Review Summary: An underrated LP from one of hip-hop's often-ignored innovators, "A-1 Yola" is one of Esham's best.
Smith releases Sacrificial Lambz
, one would be inclined to look back at the large, varied body of work from this influential and highly original performer. Smith is considered to be an innovator of acid rap, hardcore hip hop, Detroit hip hop, underground hip hop, rap-metal and horror-core. After years of heading the Reel Life Productions label, he would briefly sign to labels fronted by artists that he had inspired before returning to his own label.
What release would one look at? Popular is the ambitious Judgement Day
, the first double album in the history of hip-hop, and its follow-up, the controversial KKKill the Fetus
, not to mention Closed Casket
, Esham's attempt to leave the Satanic themes of his previous work behind and move on to a more street-oriented hardcore rap style found in Gothom City
, an album in which Smith imagines himself as a drug-dealing millionaire named Bruce Wayne.
There's also A-1 Yola
, another LP themed around coke dealing and hustling. Here, Esham returns to the sample-heavy production style he had perfected in the early days of his career, but also presented a unique album form in which the album was backed up by a DVD featuring a "movie" of sorts consisting of a series of music videos tied together by the overall concept and character of the album.
"Since Day One" opens with oriental percussion and whistles before moving onto a dank thumping hip-hop beat, sound effects and Esham's unique, highly-praised lyricism telling the album's story of a cocaine dealer (Bill Yen?) losing his mind. "Turbulence" recounts a aerodynamic sexual encounter ending in premature ejaculation, set to a dark beat and piano chords. "Bolivia" incorporates tropical elements as Esham imagines better days in the sun. Dark, layered production effectively compliments the pill-popping tale of "Bird After Bird".
"Justa Hustler" sees Esham taking a rock/R&B-oriented backing, with the moody "Pill Me", which recounts drug abuse ranging from pill-popping to hiding blunts in the pages of a bible. Dark synths bring up "Yoca Cola". "Fall Into The Fire" sees a sleepless Esham struggling with his morality, faced with the possibility that he may wind up burning in hell. Distorted vocals, dark synthesizer and guitar/bass lines, percussion and horns are effectively incorporated in the instrumental breaks.
"Wicket" opens up with a thunder crash, string arrangements and a sample of Samuel L. Jackson's voice in Pulp Fiction
, before moving onto its slapping beat and dark atmosphere. At one point, Esham's character recounts an incident when he shot his next door neighbor's dog when he is unable to complete the song's lyrics. Here, he has slipped back into the "Boogie Man" character that had dominated tracks throughout his career, particularly heavily on his early "wicket***" (horrorcore) efforts.
"Enemies" recounts an event in which the drug dealer was shot by his wife and seeks retaliation against electric guitar/organ riffs and trippy bass lines. Tortured piano chords, synthesizers, string arrangements and pounding beats build the dope-dealing, hustling tales of "Help Me", imagining a possible conclusion to the character's life and tale in which he is shot down by soldiers. "Servin'" builds a dark bassline and samples against Esham's commentary of mothers on welfare, sons sent off to die in Iraq and the album's drug-dealing hustler seeking redemption as he continues to clock papers.
Dark synths, guitar riffs and bass lines in full force, the pounding beats of "Full Power" kick in as Esham finds himself on the run from the cops. "Bangin' Dope" sets a multitude of samples, pounding beat and synths against Esham's fast rap. "One Hundred" sets a trippy beat, sped-up vocalization and whistling against Esham's tale of money, dope and ghetto violence. "Gangsta Dedication" fuses pounding synths and beats, sampled vocalization and percussion. Harpsichord breaks open up "Unhappy", building up to metal guitar chords, string arrangements, sampled horns and funk guitar to tell its pill-popping tale of depression, finding the album's main character caught halfway between heaven and hell.
"President" implies that the real "gangsta" soopa-villain of the story is actually George W. Bush, funding drug dealers and sending innocent citizens off to die in war. Unique scratching effectively enhances the track's mood to tell a tale that is "real, not horror-core" before we jump into the hip-hop/metal fusion of "?". Upbeat guitar and string arrangements make up the backing for "Smiley Faces", the album's conclusion, seeing the real Esham--not the Boogie Man--telling us "don't worry, just be happy."
While A-1 Yola
is currently out of print (a reissue on Esham's Reel Life Productions label is planned for September), the album shows Esham performing well in a variety of styles Esham has innovated over the years. If you are already a fan, this is an excellent addition to your collection, complimented by its bonus DVD. One of hip-hop's most underrated performers, Esham produced some of the best music of his career on A-1 Yola
. A performer and album to take into consideration.