Sunday, March 8, 2009

B-Real - Smoke 'N Mirrors

Studio LP
Released February 24, 2009

As a kid born in 1987 and growing up in suburbia, I grew up in a place where the lunch room arguments revolved around who was better, Limp Bizkit or Rage Against the Machine. Nu-metal and rap-rock bands were at their peak. And Cypress Hill put out a disc called Skull & Bones. It was among the first CDs I ever bought as a kid, but after the first few listens, even back then, I wrote it off as being just part of the background noise created by the other groups at the time. It was not until I started getting deep into hip-hop a couple years ago that I began looking harder at Cypress's earlier albums and appreciating the contribution they made, sonically by Muggs, who still continues to put out formidable work (Muggs vs GZA is an essential album for heads) and on the mic by B-Real.

It might be that high expectations then that affected the listening to this disc. First of all, Muggs does not produce a single cut on the album. It's disappointing, it's like a member of the Clan putting out an album without a beat or two from the RZA. It might have been an effort to make his solo work drastically stand out from that of the group, which according to XXL is dropping a new album later this year. It's good to want to push yourself in a different direction musically, but too often on this album, the emcee merely pulls away from Cypress Hill's sound to drift into the uninspired world of commercial rap, with a couple standout exceptions.

The first song on the album is the title track, a solid joint produced by Scoop Deville, beginning with a sped-up vocal from the Stylistics playing over smokey organ chords and strings before hitting you with the bass and the hand-claps. Not like it should surprise anyone, B-Real's flow on this album is as solid as his work with Cypress.

"What's good in the hood/Can you tell me?[...]
The streets are ugly and the world is going through changes/
We fighting at home and out here at unknown places/
We never know what peace is/
We all about war for the money and the violence increases/
I never thought about it when I was younger/
I never thought about we all just numbers/
I only thought about the food on the table/
I was taught to make moves when you're ready and able."

The song sums up B-Real's backstory. A gangbanger and dealer that used to have to hustle to feed his family gets into hip-hop to leave it behind. He's older and he looks back on it, disgusted by the way the world is but unapologetic because he did what he had to. It's a pretty common story, but it's told in a reflective way, and his personal spin on the theme produces a worthwhile listen.

Unfortunately, B-Real visits other rap cliches without spinning them in a meaningful way. Three throwaway tracks come one after the other, including one with the sixteen bars' waste that is Snoop Dogg. Okay, so I guess once you "Get that Dough" you gotta be "Stackn Paper." A hustler would be nothing if he weren't organized. The ideas are tired, and the production, with its try-hard ominous beats and hooks, of some of these songs are something you would expect from a G-Unit offering.

Some of the standouts on the album come about in unexpected ways. "1 Life" brings Sen Dog into the fold. The Cypress emcees switch between Spanish and English over classical guitar, with a hook that translates as 'This is the life I chose, am I the foresaken or the chosen?' "Fire" is, well, it's just about real good weed, but the beat and the hook are catchy as hell. Another track steals the synth and melody of Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner" for the chorus. It is up to the listener to decide for themself whether or not that approach works.

If it's not one thing, it's another, and there always seems to be something missing in this album. B-Real is still sharp lyrically and his flow's still solid, although he doesn't switch it up enough for some tracks, but the album might have been great if he could have gotten more than a handful of competent producers and guest spots.

Beats: 6.5 Lyrics: 8 Overall Listen: 7
Lesson Learned: You put Snoop Dogg on your album, you'll just sink to his level.

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