On the Roots’ classic LP Things Fall Apart (by far my favorite album of 1999), Black Thought had the line, “You need to buy the CD and stop rewinding this”. The MC on the Roots’ albums who most often makes me go back and catch what he said is Dice Raw, an always nimble, articulate MC who caught the Roots’ attention via a talent show and soon became an essential, if not omnipresent, part of their collective. Any MC good enough to capture the ears of the Roots must be talented, and he is; Dice’s appearances on the Roots’ albums are always remarkable.
Thus Dice Raw’s debut CD Reclaiming the Dead comes with high expectations. The sad news is that he doesn’t deliver…at all. Simply put, listening to this the first time was an entirely disappointing experience. Dice Raw’s always had a harder edge than the other Roots’ MCs, but he was also always quick with his words. Here he hardly sound like the same guy; most of the time he’s stiff and awkward, and most of the songs have annoyingly repetitive choruses. His edge is still sort of there, but it’s often reduced to rote bragging, and his quick-witted side seems to have drained away.
Reclaiming the Dead isn’t an entire waste of time, however. It just seems so in the context of high expectations and missed opportunities. For one, the music is impressive throughout. The production, by The Heat (a partnership of 5) is more beat-driven and straightforward than that of the Roots, but still lively and engaging throughout. There’s extra instrumentation that nearly saves some songs that are otherwise 100% tired, like the saxophone bits on “Go Dice Raw” and the guitar on “You’re Not the One”.
The album is at its worst when Dice falls into the trap of endlessly repeating an already boring hook, like on “If You Want It”, or when he comes up with an absurd idea that just doesn’t work, like rhyming in the voice of God on “Brain Softener”. It’s at its best on the most energetic tracks and the most soulful, mellow ones. The former includes the old-school-flavored first single “Thin Line (Between Raw and Jiggy)” and “Retreat to This”, a no-nonsense track that accomplishes what Dice’s goal seems to be, returning hip-hop to being all about the rhymes. The soul side of the album includes the ballad-like “Forget What They Say” and the Jill Scott-featured track “If I Only Had Words”.
The album also succeeds when Dice is working with talented guests, like Malik B and Black Thought of The Roots, or newcomer Shanna Raw. But Reclaiming the Dead‘s weaknesses aren’t because Dice Raw’s an untalented hanger-on. He’s got skill, and loads of it. The proof lies anywhere he shows up on a Roots album (check out even the 40-second track “Diedre vs. Dice” on Things Fall Apart for evidence), and in a handful of places on this album. He’s a great MC, he just dropped the ball this time around.