Review Summary: The SECOND best instrumental hip hop / trip hop album of 2008.
Metaform - Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
For me, 2008 has been a year of dipping my quill deep into instrumental hip hop ink. About three months ago, having been disappointed with the highly regarded hip hop releases of the year (Why?, The Roots, Lil Wayne) as well as some new releases by old favorites (Immortal Technique, Del Tha Funkee Homosapien) I decided to go on an epic quest for good, new hip hop. The result was a treasure trove of instrumental hip hop and trip hop. Ayatollah's Louder
, Blue Sky Black Death's Late Night Cinema
, and Flying Lotus' Los Angeles
have kept me happy. Possibly the best of the new music I've discovered is Metaform's Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
, a 19-track, 45-minute journey through eclectic blends of soul, jazz, r&b, trip hop, hip hop, and electronica.
Metaform, like most sprawling, sample-centric instrumental hip hop albums is the product of one man with a deep sense of hip hop's musical family tree who is willing to spend countless hours in his studio working out the minute details of each track. As wikipedia editorializes it, "[h]e spent five years in deep isolation from friends and family while recordind the intrumental opus, [Standing on the Shoulders of Giant
]." The "one man" in this equation is Justice Aaron, whose own personal history seems to point to the diverse sensibility required to create such a pastiche of sounds. He has lived in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and most recently Tokyo, and his style, while not necessarily globetrotting, certainly has an all-encompassing feel to its influences, which suits Aaron's telling moniker, Metaform.
The actual mixture comes across as a more downtempo and trip hop rendition of ideas developed by RJD2. The brassy pomp of the chorus on "Ghostwriter" would be slowed down and made more soulful and pensive on Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
. The opening track of the album "Rock It Number Nine" perfectly encompasses this sound. Despite the stacatto trumpet samples, the track's backbone is a languid collection of congas, bongos, a drum set, and a legato xylophone melody. The smooth groove is luxuriously detailed with vocal samples and little electronic breaks that add an edge to the otherwise chill track. "Barbie Doll," despite its tranced-out opening, moves into a sludgy drum beat with a distorted, synthesized bass in the background. As the song progresses string and horn samples are added to the mix. The slick guitar riffs of the track "Crush" immediately recall the verses to RJD2's "Ghostwriter" and the standard hip hop beat underneath enthuses that vibe, though on top of that, vocals, flute, and saxophone seriously morph the vibe, making the track more slinky and seductive.
However, this album is not just one big, syrupy collection of trip hop. There is quite a bit of variety. "Pch" is a slightly dubbed funk track, replete with funk breaks, saxophone fills, wah-wah guitar, and some programmed breakbeats, making this sound like a Venetian Snares track more than a DJ Shadow one. Similarly, "Brick and Mortar" lets the synth and beat run wild, creating a bombastic electronica track on top of the hip hop backbone. The final track on the album, "Love and Loss" is a bubbling, but soft synth track that would fit in fine on M83's Dead Cities...
LP. Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
is not vaudeville in its variety, as all of the tracks are cohesive, but I also get the feeling that Metaform was reluctant to just pump out trip hop jams for 45-minutes, resulting in an album that wonderfully balances homogeneity and heterogeneity.
Where the album loses points is in the songwriting department. The songs are highly detailed and the production values are nearly flawless. All of the melodies and beats interweave elegantly. All of the tracks are very catchy, yet also challenging. However, the album as a whole feels flat. The song lengths are all hovering around the 2-4 minute mark, excepting a few interlude tracks, resulting in an album that feel like a collection of songs rather than an aesthetic journey. That, coupled with the fact that those actual songs are just wonderful refinements of existing ideas in hip hop rather than experimental or new ideas, makes the album feel like it doesn't fully realize its potential. Aaron is talented producer with awesome taste, but when held up against epic grooves by the likes of DJ Shadow or more recently, Blue Sky Black Death, his style feels like it isn't aspiring for more than optimizing the RJD2 model, which is more a shame than anything else.
Ultimately, Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
both succeeds and fails for the reasons implied by the album title; Metaform is producing music that is at or above that of the giants of the genre, but he is not yet a pillar of the genre himself. Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
is certainly a top-shelf hip hop album and deserves the respect it's been getting, but Metaform still has a way to go before he trumps Endtroducing