Monday, March 16, 2009

Braille & Symbolyc One - Cloud Nineteen

Studio LP
Released March 3, 2009

Sensing that this blog lacked a purpose, Bryan Winchester AKA Braille Brizzy AKA Braille got together with Symbolyc One on the boards, and put down Cloud Nineteen. Cloud Nineteen is a rejuvenating listen, simply because Braille embodies in an emcee the spirit that first attracted me to hip-hop. Unlike the other albums that have been reviewed on this blog so far, Braille's is the most genuine, the most passionate. He did it because he loves the music, not to fulfill fans' expectations (which he does and more), to show off his skills (check), or to make a paycheck (I hope he makes it big off this one though).

People have been talking about Braille defying expectations and stereotypes so that no longer needs mention. It's funny, but Braille's attitude reminds me a lot of UGK. Obviously, Braille doesn't slang drugs or live life in the streets, but he shares with the duo the ability to rap about his life and his struggles in a bold, unforgiving, unapologetic way. Braille doesn't want your admiration for what he has accomplished in his life and he doesn't victimize himself or demand pity from you for what has gone wrong. In fact, he's not gonna be a dick about it, but Braille really doesn't give a fuck what you think. He's going to rap about saving himself for marriage and about how much he misses his dad without resorting to whiny defensiveness.

Braille may not have the rags-to-riches story that everyone - including those in the underground - loves, but he brings back to hip-hop a passion that comes without bitter overtones. The most surprising moment of the album comes with the first track, a completely unironic skit in which Braille interviews a dude about to jump out of a plane and skydive. Braille is just simply excited about skydiving and in a strange way, the tone is set for the rest of the album. If you can find nothing else to like about this emcee, admit that he's genuine and that that is what the game's been looking for.

Braille has been emceeing and making tapes since he was 17 (Guy is just over thirty now) and his control of the mic is solid. His flow is hard and he switches it up enough not to get redundant. On "Found Her," he deftly mimics the twirling flow you would find on the Pharcyde's first album. The song, recounting how Bryan saved himself for marriage, is testament to the power of Braille's particular brand of swagger.

"I didn't wanna expose/I was a hopeless romantic with visions of marriage/I'd get nervous and panic/Have you ever met a dude who was known as a prude/Didn't wanna kiss her because I already knew/That if I crossed the line it's like the point of no return/And inside you burn and yearn feelin' concerned/So I turned the other way before it was too late."

Your pastor would make fun of how corny that is. But Braille spits it without apologizing, he acknowledges it sounds cornball, but he won't live it any other way. And this guy is getting write-ups in national magazines like The Source along with loads of respect from sites like Too genuine.

The shoddy production on "Fill it In" mars one of the better lyrical shows on the album.

"Do these kitty-cats really wanna battle a lion?/I didn't think so/Forgive them they know not/Reprogram their brains/Cause the future is robot/I flow hot, make the fans go (hey!)/While your wack flows make them cut off their ears like Van Gogh[...]Racism isn't the answer/Neither is war/We keep swinging and taking shots/But nobody's keepin' score/They slept on my style now I'm living the dream/The radio is a nightmare and I hear the victims scream."

Combine all those ingredients - Biblical quotes, Van Gogh reference, flipped rap cliches, Braille's insistence on love and peace - it makes a tasty lyrical stew. Too bad S1 fucked the beat up.

To focus on the music, Symbolyc is at his best when he is riding in his comfort zone, playing to his strengths. To be sure, Symbolyc does not really have a regional flavor; if he does he doesn't show it on this album. He draws from the West and the South, and there's a little bit of the Dilla wobble on "Skepticold." Still, he takes (maybe more accurately, he steals) most of his cues from the New York scene. He lays slick piano licks and vocals over a boom-bap drum beat on "For Life," showing a great ear for choosing the soul samples that get woven into the tracks. On these more traditional-sounding tracks, for the most part he stays low key and lets both Braille and the supporting vocals take the spotlight. Sometimes he steps beyond the low-key, like tossing some bombastic horns and finger snaps into the mix on "That's My Word."

Symbolyc's problem is that he can't handle a track that gets too complicated. I mentioned "Fill it In" before. It has little clicks and beeps going nowhere, interjected gospel choirs, random screams, all sloshed on top of synth drums and keys. It's a bit reminiscent of the Cannibal Ox/Def Jux sound. But Symbolyc isn't El-P. The beat ends up sounding as if Symbolyc got so excited by all the sounds he learned he could make that he decided he could cram them into one song. Lyrically, it may be the hardest song on the album, but Braille's more traditional flow would have benefited from a more traditional beat.

Despite all the praise he gets, I wouldn't put hope in Braille saving hip-hop. I don't think his next album will be an underground classic . I don't think he does the right things in a radical way to be a huge progressive force for the genre. Still, Christians can be happy they finally have an competent emcee putting out positive music and heads can be happy 2009 finally saw a GOOD album getting exposure. Hipsters move along. This album is too genuine and too genuinely good.

Beats: 7.5 Lyrics: 8.5 Overall Listen: 8
Lesson learned: Be yourself

-Pete JD

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