[16 January 2007]
When Hi-Tek donned his production glove to assemble beats for Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s Black Star project in 1998, he was essentially a New York producer, having captured the dirty doo-wop sound that was previously mainstreamed by contemporaries RZA and DJ Premier. Despite hailing from the Natti, Tek further distanced himself from his geographical roots by collaborating on Reflection Eternal with Kweli in 2000, which stood as a siren call to the New York rap fiends, reinvigorating a scene that had seemingly begun to fray. With the success of the collaborative process, Tek contributed to the idea that backpack rap was equal parts emcee as it was production, and with a hard-hitting musical edge attached to an affinity for vulnerable soundscapes, Tek seemed primed for a solo venture. Hi-Teknology, released in 2001, was his fantastic attempt at center stage, but although the album was colorful in New York guest spots and concentrated soul beats, it did nothing for his career but pave the way for masked production slots on 50 Cent and G-Unit fodder releases.
So in lieu of crawling back to the New York scene that took his solo career merely halfway to the edge, Hi-Tek grabbed handfuls of emcees from all regions of the country and attempted to make a national fabric of music, woven together with a terrain of near-patented soul beats. The result, Hi-Teknology, Volume 2: The Chip, is a sophomore album cluttered with all-star stop-ins, but like his debut, the record is mainly concerned with how those artists are pieced with the man behind the boards. Because Hi-Tek discovered his musical voice at the humble stage that comes before super-producing, the record is less about pretension in terms of status as it is about propagating the beauty that can be infused in the music itself. Listeners are more likely to focus on the ever-present and tender subtleties of the record, like the quiet team of flutes on “Can We Go Back” or the swing-low 6/8 time signature of “People Going Down”, than the guest stars, and consequently, the record successfully retains its musical focus on a broadly national scale.
Like with all of his production, Tek is gifted in creating music with a soul, as his beats feature the hesitant placement of drums and snares made popular by the late and great J. Dilla. As drum programming is indispensable to creating an alluring musical tension, the choice of sample plays an equal if not superior role in finding that same emotional susceptibility, and Tek proves this inherent ability on almost every track on the album. This vulnerability in turn evokes the passion from the guest artists, and while a generic hit-making producer can simply provide the atmosphere for their performer to emote upon, Tek counteracts emotional lyricism with sentimental musicality, a formula that mostly works.
On the standout track “Josephine”, featuring Ghostface Killah, Pretty Ugly and the Willie Cottrell Band (Tek’s father’s band), the beat is a blend of an unresolving bass line, pitted against a clump of synth and a faint, overshadowing note that repeats throughout the track. But to balance the supple quality of the production, Ghostface offers a sensitive bird’s eye view of a woman who melted away in the world of drugs—and delivers lines like “She’s awfully hot / Asshole burning like Tabasco / She used to be thick / It’s like, where the hell’d her ass go?” The pairing of such introspective lyrics and potent music runs through on the other emo-rap tracks, like on the Texas-based “So Tired” featuring Bun B, Devin The Dude, Dion and Pretty Ugly, and on the glamorously nostalgic “Can We Go Back”, featuring Talib Kweli and Ayak. On the latter, Tek drops a verse that sounds dwarfed in comparison to Kweli’s word flex, but while all three performers use their track time to ruminate on lost romance, the beat seems to be propelling the same sentiment, making the track a solid reflection from all angles. This ability is key for Tek’s success on the album, being that he tends to wear both the producer and emcee hats on tracks like “The Chip” and the extensive closer “Music For Life”. The former, a brief stomp-clap introduction to the album, is the only solo track on the record, but features surprisingly lyrical rhymes like “Came up in the game, niggas stay the same, nigga how you hate on that shit / Single-handedly carried the Natti on my back and I ain’t even that big.”
Although multitasking has its merits, The Chip suffers when Tek conforms his production style to fit that of the guest artist, instead of vice versa. The single, “Where It Started At (NY)” featuring Jadakiss, Papoose, Kweli, Dion and Raekwon, sounds stylistically comfortable on the album, but at the end of the track, the placement of an airplane’s engine signifies the shift in musical styles to follow. The clip symbolizes something like an alarm, as the album drastically changes from its soul-rooted voluptuousness to the staccato bounce that characterizes the West Coast scene. “1-800-Homicide”, featuring the Game and Dion, and “Money Don’t Make U Rich” featuring Strong Arm Steady, shows Tek sacrificing his deeply intrinsic sound by crumbling under the weight of his cross-country friends, and though the appearances possess technical viability in the world of rap, the cohesiveness of the rustic soul musicality becomes disjunctive in this vein of “experimentation”.
While Tek may appear to falter in his ability to bring his New York sound to the four corners of the States, he compensates with a disc that makes the best of what he was initially spotlighted for: spinned soul in a hip-hop context. Chip is an esoteric record, and can evenhandedly serve as anything from a mere background lull to an ear-biting escapade. Although the album has mainstream misses, like the steroid-injected “March” featuring Busta Rhymes, it calls attention to itself with tracks like “I Think I Got a Beat” featuring Lil’ Tone (Tek’s son), where Tek flips an electronic sample from a preschool toy into a brash hip-hop confection. Tracks like “Beat” may leave the listener dreaming of a full-length release as compelling as those songs, but fortunately for Tek, the next 50 Cent release will allow that type of decision-making to come in handy.