“A telegram for me sir? What does it say?”
The first half of this decade’s underground rap scene seemingly belonged wholly to Madlib. Whether it was his Beat Konducta tapes, the Mind Fusion series or his collaborations with MF DOOM, J Dilla and Dudley Perkins to name a few, fans came to expect both certain levels of prolific production and quality as well. While the quality has refused to falter, Madlib’s 2008 and 2009 were relegated to a few high profile placements like Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah and DOOM’s Born Like This, as well as two new installments in the Beat Konducta series. For Madlib fans, this brief vocal sample from Ruth Copeland’s “The Medal” (originally found on Mind Fusion Vol. 4 with a RZA rap) says all that needs to be said: we have been earnestly waiting for that next telegram from the Beat Konducta.
Like Madlib fans, Strong Arm Steady are a group that has found itself in limbo recently. They emerged from the same west coast, King Tee foundation as Madlib and Xzibit in the mid-‘90s. But as Xzibit found solo fame and the Alkaholiks extended crew spread their wings in other ways, Strong Arm Steady seemed to slip through the cracks. Mitchy Slick and Krondon have remained mostly west coast curiosities, while Phil the Agony has found himself on the periphery of the New York conscious scene. But the crew has never earned the profile that fans might feel they’ve deserved, and alumni like Planet Asia and the aforementioned Planet Asia have generally had to forge their own path to gain notoriety.
Given that narrative, its tremendously appropriate that Madlib kicks off this year’s return to prolificness (chief among his many projects is the Madlib Medicine Show) with a return to his roots and a helping hand. Stoney Jackson, however, like many Madlib projects, is not a true collaboration. While the album features his trademark sequencing of skits and found sound audio interludes, none of the beats here will sound original to Madlib diehards. To the general public this sort of thing will go unnoticed, but it does betray the idea that this is probably another Madlib release in which he handed off some beat tapes and let the group go wild. It’s a bit of a shame because Strong Arm Steady could have used a little guidance on this release.
Phil, Krondon and Mitchy Slick (who doesn’t make many appearances here; in fact, he’s curiously given featuring credits when he shows up) have never been the most impressive rappers, and it’s a truth they harness here. Tracks like “Chittlins & Pepsi” and “True Champs” have the vibe of homies in the garage kicking lyrics back and forth, clowning for the sake of hip-hop. It’s a vibe that I wish the group would have harnessed throughout the album, because the political numbers like “Pressure” and “Get Started”, the latter featuring Talib Kweli, come off ineffective and nondescript. Battle tracks like “True Champs” fare better, but it has as much to do with an incredibly strong orchestral boom bap beat from Madlib as the rappers themselves.
Ultimately, Strong Arm Steady present themselves here as passable, veteran rappers, but on further listening they often feel like placeholders until star performers like Fashawn, the Gangrene crew and especially SAS alum, Planet Asia, stop by to kick a 16. Hip-hop fans ought to enjoy this, but Madlib diehards may suffer from beat fatigue hearing so much familiar music and more discerning listeners are probably going to deem the rapping here inconsequential. But the target audience here is the ‘real hip-hop’ crowd, people that just want to hear real, street rhymes over hard-hitting boom bap. And on that front, there are few crews better prepared than Strong Arm Steady to drop such science and few producers better equipped than Madlib to make that experience both an enjoyable and even exciting prospect. Stoney Jackson isn’t an album with big expectations, but as a result it fails to disappoint as well. After an incredibly strong start Stoney Jackson assumes its role as a modest, strong ringing in of the hip-hop new year, and I for one am fine with that.