Apu Rambles: The Wonder of Rap Groups (and Their Possible Shortcomings)

by Apu

wu

I’ve always found rap groups to be interesting. And with that I’ve just won the award for the most generic opening sentence in a written piece for January 2017.

Music made by a good group (keyword: GOOD) can be the coolest thing you hear all day. It’s crazy hearing vastly different personalities colluding, bringing different perspectives, styles, and presences to a track while completely complimenting each other. Many times it can be more exciting to listen to a group than a solo artist; the constant change in performers keeps things fresh in a way that may not always happen when listening to a solo artist. You don’t know which group members will be on which track, or what each member will bring to the table. There’s a support system in the form of friendly competition, where each member pushes the other to go above and beyond, leading to some rappers having the best verses of their careers on group songs. And group music is different than posse cuts. While posse cuts can bring together huge rappers to make great songs, the vast majority of the time, there’s not nearly the sort of unity and fluidity that there is on group music when the mic is passed.

It’s a simple fact. Hip hop would not be where it is now if it were not for rappers forming crews and making music together. Whether it be the earlier years with Sugarhill Gang introducing hip hop to wider audiences, to Run D.M.C., the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, NWA, Geto Boys, the Wu-Tang Clan, Onyx, Westside Connection… The list goes on and on. They were a staple of hip hop in the golden era, and remained to be a driving force in hip hop well into the ‘00s.

I don’t know why they were so big in the formative years, especially compared to now; maybe having a crew onstage helped hype crowds up while performing more effectively than having just a single rapper, leading to better shows and subsequently wider acclaim and greater success. Perhaps that’s why rappers still go up onstage with hypemen, even when they may not need one to help out when the main performer needs to take a breath. Whatever it may have been, there’s nothing quite like seeing a group together. There’s also nothing quite like seeing a group implode after the first album or two because of success changing the approach to making music, causing chemistry to fade and beef to ensue.

I personally think that the biggest contributing factor to a group’s greatness is chemistry. There has to be a foundation for the sound that a group will use, especially when members develop themselves as solo artists with sounds that deviate from the group sound. Take, for example, the Wu-Tang Clan. RZA created that dark, soul-sampled boom bap with Enter The Wu-Tang. However, given that Wu always meant to branch out to become solo artists, the following solo albums each had a different tone from the debut group album. Tical was more bassy and smoked out, Return To The 36 Chambers was muddier and more twisted, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx was more piano and string-driven resulting in a Mafioso tone, and Ironman was more driven by R&B and lighter soul samples. Aside from Liquid Swords, which was fairly similar in tone to Enter The Wu-Tang, they all had their own sound to them to reflect the personality and charisma of each member outside of the group.

However, when they reunited to do Wu-Tang Forever, they went back to a similar style as Enter The Wu-Tang: heavy soul samples and more classic boom bap. Sure, the sound had advanced, but the overall tonality still screamed Wu-Tang as a whole, as opposed to more Raekwon or Ghostface. They had the production base offered by RZA, which meant that other producers like 4th Disciple or Inspectah Deck had a blueprint to follow.

Of course, having that base meant that the subsequent group albums (and even solo albums) were prone to the flaws that came with the failures of RZA. Being that RZA was the de facto leader of the group, him losing beats in a flood ended up creating issues for Wu as time went on. After that, RZA’s decision to change his production style with his Bobby Digital persona made The W and Iron Flag sound off-putting. By the time A New Tomorrow came around, RZA sounded totally uninterested in making music; it seemed he would rather score movies and help Cilvaringz be a cunt.

But he was still the leader of the group, so they had to follow him.

It was a similar situation with D-12. D-12 has two members who produce: Mr. Porter and Eminem. While Proof was the spiritual leader of D-12, as well as musical when they were doing mixtapes and features, Eminem clearly led the group on the albums. Devil’s Night sounded almost like it could have been called The Marshall Mathers LP 1.5: Introducing D12. That’s not nearly even close to being a bad thing – that album is a classic to me. However, it did end up being a bad thing for them on D-12 World. Most of the songs that Eminem produced did not follow a D-12 kind of style. They were like less-gangster G-Unit beats, much like Encore’s production. The only possible exceptions to this are My Band, Bitch, and Come On In (which ended up sounding more like a Mr. Porter beat). Mr. Porter’s beats were perfectly suited to D-12, and showed a potential evolution in their sound from Devil’s Night that could have been very cool, as it was grimy but sillier and jazzier at the same time. Em’s leadership, however, prevented that sound from being explored more aside from songs that Em wasn’t even on. Had he passed leadership to Mr. Porter, the album may have sounded more like Barbershop and I’ll Be Damned and less like Leave Dat Boy Alone and Get My Gun.

While pure democracy in a group would likely lead to no progress at all, one person can’t be the leader for the entirety of the group’s albums. There needs to be a constant passing of the baton. Otherwise the leader may end up running the group into the ground. It seems RZA has finally understood that, because he’s given Ghost the wheel for the next Wu album. Given Ghost’s artistic style with live jazz instrumentation on fairly recent albums like Twelve Reasons To Die I & II, Sour Soul, and 36 Seasons, it will likely be a breath of fresh air for the group, rather than the aimless plodding of RZA’s production on A Better Tomorrow. I’m personally expecting it to be their best in 2 decades.

Groups without chemistry just don’t work. I already know I’m gonna get shitted on by underground hip hop fans, but I personally don’t think Slaughterhouse is demonstrates good group dynamic. Each member is a very talented emcee in his own right (although fuck Joe Budden for life for beating a woman into having a miscarriage). However, there is no feeling of unity among them. Every song that they do sounds like a posse cut. As I stated above, a posse cut can be cool, but if you’re gonna be a group, you have to sound like a unit. It’s weird too, because Joe Budden and Joell Ortiz do back and forth every once in awhile, but they don’t sound natural doing it. Nearly every song either boils down to a cypher that may or may not have a hook in it or an emotional track with each member just saying their piece and not trying to tie themselves into the rest of the group; oftentimes the verses may only share emotion in common and can be about completely different things which throws off the mood of the track. A group needs to have chemistry, otherwise it just doesn’t work. Unfortunately, Slaughterhouse doesn’t have much of it.
Slaughterhouse are also too similar to each other, which oddly doesn’t help their chemistry.

Another part of what makes some groups successful is the roles that members play. When Slaughterhouse do music together, everyone does essentially the same thing in a song. There’s no variety. You need some rappers to be the tough talkers, the more grounded members, and what is quite possibly the most important role: the clown. It can get tiresome to hear so many rappers talking about similar street subjects all the time; you need an ODB to your Wu-Tang Clan or a Sean Price to your Boot Camp Clik (RIP to both) to add some comic relief. The role that guys like them played helped to distinguish the groups from most other hardcore underground groups.

Everyone wants to be the toughest or most lyrical, and people get lost in the mix of everyone else trying to do that. When you put together a group of people trying to be tough or lyrical, that effect may get even worse. Throw a clown in there (who still has skills, mind you), and suddenly your presence becomes more impactful. You have someone who can still spit with the rest of the members, but is spewing clever, witty one-liners and creating a different reaction than the listeners get from listening to the other members. But it’s a fine line; you have too many members who clown around and you’re viewed as a comedy rap group, nothing to take seriously. So a group needs to be diverse, but still maintain similarities enough to where there’s still chemistry.

Groups are wonderful for hip hop. They’re a healthy mix of competition and brotherhood. I wish there were more groups out now; you’d think that with the increased usage of the internet in hip hop music that there would be more groups linking up from city to city, but for some reason that’s not the case. These days it’s always a wonderful treat to see a group either reunite, especially if they haven’t done music in years. With things in hip hop seeming to go back to the way they were (that’s a topic for another time, I don’t feel like opening that can of worms for the basement-dwelling stuck-in-the-90s hip hop nerds to feast on), perhaps we’ll see more groups being formed.

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Album Review: Kuniva – A History of Violence Vol. 2

by Apu

hiv

8/10

Coming back from doing a tour with a couple of his group members and stealing the show more often than not on D-12’s Devil’s Night Mixtape, Kuniva has gone solo again with the follow up to his official debut, A History of Violence. Released about a year later than originally planned, this project was pushed back until 2016 because of his work with D-12.

Before I go any further, I advise all 3 of you who are reading this to check my recap of A History of Violence (Vol. 1). I promise I’m not saying this [entirely] as a plug for views!

The first thing that can be said about this album is that overall, it is much more powerful than its predecessor. It’s evident even from the release of the lead single, “Dear Uncle”, that Kuniva approached making this album from a totally different perspective. It’s more heartfelt, thoughtful, and passionate. There’s nothing here that has the sort of carefree, almost ignorant attitude of “Born This Way” or “Where I’m From.” The entirety of the album is more mature and artistic. The two years Kuniva spent working on this left him a more seasoned artist, let alone emcee.

With this project, Kuniva put a larger focus on songwriting, more so than just rapping and lyricism. In fact, the straight “lyrical miracle” lyrics are less prevalent on many of the songs; for the most part, he opted towards writing songs with a message and focused less heavily on the rhymes and wordplay. That is probably my biggest gripe (well, actually, my only grip) with the album…and even then, it’s not really that big of an issue, because it’s not like Kuniva dumbed anything down, and there were still several instances where he did come with the battle lyricism that he’s known for. He’s shown the caliber of his lyricism on each of his previous projects, and just shifted focus on this. There was less room for it. He had something that he wanted to make sure he got across this time, and didn’t risk sacrificing the message with unnecessarily complex rhymes or metaphors.

The hooks are noticeably stronger, more present, and in many cases more melodic than they were on Kuniva’s previous material, which is artistic growth that I’m personally very glad to see. A stronger hook is what separates a good rap from a good song. He also started playing with his flow a bit. He had shown flashes of implementing double time flows on D-12’s comeback song “Bane” but since then kept it a little simpler on the D12 mixtape. However, from the very first track on this project onwards, we get to hear him weave in and out of different pockets in a way that I honestly didn’t expect. His flow has become crisper, and he’s managed to make it sound as though it’s both more precise and more relaxed at the same time.

Kuniva also started using his delivery to add to the buildup of his verses to give a more dynamic feeling towards the songs. On many of the tracks, he would start adding more of an edge to his voice as the verses went on, which helps keep the listener not simply engaged, but nearly clinging onto the words he’s saying. The majority of this album consists of very personal music, detailing the difficulties he’s had in his life as vividly as the best of them. His delivery matched the pain that is written so well that you would think he was sitting in a psychiatrist’s room recounting it as opposed to just rapping pre-written lyrics into a mic. I firmly believe that Kuniva’s delivery is one of the most impactful out right now. At times on this project his delivery, paired with the intensity of the stories he told in his lyrics, could figuratively kick you in the stomach.

My son’s looking up to me more, watching my every move,
Trying to mimic his dad, I try not to show him my tool,
He’s asking questions now, fuck I’m supposed to do?,
Finally told him what happened to Bugz and Uncle Proof,
The pain of explaining the real, leave you with screws loose,
To be able to watch your homie murdered on Youtube.
(Mama I Tried)

That’s not to say that the entire album is full of heavy subject matter. Songs like “Ride Slow,” “All I Know,” and “Trouble On My Mind” serve as Kuniva’s way of giving the listener something easier to listen to. At the same time, they still manage to capture the [relatively] lighter side to Kuniva’s life, rather than being just filler tracks for people who don’t want to listen to such serious music. They detail Kuniva’s life on the block, largely leaving aside the topics of personal strife and police brutality. They definitely don’t feel out of place though; in fact, they make the album feel more fleshed out. Block Symfany and Mr. Porter do a great job at offering production that flows well from track to track, and making each song settle in well. Each of these tracks, incidentally, are the only tracks with guest rappers on them. I personally feel as though Kuniva’s verses on these tracks vastly overtake the guest verses, who were strong in their own right. I do want to say that I’m relieved that the chemistry between Denaun and Kuniva still exists, and I look forward to the Brigade project that they announced in the outro of “Trouble On My Mind.”

The final track, “End of the Beginning,” has a small interlude between verses where Kuniva mentions how he’s found that people don’t really know that he’s his own person outside of D-12, and that he needs to show people who he is by himself. The production (offered by Block Symfany and Mr. Porter) help separate him from the devious D12 sound overall, and allow him to develop his own persona through his soul-bearing delivery and lyrics, which have become possibly the most vivid and deep out of anyone in his group aside from the obvious member. If there was something he could have released that would show people what he has to offer, this is it. This is the project that he needed to get people to stop using their bias against his group as a reason not to take him seriously. He succeeded in creating a cohesive project that puts on full display who he is as an artist and emcee. It is not a perfect album, but he has cemented who he really is behind his group persona, and he can keep building from there, which is what the phrase “end of the beginning” seems to imply.

Too often, you’ll see somebody release a sequel to an album and have it be essentially the same thing. No advancement in sound, no change in content…nothing different is offered. It’s basically just an excuse for an artist to not evolve and come with the cop-out of “but…but yeah but this is just the next part, it doesn’t make sense to change anything!” This album is a sequel done right. Kuniva uses this album as an opportunity to expand on what he was talking about in Vol. 1. He carries more of a narrative throughout it, aided by the interludes. It’s almost like he had the first disc serve as the prelude to his life story, where he gave bits and pieces, and he decided to dig deeper on this. While the lyricism may not be as complex, as a full body of work Vol. 2 absolutely dwarfs Vol. 1, and stands by itself as a great project.

Apu Rambles: Hip-Hop, my Replacement Girlfriend

by Apu

rex1

Schoolwork, internet connectivity issues that prolong the time it takes to do said schoolwork, a keyboard meltdown, and other things I can use as weak excuses for my inactivity… none of which could keep me from procrastinating and listening to hip hop. Hip hop has been essentially the only part of my personality that I think is appealing in any way at all. However, believe it or not, there was once a time when I wasn’t into the genre, and hardly knew anything about it at all. Can you believe it?! Well, unluckily for you, this half-assed intro leading into a very long piece about me and hip hop is almost done. It’s story time!

Before I really got into hip hop music, I had heard a few songs, but for the most part it was more of what my parents wanted to listen to. So it was classic rock when my dad was driving and pop when my mom was driving. The only hip hop song that I really properly remember is “Gold Digger” by Kanye. I had heard it when it was on the radio once, so it must have been in mid-to-late-2005. None else really stick out in my head, but I do know I had heard some. Those that I did hear, I didn’t really think anything of. They were alright, but I didn’t like them any more than the songs that my dad would play (my mom’s taste in music is garbage). I didn’t really connect with the genre until the summer of 2006.
A friend of mine in the neighborhood who obviously later became a massive fuck-up showed me the song “When I’m Gone” by Eminem. I remember when I heard it, I thought to myself “I’ve never heard a song like this before, what the fuck is this?” It was like a movie in my head, which is something that I had never really experienced when listening to a song at that point in my life. I had never really been so drawn to the lyrics of a song before then. Of course, now, I don’t like the song very much, but back then it was something totally new.

All my life, I’ve been a loser who lives under a rock, so I didn’t know who Eminem was back then. Over the course of the next week or two (or more, who actually remembers details like that?), I was on YouTube looking for more of Em’s music. I think I had found songs like “Without Me”, “Mockingbird”, and “Lose Yourself”. I do also remember hearing “You Don’t Know”, but according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, that came out in November of 2006, so I guess my memory is hazy on the timeline regarding that. Also, fun fact, I didn’t know he was white until after almost 2 months of listening to loose tracks, after seeing one of his music videos.

Anyways, I was pretty enraptured by the guy’s music. No artist had ever really made music that stuck with me the way his did. Later that summer, I went on vacation to see some family. When I was visiting my mom’s side of the family, I was playing Super Mario Bros. with my uncle and I started telling him about how I liked Eminem. Sometime during that week I was there, he gave me his copy of The Eminem Show, which was the only Em album he felt comfortable showing me at that age, although he still did it with a “don’t tell your mom.” I stuck it in his CD player and started listening to it. I enjoyed the holy hell out of that CD. I must have listened to it 3 times straight while my parents, grandparents, and aunts thought I was playing video games with my uncle and brother.

When listening to it, I noticed that there were other people on the songs. Using the booklet with the lyrics, I matched the voices to the names (I don’t recall the back cover having the features listed so I didn’t know that the songs would have other people on them). I liked them, but the ones who really stood out to me were D-12. I think the only reason I was able to do what many other Eminem fans can’t and actually recognize each member is because I spent so much time staring at the lyrics in the booklet. At first, I didn’t really understand why it said “featuring D-12” but then had the verses preceded with the members’ names…I guess I didn’t put together the fact that they’re a group. Anyways, I told my uncle “wow these D-12 guys are awesome, do they have music out?” Of course, he had the Devil’s Night CD. That one was one that he really wasn’t sure he wanted to let me have. I’m sure a decade later, he regrets it. Too bad.

That CD flipped everything that I thought I knew about the world on its head, then face fucked it.

That is the CD that shaped nearly everything about my attitude in the years to come, and totally warped my sense of humor.

It was that CD.

When I listened to Devil’s Night, it was the first time I had ever heard anything that even approached something that vulgar. I was a kid who was an idealist and thought everything in the world was great. Listening to that album shattered that. I was entranced by how this group of 6 guys was just spewing venom at everything they didn’t like, and at some stuff that they did like. Some people lose their innocence when a loved one dies, some lose it when they accidentally walk in on their parents having sex…I think I lost mine when I listened to this CD. With Bizarre being a member, I don’t think I could have avoided it.

So after that I listened to the rest of Em’s discography, I listened to the other D-12 album, then started looking into Shady Records. I really, really enjoyed Obie Trice once I started listening to him. Cheers is still to this day one of my favorite albums and probably the 2nd best non-Em album to be released by Shady, in my opinion (the first being Devil’s Night). I started looking into Proof’s discography too, and listened to Searching For Jerry Garcia. After hearing a couple of verses by Royce da 5’9” on Em’s music, I started looking into his music. For about a year, I was listening mainly to that little circle of 8 Detroit artists.

Obviously, when you listen to early Shady Records albums, you’re bound to hear more and more of Dr. Dre. That led me to checking out his albums. From there, I started listening to more west coast hip hop artists. I don’t really remember who I was listening to though, because I don’t really listen to many of them anymore, but I do remember that I listened to some Snoop Dogg music. That’s where I really started enjoying the G-funk style present on Doggystyle, which I actually quite recently gained a new appreciation for as being possibly the only style of hip hop from the 90s that still sounds like it could have been produced today. I hold the entirely non-unique and pretty basic, pumpkin spice latte/Ugg boot level opinion that Doggystyle is the best-produced hip hop album of all time. Dre and Daz are geniuses for that.

Of course when you listen to the west coast, you’re bound to find 2Pac’s music. I had heard and read about 2Pac, but had never really listened to. I think he was the first artist since I listened to Em who had given me the same sort of feeling as Em did. There’s nothing that I can really say about 2Pac that hasn’t been said a million times before, but he did really make music that painted incredibly vivid scenarios, and his delivery would fall on you and cave in your chest. I know that I mainly listened to All Eyez On Me and the Makaveli album, because I liked the production on those more than I did on his pre-Death Row music, probably because it was more like the production I was used to hearing. My uncle later gave me his copy of All Eyez On Me, probably sometime like 2010 when I had already been listening to the album for a while. The 7 Day Theory is actually the first CD I bought for myself…in other words, spent my parents’ money on.

It wasn’t long after that when I sort of slowed down with hip hop. I had started to hear more and more of the crunk/snap music that was dominating the game in the mid-2000s. With social media and the internet not being as popular as it is today, it was a little harder to find acts that didn’t take up all the radio play, so I can understand why the whole “hip hop is dead” thing ended up happening, when it never really died if you take a look back at some artists that were out but not being pushed the way a Lil Jon or whoever else was. I certainly felt like that. I sort of stopped looking for new artists to listen to for a good year. I thought I had tapped into everything that hip hop really had to offer. If only I could beat the living shit out of my younger self.

I forget how, but I discovered Redman, the Wu-Tang Clan, and Busta Rhymes all sometime in mid-2009. I think it was a combination of seeing Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx 2 and Busta’s Back On My B.S. on the iTunes store, and finally looking up who Em was talking about when he mentioned “Reggie” on “TIl I Collapse.” I saw the cover of Dare Iz A Darkside and figured it looked wacky enough to listen to (fuck you, young Apu…even though that’s still a personal top 5 album).

That album is what got me into the east coast sound. It totally changed everything that I was looking for in the music that I liked. I think the fact that it was dark, which was sort of the sound I was into at the time as a rebellion to the ignorantly happy crunk era, is what made that album click instantly with me. It was almost like Devil’s Night and The Marshall Mathers LP in the sense that it had a lot of humor on it but at the same time it had pretty dark music. It managed being funky as fuck, funny, and witty, yet dark, hazy, and gritty (BARZ!), which to this day is something that really impresses me, because I don’t think there is anyone else who can marry those two sounds the way Red did on that album.

Hearing those guys from the east got me more interested in digging into east coast hip hop. I found guys like Pharoahe Monch, Nas, Biggie, and DMX. There was something about the east sound that I started to really connect with. I think it was the rougher sound, which again, was in such stark contrast to the crunk shit turning trap (which I don’t dislike by any means at all, certainly not the way I do crunk). It was different from the polished sound of the west, where even when the music gets aggressive or dark it does so with a sort of sense of style that the east generally forgoes. I told Dustin recently that it’s almost like the musical styles match the climates; the west is warmer and has more beaches and shit, and the people are wearing summer clothes year round so the music has that sort of style, whereas the east gets a shit-ton colder so people are running around in the streets of New York wearing jeans, hoodies, jackets, and Timberland boots, which is reflected in the rugged sound. That was a massive tangent that didn’t need to be made at all, but yeah.

In 2010 I started going through a horrorcore phase. I discovered Tech N9ne through the Seepage EP, which is some of his darkest material to date. From there, I discovered Brotha Lynch Hung, and I rediscovered King Gordy. Now, until I heard Gordy’s verse on “Horns”, I had thought he was a blues singer from Detroit. The only time I had heard him was on hooks for Proof and D-12, on songs like “No. T. Lose” off Searching For Jerry Garcia, and “I Am Gone” and “Mrs. Pitts” off Return of The Dozen Vol. 1. It wasn’t a too far-off conclusion to come to, as he draws quite a bit of inspiration from blues artist Howlin’ Wolf. How fucking wrong I was. I’m not really into horrorcore much anymore, but I still enjoy Gordy and Lynch a lot. Gordy is to this day one of the most unique hip hop artists I’ve ever heard.

Getting into King Gordy is what got me back into Detroit hip hop. I started listening to his group, Fat Killahz, and then guys like Elzhi and Black Milk (who later ended up getting me into Sean Price, through Random Axe). As time would go on I would become a fan of Danny Brown’s as well. I also tried listening to more southern artists because at one point I felt like I was starting to neglect them. I became a big fan of Scarface.

My taste in music stayed relatively unchanged for the next 3 or 4 years, and that leads into about now. I would start listening to other acts, like The Roots, but I didn’t really focus on expanding. But this is also around the time I started talking to Dustin, and he was constantly expanding his tastes (read: constantly becoming more and more of a hipster). But he managed to get me to start listening to Run The Jewels about a year and a half later than everyone else did. Around the same time, I also started to get familiar with Prof before becoming a massive fan of his, and because of the Rhymesayers connection and a push from Dustin, I’ve started getting into Aesop Rock. I’m still looking for other artists to listen to as well.

I’ve left out a lot of the artists that I listen to, primarily because I’m a scatterbrained fuck, but that is basically the main gist of it. Hip hop has basically shaped me into who I am now. I don’t think there’s much that I have a passion about the way I do hip hop. The more time goes on, the more I that passion grows. For the longest it was about how I connected to the music. Then I started to take into account lyricism. Lately I’ve been getting very into the production side. Not in practice, since I’m nowhere near creative enough to do that, but just listening to things as closely as I can to hear how things are put together. I think that’s why recently I’ve gained such an affinity for Just Blaze, aside from the fact that he makes killer beats. The way he pieces some of his beats together amazes me sometimes. I’ve always liked him, but the more I try to dissect in my head what he does, the most I find what he does to be so impressive.

But yeah. I’m basically pussywhipped for hip hop. I don’t see myself losing the passion I have for it any time soon. Fuck it, I’m about to go listen to some right now.

The end. Thanks for wasting your time reading this.

Retrospective Review: A History of Violence, by Kuniva

by Apu

HOV

On December 16, 2014, Kuniva released his official debut studio project, A History of Violence. It followed a long stream of mixtapes (Retribution, the Midwest Marauders series, and the Lost Gold mixtape). Unlike the music that was on the mixtapes, Kuniva used all original production (primarily handled by Block Symfany, a production team composed of Rio Da Ghost and T.Boyd out of Michigan), and made actual fleshed-out songs, rather than just long verses and freestyles. Overall, it’s a very solid solo offering. It set the stage for him to grow and dig deeper in his later material.

The best part of this project to me is how Kuniva put it together. It sort of sounds like he sequenced the album very deliberately. The first 4 tracks seem like they’re from the perspective of a younger, more rowdy Kuniva. Those tracks tend to celebrate the street life. It opens up with the posse cut “Michiganish”, featuring Aftermath artist Jon Connor, Mass Appeal’s Boldy James, and Detroit legend Guilty Simpson. It starts things off fairly simply, being a competitive cypher of sorts. The following few songs, “Born Like This”, “Where I’m From”, and “Baileys In Bangkok,” all have a similar sort of vibe. They’re cocky and rowdy. They sound a little ironic and tongue in cheek, almost as though Kuniva was trying to rap the way a younger kid would rap. The content and the way it’s done makes me think he was talking about the street life, from the perspective of a kid living it, rather than someone reflecting on it.

Then comes “Derty Headz”, which is a very powerful song dedicated to fans of his and D-12. It has an anthemic hook and verses that drop all sorts of history about his career. He talks about Proof recruiting him for the group, the beef they’ve had, and the adversity they’ve faced from within since Proof passed. This song is the major turning point in almost every way. Here, flashes of reflection and maturity start to show up. From track 6 onwards, it seems to shift to his perspective now as a man nearly 40 years old after having seen massive success with his group, mournfully reflecting on the hard times in life but looking ahead with a drive to keep moving now that he’s out. “Light Work” and “Where The Hoes @?”, both offer fiery production and strong verses delivered with the hunger and confidence of a man who has seen his fair share of hardship. The title track, which is quite possibly the most personal and poetic song Kuniva has ever released, has him speaking on his past up to the point when Proof was murdered in chilling, almost uncomfortably rich detail, his voice oozing pain over him reflecting on it, and the album ends on “Shoutout”, which sounds like where he’s at now, looking forward into the future with hope after everything he’s been through.

The music on this project is good. There’s no denying that Kuniva is a strong rapper and has been doing nothing but improving since D-12 World. His delivery has become a lot more convincing and his writing has gotten sharper. The production is great too. Block Symfany (and Enrichment, on the title track) were able to provide Kuniva with a backdrop that deviated from the typical D-12 sound. It gave Kuniva the chance to step out of that style and develop his own identity, which is something that he hasn’t had the chance to really do much in the past outside of his Retribution mixtape. I think the first half of the album is a little shaky and unfocused at points, but every song from “Derty Headz” onwards is great. The title track might be one of my favorites of the entire year of 2014, period.

However, what really makes the album good is how it lives up to its name of being a “history”. Kuniva put the album together to actually make it almost like a song-by-song history of his life, from rapping competitively at the Hip-Hop Shop and living in the streets, to when D-12 were at their peak, and ending it with an adult perspective on life. It’s really special, because oftentimes artists don’t do that kind of thing when putting their projects together. You generally hear about Kendrick and the like putting their albums together in a manner like that, but honestly, Kuniva managed to pull off an album concept as well as anybody else. Even if it wasn’t fully intentional, he still clearly had an idea of progressing the sound and content of the project in a way that made sense, as opposed to putting the songs together in an arbitrary order and releasing it onto iTunes. That, to me, is what really makes it good, and not just another hip hop album.

Artist of the Month: Proof

by Apu

Proof

This April we’re fittingly making Deshaun Holton, better known as Proof, Artist of the Month. Proof is known primarily as the founder of Detroit-based rap group D-12, Eminem’s hypeman and best friend, and the man who ran the battles in the Hip Hop Shop similarly to the character of Future in 8 Mile. He was also a member of the group 5Ela and half of the duo Promatic. He was an instrumental role in establishing Detroit hip hop, being associated with acts from J. Dilla to the Fat Killahz.

He is most known for his roles in the groups that he was a part of, but his talent as a solo artist was undeniable. His first solo album, I Miss The Hip-Hop Shop, had a sound that was grittier, more soulful, and less aggressive than the D-12 material that had been made up to that point. He showed that he was capable of more than just the signature Shady style. The album still had all of the charm and wit that he and D-12 were known for, but he also showed a more reflective side that wasn’t as present on the group material, on songs like “Broken”, the Promatic cut “Nowhere Fast”, and “Love Letters”, dedicating his verses to Paul Rosenberg and Denaun Porter of D-12.

He only kept building creatively for his next album, Searching For Jerry Garcia. Proof created a sound that was only fitting for an album with that title. Songs like “Purple Gang”, “Ali” featuring the late MC Breed, “No.T. Lose” with a bluesy hook courtesy of King Gordy. “Jump Biatch” and “M.A.D.” have a quite unique sound that can only be described as psychedelic rock-rap. This album is also very dark. Much darker than anything else he had put out beforehand. “Kurt Kobain” and “Forgive Me” are the two most notable tracks off the album. They are hauntingly dark songs on which Proof uses the backdrop provided by the producers and his raspy voice to build an atmosphere of melancholy, numbness, and frustration. Much like Tupac, Proof seemed to predict his own death on this album, on more than one occasion.

Genius artists, so retarded,
Broken hearted, my soul’s like an open target,
And I’m ready to leave Earth,
You step to my death, next year on my T-shirt.
No.T. Lose

Proof was not just an ordinary rap artist. He had a vision that became clearer and clearer as he got older, fusing psychedelic rock with a soulful hip hop style reminiscent of Dilla/Slum Village as early as his first solo release, the Electric Coolaid Acid Testing EP. Even songs off D-12’s Devil’s Night like “Revelation” and “These Drugs” (from the limited edition bonus disc) sound like they have Proof’s fingerprints on them, even if they were not produced by him. Being a member of D-12 might have subjected him to the stigma of being an Eminem clone, just one of Em’s boys, but any time he did solo music he quickly broke out of that mold, using musical styles that Eminem has not attempted at length, aside from maybe “Stimulate”.

Proof was also a legendary freestyler. Eminem detailed in his autobiography how Proof once forgot a verse he was supposed to be performing on the air while he was midway through, and he pulled one out of thin air. You wouldn’t have even known if you hadn’t heard what the verse was originally going to be. Back in ’06, he was challenged to make an entire project in 24 hours. Being the quick thinker that he was, he managed to make 22 tracks in that time span, creating the Time A Tell mixtape. And if that wasn’t enough, the mixtape had a level of lyricism that an embarrassing amount of rappers can’t put on an album that takes them 3 months to make. Unfortunately, the mixtape was delayed because of his death. However, it did manage to come out 4 years later as a fantastic posthumous release.

And Proof may be heard again, if D-12 can finally actually make an album. They mentioned that they’ve messed with his vocals to see how he sounds on newer beats. Generally, posthumous material organized by other people end up being used as cash-grabs and get littered with artists who the rapper would never have rocked with (just ask Method Man about Biggie’s posthumous The Duets album). But it’s a different story when it’s the group that you started, which already has the selling point of having the biggest rapper ever as a member, just using your verses to pay homage, isn’t it?

Before I end this article, I would like to add a small personal tribute. I first started listening to Proof and D-12 in mid-2006, just a few short months after his death. The first time I heard him was on “When The Music Stops”, then on “Trapped” off Eminem Presents The Re-Up (which I later found out was just a portion of the song “Oil Can Harry”). I knew he was something special after listening to “Trapped”. Searching For Jerry Garcia is one of my absolute favorite albums. I don’t know if any other rapper has ever attempted the sound that Proof managed to create. He used to speak about being open minded because his father was a musician, and I think that helped him differentiate himself from his group and from other rappers in general.

It’s weird for me to listen to some of his music as I’ve gotten older and started to understand the gravity of what he was saying prior to his death. I can think of at least 5 different times his death was brought up before it actually happened, most notably on “40 Oz.” and in the video for “Like Toy Soldiers”. There’s a whole new level (well, not really new, since it’s been 10 years [Jesus…]) of darkness and depth to a lot of his music.

Proof is the real reason why I listen to hip hop to begin with. He’s the one who formed the group that flipped my world upside down at age 12. The group that interested me beyond all the rap that I had heard up to that point. The group that introduced me to the darker side of humor and taught me you could say whatever you wanted to. Without him, none of the music that basically raised me would have existed. Who knows what my life would be like?

Rest in peace, Big Proof.