Review Summary: Geoff Barrow gets by with a little help from (a lot of) his friends.
You'd be correct in assuming that a hip-hop project from Portishead's Geoff Barrow would be nothing if not ambitious. But just look at that track listing. That's right, there are forty-one tracks on this album. There are thirty-five guest spots, not including the two producers besides Barrow involved. And the whole thing can be listened to in just under seventy minutes. Now, let's talk about ambition. While admirable, ambition doesn't always equal success. For example, Tyler The Creator's Goblin
. While I like the album, it isn't without its problems. Most of the issues it has stem from being overly-ambitious. Luckily, Barrow has been making music long enough to harness ambition and make it work, and it's never been as evident as it is on this album.
Enlisting the help of Stone Throw's Peanut Butter Wolf, Barrow enlisted the help of MCs of various styles and abilities. Some are old-school veterans (Dead Prez), some are modern MCs with a lot of clout (Guilty Simpson), and some are artists most people have never heard of (M.E.D.). All of them bring their A-game when it's their time to shine. Since the songs here clock in at around two minutes (and quite a few at just over a minute), most only get a few bars to make their mark, but they really step up when it's their turn. Look at opening single "Fitta Happier", in which Guilty Simpson and MED each get one verse to spit, and take full advantage of their limited time. Over the Arizona marching band covering "The National Anthem" by Radiohead, they do justice to the incredible sample, and come together to create one of the best hype-tracks to come out in some time, all without an actual chorus. In fact, most tracks don't have a hook of any kind. And yet the album is a breeze to listen to. It's almost 70 minutes of people straight-up rapping.
The album itself, with its scattershot, all-over-the-map style (due to both the various MCs and the production itself), almost comes across as a really great playlist more than an actual album, but the quality of the tracks help keep it feeling like an actual piece of music. Influences vary, from the grimy Alchemist-style tracks like "Big Cat", "Jobless", and "The Turk". Some RZA-like, scarred soul-samples, as heard in "There It Is" and "I Like To Dance", to the Prince Paul funk of "What Chew Want" and others. That isn't to say the album itself if overly-derivative. Again, with 41 tracks, there's plenty of room for songs that have their own distinct sound and style, and there are many to be found in the mix.
What it comes down to is this: for those of you who still buy music, this album is worth every penny. It's priced the same as a normal album. The album itself is going to split hip-hop heads into two camps. Those who love every second of the ride they'll take when they push play, and those who look at some of the shorter, beat only tracks as nothing more than filler. For the former, the good news it that the physical copies come with a second disc of just the beats. For the latter, even if you cut out the shorter, non-songs, you're still left with around 30 top-notch hip-hop tracks. It's pretty much a no-brainer. As for me, I've found a strong contender for best hip-hop album of the year, and it's only a quarter of the way in. Hopefully they're able to collaborate at this level and produce more material in the future. If not, then at least they've managed to create this, an album that shows just how special hip-hop truly can be.