If you’re rocking los dreadlocks and believe that the world economy is controlled by a council of twelve and feel like you’re being constantly watched and love going to drum circles where you can dance Dance DANCE without inhibition, you’re going to love this album. Variable Unit is a funky lounge band mostly defined by Jacob Aginsky’s warm, friendly electric organ and, on this particular release, the extremely concise cuts of DJs Quest and Zeph. The emerging sound is what you’d call a vibe, an all-come-together that harkens back to an imagined meeting between Johnny Hammond, Enya, and Portishead. It’s extremely smooth and groovy and nonthreatening.
Over the top of the VU beats you’ve got Azeem, with a smoky flow and an apparently deeply held belief in the New World Order, the Illuminati, and computer chip implants. Hamfisted political diatribe is nothing new in hip-hop, and I guess I shouldn’t be surprised considering that he did some time in Spearhead. But it’s a shame that he’s backslid like this, after the much more subtle work of 2001’s Craft Classic, which saw him spit some actual complexity and leaven his politics with a hefty dose of wit. Here, though, in the place of subtlety he smacks you over the head with such insights as “The TV is watching us,” “While the rulers and rich celebrate, we all bleed,” and, heck, while we’re at it:
[They’re] Controlling us in secrecy/
Through organizations like
The Rosecrutians, Shriners, Templars or Freemasons,
99 Lodge, Skull and Bone,
The list just lengthens.
These beliefs, while understandable in this day and age, are a great way to let yourself get fucked over politically, and as Azeem delivers them they also make for pretty slipshod art. With his understated flow and smooth backing, he comes off like the inverse of Creed or Amy Grant, full of quasi-religious rhetoric whose superficial expansiveness—of the auras and astrology vein—barely masks a ploddingly literal heart. If he could bring the confrontational power and charisma of the similarly simplistic Non-Phixion, he’d be better off, but he’s using his inside voice, leaning on the words rather than the delivery—and the words repeatedly fail to illuminate. For another kind of contrast, while El-P will occasionally throw in some conspiracy talk, it’s always placed in a context that struggles for the deeper, more complex truths (see [“I’m America”]). Stuck in the middle, Azeem ends up three steps removed from any truth, either street-level or transcendent.
There are moments where Azeem breaks from this blahzay formula, and it’s then that you’ll notice his great aural presence on the mic, somewhere between conversation and spoken word declamation. While he’s not the most technically advanced emcee, his flow’s undeniably solid, and when Variable Unit are feeling a bit funky, as on “What Is It?”, his tight lines hint at early Jurassic 5, or even (and I can’t believe I’m writing this) a more straightforward De La. It’s a genuine shame that so little of MayheMystics is devoted to having this kind of fun.
Variable Unit are far too smooth for my personal taste (when you’re softer than Non-Prophets, it might be time to reconsider your formula), but they are extremely tight. Their mix of lounge, jazz, and hip-hop accomplishes things structurally that haven’t been done often before, deftly balancing space for verses, to-the-point solos, and evocative hooks. Probably the highlight of the whole set for me is the DJing, as Zeph and Quest are simultaneously razor-sharp and extremely musical, never letting pyrotechnics get in the way of a song. The formula may be put to best use on “Sound Field”, a slowly unfolding pulse that provides plenty of space for both the group and the listener to stretch out, with Azeem interjecting occasional ad-libs that thankfully hew away from politics.