Though hip-hop artists often look back to the earliest days of the music for inspiration and bring that into their own songs—from Mos Def and Talib Kweli building a song off the Double Trouble routine to Puff Daddy taking over “The Message” for his own purposes—these days there’s a crowd of groups overtly acknowledging the influence of the wave after that, the mid-‘80s to early ‘90s “golden age”. These are MCs and DJs who spent their childhood and after keeping up with everything hot in the music, starting with Run DMC and LL onto BDP, PE, Stetsasonic, Eric B and Rakim, A Tribe Called Quest, Gangstarr and so on. They’re artists who were fans first, who can tell you where they were the first time they heard each of these groups, who can recite lines from the lost singles and groups of the era as easily as from songs now widely acknowledged as classics.
Like his label-mate J-Live and his home-town compadre Mr. Lif, Boston-based MC Akrobatik builds his music from the pure love of the hip-hop he grew up with, yet has the skills and creativity to keep his own music sounding fresh and truly his own. With a rhyming style somewhat reminiscent of KRS-One, Akrobatik balances roughness, intelligence and a friendly tone; he alternates between boasting, teaching, kidding around and expressing his feelings. His debut album Balance is filled with tales of hardship, friendly competition, love and hope, plus a bit of social commentary and lots of straight-up braggadocio. All of Akrobatik’s rhymes are delivered like he’s been preparing for his debut for years. He sounds not like some wanna-be star but like an MC who’s earned his dues and grown both wiser and stronger from it.
The title song is Akrobatik’s call for change in hip-hop, expressing his hope for a world where everyone has a fair shot at success and the music isn’t dominated by one voice or mentality (“there’s no balance in rap/you either a nerd or a thug”). He then casts that idea of balance outward to include everything that’s going on in the world today. We wouldn’t be always on the brink of global war if we just kept our heads cool and looked out for each other, he suggests. He calls for men to have a more balanced view of women, for society to have a more balanced distribution of power, and for the music world to reflect a broader array of styles. But on another level he’s putting forth a plan of attack for music, suggesting that balancing your various styles and viewpoints is necessary to be a well-rounded artist.
The latter sense of balance is the principle around which Balance is organized. Introspective songs about where the world is headed are balanced with songs where Ak’s taking a banging beat and using it to show off his way with words. The music throughout Balance also strikes the right place between smooth and rugged; it’s built from low-key soul and jazz but has sharp beats. While Akrobatik himself created the beats for one of the songs, for the most part he relies on a skilled crew of collaborators, including Da Beatminerz, Fakts One, Edan and Diamond D.
The album’s first single, “Remind My Soul”, is the strongest example of Akrobatik slowing things down to get listeners to think. With a backdrop of soulful guitar and swirling backing vocals, he contemplates the state of African-Americans today, looking back at the calls for change from the leaders of the past and feeling dismay that so many people have given up on the struggle for equality and progress. On some of Balance‘s other more contemplative tracks (“Limelight”, “Time”), Akrobatik analyzes the things people do for success or money and considers the fleeting nature of life. But the album is also packed with songs that are all about the art of hip-hop itself, about putting an accomplished MC over ear-pleasing music.
Often he both shows off and expresses his views on the world at the same time, dropping a provocative or thoughtful rhyme here, bragging about his rapping prowess there. Even within one of the most powerful showcases for his skills, the quick but raw “Hand That Rocks the Cradle”, he slips in some lines thanking his mom for raising him to not be misogynist. “Front Steps”, one of the album’s catchiest tracks, is at the same time a portrait of inner-city life, a defense of just chilling out and smoking with friends on the front stoop, and an opportunity for Ak to rhyme over a more dance-ready groove.
Aiming barbs at hypocrites, phony MCs and power-hungry politicians alike, Akrobatik is skilled at cutting through the glitz and hype to get to what’s genuine and important, in music and life. While not always innovative (“Always Bet On Ak” stands out as a rather simplistic chorus), Balance nonetheless impress as the work of an artist who not only has important things to say but a talent at articulating those thoughts through his music. Balance is a compelling example of down-to-earth, real hip-hop that entertains and makes you think.