As with any extreme genre of pop music, hardcore hip-hop is best dealt with in small doses. Even for the most deliriously clever emcee, there are only so many ways one can describe shooting someone in the face before the spectacle of it all wears off and things become a little rote. Any artist worth more than a glance looks beyond all the violence for extra ingredients that will keep things from devolving into the gangster equivalent of schoolyard taunting, and for the Philadelphia duo Jedi Mind Tricks, that ingredient is an undercurrent of spirituality.
It’s this fascinating contradiction that keeps A History of Violence from becoming just another exercise in genre paradigms. Gravel-voiced leader Vinnie Paz still goes through the usual laundry list of the ways in which he intends to kill you (weapons range from MAC-11’s to chainsaws), yes, but things become more interesting when he manages to weave Christian and Islamic allusions into the hyper-violent threats: the early standout “Deadly Melody” (also home of the album’s most infectious chorus hook) has Pontius Pilate standing alongside modern serial killers and horror movie villains, while elsewhere Paz impressively boasts, “Vinnie ain’t a sucker, he doesn’t record happily / I just black out in the darkness of God’s tapestry”. Jus Allah, making his first appearance since 2000’s underground success Violent By Design, is less successful, taking the solipsism that saturates modern hip-hop to a ridiculous extreme (try to find a verse that doesn’t begin with the phrase “I am”) and then running it into a dead end of narrative-less, predictable free associations. The fact that his flow is staunchly unaccented only adds to the awkwardness.
When Allah’s floundering behind the mic, though, Stoupe’s adept production work keeps things from stalling out. The atmosphere of A History of Violence is suitably dystopian, taking the desolate nightmare of early RZA and filling in the negative space with everything from choral arrangements, nostalgic Mediterranean vocal samples and guitars, fractured orchestration, and, of course, granite-hard beats. It’s aggressively epic to a fault, tracks so overstuffed with solid ideas and textures that by the time the as-ridiculous-as-it-sounds “Butcher Knife Bloodbath” rolls around, it’s clear Stoupe’s exhausted his arsenal. But an impressive, varied arsenal it is, and the only real irritation comes from DJ Kwestion’s by-the-books scratches and sample warps hogging far more of the spotlight than they deserve.
The album comes close to dazzling for a few brief moments when Paz leaves human opponents behind and starts attacking social issues with a sophistication that belies his brute force battle raps. The easy standout “Trail of Lies” seethes with media paranoia and disillusionment, with Paz taking a break from smashing in heads to bemoan television selling his niece an unrealistic body image. The real stunner comes in the existential depression of “Death Messiah”, which houses A History of Violence‘s standout lyric: “Is every day on this place a curse or should I pray on my knees and embrace its dirt?”
The really interesting opponents are the ones that don’t bleed, and it’s a shame that Jedi Mind Tricks realize this so late in the game. No one’s expecting these guys to lay down their guns permanently—and, frankly, that would be a bit of a drag, because lectures set to beats are still lectures—but here’s hoping they manage to stay their trigger fingers for a bit longer on the next one.