Year of the Beast is a confusing listen. It’s got some solid tracks, some weak tracks, some bangers, some introspective work, lots of guest verses, but some totally solo joints, some production that could be described as futuristic, some production that delves into the music of the past, and oh, why not, a bonus DVD to boot. It’s the album equivalent of closing your eyes and tossing darts, just praying that one of them hits the bullseye.
And to C-Rayz Walz’s credit, a couple of those darts actually do hit the bullseye—but not as many as he probably hoped.
The good news is that Walz sounds hungry, as evidenced by the aggressive opener “R’Thentic”. Riding a thick bass loop, C-Rayz sounds just as crazed as his anagrammed nickname implies, occasionally forgetting about the beat in his rapping, but managing some nice, multi-layered rhymes. Unfortunately, the track also foreshadows one of the album’s most glaring annoyances: In order to give his voice more power, he doubles his voice for entire stanzas. Perhaps this was intended to create a more oppressive atmosphere (which it does), but the subtle difference between the two voices spitting 80% of the lines results in a dissonance which just makes the end result more difficult to listen to. The effect is especially unnecessary in the more introspective songs like the otherwise interesting “Carefree” (which features a lovely-voiced Jeanine in the hip-hop diva role) when a more intimate single voice would have been far more appropriate.
Walz also falls into oversimplified nursery rhymes a bit too often, as he does on the hook for the otherwise forgettable “Say Werd”: “Say Word! Say letter! Say, you nice! Say, I’m better!” is not exactly my idea of a set of lines worth repeating more than once over the course of a song. On the bright side, it’s a good candidate for club play.
Another disappointing aspect of the album is just how inconsequential so many of the guests on the album seem. El-P shows up to drop a verse on “First Words Worse”, but without his trademark chaotic production, Producto sounds positively castrated. At least his turn at production on the album (“Paradise”) is instrumentally the strongest bit on the album—far more than I can say for Aesop Rock’s “Knowledge”, which sounds like a bunch of samples tossed together for the sake of a beat that sounds like it’s going to fall on its ass any second. It doesn’t help that Walz decides to rhyme “metro card” with “metro card” toward the beginning of the song. Jean Grae shows up to provide the most memorable hook on the album on “Pink”, Walz’s ode to the wannabe. The Angel and The Preacher show up to help with some riffing on race on the hilarious “Black Out” (“I’ma be the shit at the meeting, statistically speaking” could be the best line on the album), and M-1 from Dead Prez shows up to continue the theme on “Black Soap”. While the two songs are some of the best on the album, the guests come and go, leaving little lasting impression whatsoever.
In fact, that could be the album’s biggest problem: Even if you think what you’re hearing is pretty decent, there’s very little chance you remember much of it once you flip it off.
The interviewees on the DVD that comes with Year of the Beast do what they can to convince us that, yes, C-Rayz Walz is just completely insane. Such luminaries as Mr. Lif and Shock G (God, it’s been too long since I’ve seen him) show up and praise Walz to the high heavens, trying to convince the unconverted of Walz’s obvious talent. Regrettably, the live performances on the DVD don’t back up Walz’s industry fan club—he gives a sleepy-eyed performance, much of which is hidden behind a cap. He’s spittin’ quick and shooting off some solid lyrics, but there’s just no charisma, no oomph to anything he’s saying. Walz goes off on a variety of topics, as usual, but gives the viewers no reason to really care about any one of them.
Walz recently appeared on MTV’s Made, in which he served as mentor to an up-and-coming freestyler. While this up-and-coming artist no doubt learned much from the wisdom that Walz imparted on him, he can also learn from the mistakes Walz makes on this most recent album—most notably, that a little bit of focus can go a long way. Year of the Beast is all over the place, and the in-album schizophrenia does little to drive home the presence of talent that C to the Ray to the Z obviously possesses.