True enough, Richmond, California emcee Locksmith (Davood Asgari, formerly of Frontline duo) has come through on his promise to release his third studio album Olive Branch, and in timely fashion at that. Olive Branch was promoted briefly on Lock’s masterful 2016 mixtape The Lock Sessions but what’s better is that the LP is every bit as outstanding as fans had hoped it would be. Everywhere here the fierce, respected lyricist has an extraordinary sense of manhood and social responsibility and strong-willed moral character. His messages alone blow out at least three quarters of the mainstream rap field easily and when you add his top notch rhyme flow to the equation, he automatically moves to the upper echelon of hip-hop music. Also, new and returning guest artists and variably textured beats are in store for listeners old and new in what should prove to be Locksmith’s greatest album yet.
The whole idea of the project is to impart critical words of wisdom. There are few breaks from it, but it’s also impossible to tire from it. Spoken word advice atop leads to thoughts on arriving plus toughness in the Kato-produced “Nobody,” which opens for some softer focused lessons-to-carry via “No Way” before Lock’s beast-slaying “Agenda” wakes us up like a bucket of ice cold water to a fast asleep face. Make note of the Tribe “Kick It” quote there and especially the line “’til we see ourselves as one we can never progress.” Next we have “The Margin,” Lock’s special attention to hurting people drowning in a decadent society and a call to think about how we are all connected in this world. Similarly yet some four tracks down, in “Helpless,” Locksmith again touches on our disconnectedness as people. “Home,” with returning Lock music-mate Rebecca Nobel, in her second of three appearances, tells us to be ourselves in the face of resistance, focuses on individual strengths over weaknesses and helps to shed our fears of being perceived poorly by others.
Still, great feelings of love pervade the entire LP and in a few tracks most particularly. In “The One” Locksmith is concerned about struggling to make it work in a relationship enough to voice it (with fine eloquence), and later reconnects with his love in a spell of passion through “Neck Pillow,” which flips the melody and chorus of the Aaliyah tribute song “Miss You” (2002). Much as how “Go There” from Lock Sessions uplifted his and all mothers in general, this set’s “One More Time” immortalizes Lock’s passed mom with so much heart but mournfully this round, dropping the upbeat clip of “Go There” for a slower more soulful style.
The title tracks ends the project here, save for the live version of “Home,” which is just as welcomed and really drives home (pun intended) its many valuable points even further. “Olive Branch” the song sees Lock comment with humble conviction on holding onto his integrity and dignity, and that’s basically what the whole of the album does in one way or another. This is not the same Locksmith of two or three years ago. This is a better Locksmith. The work he’s put in since has delivered him great credibility and proven his confidence in spreading sense, intelligence and reason through his bars. For all those “tough” guys and girls listening out there, know this – the Olive Branch LP is mellifluously inspirational at times but it is incredibly powerful and heavy in subject matter, enough to instantly knock down the cold hardened persona of anyone willing to look at it.
All brown-nosing aside, it’s about time Chef Raekwon step out of the mafia-rap box he willingly occupied for the last twenty plus years, since the Wu-Tang burst onto the scene in 1993 opening the door for his legendary “Purple Tape” of ’95 (a.k.a. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx). He’s been in that niche since the beginning and he’s rarely left. And it’s not like he can’t go back. He just doesn’t go to other artistic spaces enough lately. For his seventh solo LP, The Wild (Ice H2O Records/Empire), Rae’s retreated back to the jungle for yet another gangsta rap album very lightly peppered with intelligence and original substance.
Rae lets us know almost immediately that he’s not gonna change his stance in the hip-hop area of underworld mystique. The first four tracks offer only standard gangsterism over hard beats, but at least there is the short bio of and tribute to Marvin Gaye with guest Cee-Lo Green (“Marvin”) right after. The highlights continue to arrive in intermittent blips. In the next two songs (“Can’t You See” and “My Corner”), some nice advice from Rae and a tight Wayne verse emerge but only around more tough guy street talk and romanticism of rising within the established hood hierarchy. Some fine rhyme interplay between Shallah and P.U.R.E comes via “M&N,” and that’s pretty much the end of Wild’s act one.
Raekwon actually has a great attitude in a few spots on this project, taking turns being hopeful, resilient, wise, firm and persistent, but there is a lack of unique concepts to display these traits and Rae’s moneyed vanity just hides them from sight too often. Fly rhymes are activated in service of capo wealth status, brand names and uninventive aggression-raps, and Rae has let it all happen without trying much that is new or fresh.
If it helps, the bang of the beats and the soul of the samples restore some value to the album though with not a lot of musical breadth. That’s pretty much all there is to say about The Wild. Rae is still ensconced in the thick of his brambly mafioso origins and only starts to claw himself free here. He hasn’t gotten very far in that pursuit at this point. Frankly, he’s philosophically and intellectually lazy at times in these jungly whereabouts, more concerned with his flashy image and adherence to the status quo than his inner integrity, and caring more about looking rich than being mentally rich. Raekwon needs to reevaluate.
Want an eloquent rhymestress’s perspective on love and the everyday struggle? A saucy sauntering Brit’s flippant mockeries about anything and everything? Or maybe even a quote/unquote living legend’s exposition of the dangers found in the ghetto? Ill Camille, Jam Baxter and MURS have you covered. We’ve narrowed down the list of this week’s new releases, and the best are below.
Heirloom by Ill Camille (Illustrated Sounds/Frontroom Entertainment)
Los Angeles emcee Ill Camille spreads out more food for thought and invites everyone over on her third album, Heirloom. The author of LPs Illustrated (2011) and The Pre Write before it (2012) is back with her questioning reflective mind frame to share on love, sex, dreams, hopes and optimism in a sweet escape style format. Strong with wisdom and insight, the smooth Ill Camille learns from her hardworking, blue collar elders in “Spider’s Jam,” expresses disappointment that people let love (and the possibility of) fall by the wayside due to trivial fixable matters in “Slip Away,” and slowly sadly mourns the souls lost to gun violence in the streets on “Lighters.”
After her teaching job has been accomplished, Camille admits the major reason behind the album in “Few Days.” Because problems have been building up, she decides to just get away from them all for a bit, and the calm uninterrupted “Renewed” follows through with the plan, allowing Camille to get still more pests out of her psyche and cleanse. Heirloom is a little up in the clouds with its almost dream-state feel in the semi-soft music and Camille’s casual flows, not extremely rich or intricate in any one way, but through the soulfully extended slow burners and despite her knowing of all the foulness around us, Ill Camille is committed to grinding on in life.
London emcee of posses Contact Play and Dead Players, Jam Baxter, is on solo album number four and shows no signs of weariness or halt in his step. Out on High Focus Records (like each of his three previous LPs), Mansion 38 is yet another wild ride from the weirded out rapper, packed with bizarre lyrical revelries and a message or two here and there. The critique of manipulative marketing schemes and gullible consumer culture in “For A Limited Time Only” is right on but an exception in the album’s dreary malaise of hokeyness and horseplay.
Baxter purges his cluttered mind of all his pent up frustration, angst, irreverence and goofiness to tracks of dismal art-house music that is impossible to dance to but perfect for Jam to jam awkwardly to. For the most part, this is a showcase of Baxter describing abnormal far-out circumstances in involved left field wordplay and random wacky prepared freestyles.
Mansion 38 is perfectly content basking in strange wonderment, which is one reason why it lacks a great amount of useful messages. The young man Jam Baxter is only occasionally intriguing in an intellectual sense, and he comes across depressive and hopeless with his dark sometimes morbid humor, but his textured metaphorical rhyming deserves attention, some study even, and although the feel in and out is largely low and despondent, Baxter is dedicated to getting back up to rub uptight people the wrong way for his and our amusement.
The MURS man himself is here again, two years after his breakout hit-album Have A Nice Life for Captain California, his tenth solo LP overall and second on Strange Music Inc. With his prominent, unmistakeable mic-presence, the “Maker of Underground Raw Sh*t” surely brings the raw topics, around fewer of great social responsibility, for a mostly standard project in the current hip-hop landscape, and not exactly underground anymore at that.
MURS has some significant things to say here no doubt; however, they are in just a few songs or looked at through dicey seedy tales from the hood. MURS playfully squabbling with rapper Curtiss King over a girl (which of course helps to give her all the power of choice in the dating arena, like it or not) in the opener “Lemon Juice” clears the lane for stories of tragic love, hustling, gang-banging, cheating and just people behaving badly all throughout the project, and the foulmouthed in-studio jibber jabber of final track “Wanna Be High” makes matters that much more unrefined and uncouth.
The glimmers of light exist in how MURS describes scenarios of urban violence in “GBKW” (though the Kanye-mention is misplaced and too much praise already for the super famous mogul), in the advancement of love and family-rearing in “1000 Suns,” and in how MURS shows the differences across socioeconomic lines in “G is for Gentrify.” Except for MURS’ fine storytelling, he hasn’t changed or challenged himself lyrically, and all the themes and tones follow mainstream establishment rules, rarely encouraging people to question, think deeply and get to the root causes of our madness. It’s decent but simply doesn’t dare decry the most major underlying evils in society, like wildly out of control, government-sponsored capitalism and the divisive, inhumane, materialistic media.