It’s easy to see how Kidz in the Hall could rub people the wrong way. The Ivy League-educated duo of Chicago emcee Naledge and Jersey producer Double-O emanate an ostensible air of elitism upon first look. Their debut album School Was My Hustle came out of Rawkus’ brief attempt to regain relevance in late 2006. At the height of the coke-rap phenomenon, the title was too easy to interpret as “while you were out selling drugs, I was getting an elite education which makes me better than you”. Fortunately those inferences stopped at the title and School Was My Hustle turned out to be simply a good throwback to ‘90s hip-hop tall on homage to pioneers and short on “holier than thou” pretension.
With Rawkus’ return apparently in limbo, it might have seemed that Kidz in the Hall would fade away; then they made an unexpected move by signing with Duck Down Records. As the home label for all factions of the Boot Camp Clik, Duck Down has come to represent the absolute grittiest, rawest street hip-hop more so than any entity outside of perhaps only the Wu-Tang Clan. Two educated, privileged kids signing onto this label still feels like an odd fit.
The In Crowd is Kidz’ sophomore LP and first for their new label. The title and album cover (which shows the duo clad in elite academic club apparel) appear to be meant in more of a satirical way but the whole school theme tends to get a little tired. Fortunately, like their last album, any bullshit one might associate with the album superficially is lost upon actually listening to the music. Where School Was My Hustle mostly paid homage to rap of the past with a slight modern touch, The In Crowd mixes revivalism with more contemporary sounds. A perfect example is lead single “Drivin Down the Block”, which applies the current Houston Screwed-and-Chopped aesthetic to vocals from Masta Ace’s classic track “Born to Roll”. The juxtaposition provides an excellent commentary on the hypocrisy of hip-hop fans who consider themselves purists; while they complain about celebratory car tracks ruining hip-hop, a look back shows that one of their heroes was doing the same thing, on one of his best songs.
It’s moments like these that show Kidz in the Hall at their best. Producer Double-O shows great ability in mixing old school with new school to create unique sounds. What was impressive revivalism on their last album has now taken on a level of uniqueness that should earn him a new level of respect among producers. As a rapper, Naledge has sufficient skill and generally writes creative lyrics but is yet to find a voice unique enough to propel him out of the underground.
One measure of a rapper would be how much or how little guest verses add to albums on which he is the principal emcee. Unfortunately, for Naledge at least, the guest spots on The In Crowd prove almost essential to the quality of the album. Guests like Phonte, Skyzoo, Guilty Simpson, Sean Price, Buckshot, Bun B, and Pusha T almost always steal the spotlight on the songs which feature them. Naledge is not a bad rapper by any means and holds his own with the aforementioned heavyweights; there is just a level of charisma he needs to find before he can really hold the attention of most listeners.
The In Crowd is a definite improvement upon the last Kidz in the Hall album. Their promise as a duo has increased in just about every category. If they can ditch the potentially polarizing school theme in their album titles and form their own unique voices a bit further, they could easily be respected for a long time.