In the realm of underground hip-hop, introspective and socially aware joints have always been the norm. But rappers spitting about the difficulties of everyday life are so commonplace now that it’s almost impossible to differentiate between them. And these emcees seem hell-bent on no longer telling stories, but preaching to the listener on how the world could be a better place. Or, better yet, there are the rappers who think they are the cure for a genre they believe is on its deathbed. So instead of narratives or braggadocio-filled bangers, underground heads have to sort through the latest group of revivalists to find one or two acts that actually have more to say than “bring back the Golden Era.” And don’t get me wrong, that was a fantastic, wonderful time for hip-hop. From De La Soul to the Jungle Brothers to A Tribe Called Quest, it was all gravy. But nothing will be accomplished to progress the genre unless people stop living in the past and simply learn from it and move forward.
It is with that background and self-awareness that we move onto Common Market’s sophomore full-length, Tobacco Road. The album, a solid but long and winded listen, came bundled with two warnings. The first was that this Seattle-based duo has moved away from the tone set on their self-titled debut, which came with an air of youth and optimism. This time around, emcee RA Scion and producer Sabzi, of the Blue Scholars, are more mature, perhaps even a little bitter. That sentiment is no clearer than in the opening track, “Service”. It features a Southern Baptist pastor’s passionate sermon in which he declares with a sense of anger, “No free rides!” Throughout Tobacco Road, Scion paints a picture of a farm life that symbolizes all facets of life, from sitting on top of the world to being thrown into a pit.
The other warning attached to the record is that it’s not what you would call an “easy read.” In other words, you would not want to spin this once, digest the hour-long album, and then decide whether you want to sip the Kool-Aid or the hater-ade. No, Tobacco Road is an 18-track journey that requires you to take it in through multiple listens. And just like the first warning, this one, which basically tells you that the album could tire you out, rings true. The reasons, both positive and negative, are numerous. Tackling the plus side first, it’s clear right from the jump-off that these guys are not messing around. “Trouble Is”, the lead single, is the definition of a phenomenal opening track. Scion spits lyrical heat as he switches from a sing-song approach to a rapid-fire delivery that will have you hitting the rewind button. And his tenacity is matched by Sabzi’s slick production. The head-nodding beat is accentuated by an organ loop that fits the mood perfectly. Perhaps the best part about this track is that when Scion switches up his flow, he does so based on the drum beat laced by Sabzi. Yes, it might seem like the logical thing to do on paper, but few emcees pull it off with such ease.
Although “Trouble Is” is unbelievably dope, it sets the listener up for disappointment. No other track on here can match the heat produced by this one. “Gol’dust” almost gets there with its catchy-as-hell beat. Another track nearly reaching the same heights is “Nina Sing”, which offers a message of anti-violence and an international perspective. It’s just not enough. And “Winter Takes All” is right on the brink, but it is simply not as gripping. It is a solid cut, though, and has some excellent rhyming from Scion. Sabzi even brings one of his best productions for it. But “Trouble Is” reigns supreme and on too high of a level to be matched.
In Common Market’s defense, this is an album, not just a collection of tracks. And Sabzi does a stellar job of turning the 18 tracks into what is essentially a flowing patchwork of hip-hop. As stated, though, getting through it all can be a cumbersome task. Scion primarily sticks to his sped-up delivery, which can cause your ear to shift toward the production, most of which is great. But a truly solid rap album isn’t at that level because of one facet, be it the beats or the rhymes. That is where Tobacco Road falls short. Many tracks here are sick simply because of Sabzi’s soulful, jazz-tinged production. He kills it whether it’s a somber joint like “Weather Vane” or a more upbeat cut like “Certitude”. As strong of an emcee Scion is, the production is what really stands out. It’s that fact, though, that keeps this record from being more than merely “good”.
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