the female rapper who nearly ruined the Roots’ grand single “You Got Me.”
Whatever success Ryde meets among its listeners will come solely from its plastic production and the shock value of its lyrics. No ghetto Shakespeare here; most of the MCs featured on Ryde restrict themselves to moronic hooks like “Where my niggas with the big dicks?” or “Do y’all niggas bus y’all guns?…Do y’all niggas make ’em cum?”
Production is hit-or-miss. Swizz Beatz’s synthesized loops wear on your ears, and whenever he does cut a gem, the track is usually ruined by the MCing. The best track on the album, “Ryde or Die,” is a direct jack of EPMD’s “Headbanger,” and veterans like DMX and Lox bring nothing new to the sample, while newcomer Drag-on simply lives up to his name. Likewise, “What You Want” is a decent party track, but Eve, the featured rapper on the track, simply doesn’t hold up her end of the bargain, and the cut suffers as a result.
Eve looks that much worse in the presence of a professional: Jay-Z rips through the simplistic beat on “Jigga My Nigga” and demonstrates that he’s in another league compared with Swizz Beatz’s other cohorts. Lox member Jadakiss also breathes life into “Kiss of Death.” But not one cut on Ryde is strong enough to keep it from being the type of album that makes me wonder why I’m still listening to hiphop. Bad artistry can be forgiven if the artist at least makes an honest attempt to be creative. Anti-human lyrics can be listenable if there is some level of complexity. But Ryde helps define anesthetic hiphop at its worst.
Soundbombing II is supposed to represent the complexity that still remains in the art of hiphop. The album, also a compilation, features some of hiphop’s best underground talent, running the gamut from veterans like Brand Nubian’s Grand Puba and Sadat X to relatively new jacks like Shabaam Sahdeeq.
The first Soundbombing boasted no such range of personnel—at that time, almost none of its artists enjoyed much recognition among heads—though it did display an endearing ruggedness. Mixed by Evil Dee, it sounded like a DJ throwing together whatever hot underground wax he could get his hands on. Soundbombing II is much more polished—to its detriment. Yet the album still surpasses its predecessor for its infusion of established talent—and because of the development of many of the artists who were featured the first time around, such as Mos Def and Talib Kweli.
To be sure, no track on Soundbombing II bangs like “Fortified Live” from the first go-round (which rates a 15 on a head-nod scale of 10). And there is much on the album that could be jettisoned. Heading this list are R.A. the Rugged Man’s appallingly bad “Stanley Kubrick” and Pharoahe Monch and Shabaam Sahdeeq’s disappointing “WWIII.” Yet Soundbombing II still serves up some of the grandest MCing yet in what is shaping up as a very bad year for lyrics.
Punch-line king Eminem begins the album with “Any Man,” an average track—especially considering that the formidable Beatminerz produced it. But Eminem soars nonetheless, offering a series of stunning one-liners: “All that gibberish you was spitting, you need to kill it/’Cause your style is like dying in my sleep, I don’t feel it.”
Replete with solo bangers like Pharoahe Monch’s “Mayor,” Mos Def’s “Next Universe,” and Diamond’s “When It Pours It Rains,” Soundbombing II also benefits from its odd pairings. Sadat X and Common flow beautifully over the throbbing guitar riff of “1-9-9-9.” And though the lyrics are pretty average, the marriage of Common’s meditative flow to Sadat X’s off-tempo cadence is magic. More impressive is Reflection Eternal’s duet with Bahamadia, “Chaos.” DJ Hi-Tek offers up a plush bass line and soft horns for the track. Bahamadia, a serious contender for the Kool G. Rap Award for the Underrated, flows beautifully. Talib, perhaps the most exciting lyricist on the underground, brings an amazing array of punch lines: “Call us liberty like the bell of Philadelphia scenery/Me and Bahama-dee style free like Mumia need to be.”
The album’s centerpiece, however, is “Patriotism,” a staggering ditty that meshes the standard hiphop battle rhyme with Chuck D-like political rantings. The marriage of politics and pugilism is nothing new to hiphop; since Criminal Minded, KRS-One has made a career out of the style, and Mos Def and Talib Kweli are also worthy practitioners. But lead MC El-P offers one of the more mature exhibitions of the genre to date: “Your bitchy little stars don’t even faze my basic policy to bomb smarter/My Ronald Reagans crush your Carter…I replace humans with robots in GM factory/Then export metaphors to sweatshops cause the price is satisfactory.”
The track to “Patriotism” has a droning and brilliantly mind-numbing quality that accents the diatribe of an MC against the omniscient evil of the United States. El-P builds a metaphor that compares his rhyme style to America’s sins: “Dissension against C.F. ends in penitentiary residence/Lock ’em up first, then ask questions/Omniscient presence, my charm is the weapon/With cameras, mikes, and satellites that’ll leave privacy breathless.”
Soundbombing II represents an amazing collection of talent, and for the most part, the MCs live up to the hype. It helps that the record features two DJs, in J-Rocc and Babu, who can break the album’s monotony with a bit of turntablism. In an otherwise disappointing year, Soundbombing II stands out as evidence that some good may yet be gleaned out of rapdom. CP