Review Summary: Real smooth, nice hip-hop from a producer you might just be hearing more of in the next few years.
Hip-hop, more than any other genre, is prone to producing albums that make a statement. Blame it on the 'keep it real' culture, or the genre's inherent opposition to a realist, rockist, love-song narrative, or even on the fact that words are more important to rapping than they ever were to singing - whatever the reason, seemingly every hip-hop album you'll hear is making some kind of statement, taking some kind of stance. 50 Cent wants you to know that he's the toughest, baddest dude around, and so does DMX, so did NWA, so did countless others. Acts like Arrested Development and The Fugees wanted you to know about their social conscience, implying their separation from their contemporaries. De La Soul wanted everyone to stop taking themselves so seriously. Kanye West wants you to see every part of his personality, good and bad, and then wants you to praise him for being such a character. Jurassic 5 wanted to remind you about the old school and keep a grip on rap's roots ('holding on to what's golden', if you will). Rakim wanted you to see the art of rapping in a new light. Will Smith and Jazzy Jeff wanted to escape gangster culture and just make some great pop songs. Dr. Dre's spent his whole solo career paying tribute to weed and George Clinton, a statement of intent in itself. Jay-Z isn't a businessman, he's a business
, man. LL Cool J's basically done all of the above at one point or another. And as for Public Enemy, Dead Prez, Immortal Technique, Lost Children of Babylon, The X-Clan, Paris? And how many artists have you heard either brag about how much money they're making and how many fans they've got, or say 'fu
ck the mainstream' and tell you about what real hip-hop is?
That's all great, and basically every classic hip-hop cut ever is a classic largely because of how well it makes the statement it does. Sad thing is, it keeps pressure on upcoming artists to make these statements, and because of that it keeps a lot of artists in a rut. Creativity gets shunned in favour of ideology. I know how old and jaded it makes me sound, but I remember the days when hip-hop, to me, was just a load of kids sat in the park in the summer, with a boombox and some tapes. Right or wrong, nobody cared about black power, poverty, or police brutality - we were kids, and crap like "Summertime", "Gangster's Paradise", and "Everyday People" was enough.
That's why I always feel a pang of excitement when I hear a record like State of the Art
. There's no agenda here, no message, no statement - despite the name State of the Art
, this is no diatribe of the current state of the hip-hop artform. It's just a bunch of laid-back hip-hop tracks, with a revolving door of rappers contributing - there are 17 guests in total, including heavyweights like Large Professor, CL Smooth, O.C., Sadat-X, and Blu (of recent Blu & Exile semi-fame). It's Presto's touch that defines the album though - jazzy, soulful, organic, light, and decidedly old-school without being defiant about it. Presto's own claim is that he likes to make his beats sound like a three-piece band, keeping a live, almost intimate feel to his essentially sample-based production, and that comes off throughout this album. The nearest reference I could give you is Nujabes, and that is high praise indeed, although his direct influences run more along the lines of Gang Starr, A Tribe Called Quest, and Pharcyde (again, his words).
The flaw here is the lack of a standout. Despite the array of talent on the lead single "Conquer Mentally" - Large Pro, Sadat-X, and O.C. all on one track - it's not the knockout you suspect it could have been, and elsewhere the only two songs that really jump out at this reviewer is the violin-led "Feel Me" (partly because it's a sonic departure, partly because it's a little bit more basic), and "On", which hits a little harder, has the album's best bassline, and boasts a "Planet Rock" quote for the hook. But neither are the kind of song that could take this album to the stars; while everything here is good, it's just that nothing is truly great. That's a real shame, because if this album is anything to go by, then Presto's musical ear, his attention to detail, his work rate, and his natural flair are all enough for you to wish him great success. Maybe if you hooked him up with just one charismatic, original MC, and got 12 tracks off them, you'd have a classic. It's worth keeping an eye on. But that's the future; for now we have this refreshing, enjoyable, fairly original album that a lot of heads will probably go crazy for.