For his first official foray into the hip-hop universe, producer Nicolay teamed up with Little Brother’s Phonte in 2004 to create the highly acclaimed Connected. The pair first met on the Okayplayer message forum, and soon after sniffing out each other’s styles and listening to their respective recordings, they traded tracks and added layers via the Internet for to the songs that would inevitably form into a fleshed-out debut. With Phonte based in North Carolina and Nicolay stationed in Holland, Connected broke new ground, showing that by taking advantage of developing technology, artists can find entirely new ways to make music.
Instead of using the finished product to prove how comfortable and cohesive the artists were with one another in the studio, the team let the music speak for itself, allowing listeners to take in the vibrant soul vibes and lyrically poignant messages without over-contextualizing the product. The album struck a chord with an audience who appreciated this type of teamwork and methodology, and critics lavished praise on the pair for having chemistry on an album conceived through a technological medium. But instead of capitalizing on the success of Connected, the two artists went on to pursue separate musical projects, with Phonte recording albums with his group Little Brother and Nicolay concocting his own full-lengths The Dutch Masters Volume 1 and the guest-studded Here.
Nicolay soon developed another online relationship through the Okayplayer message boards with the Houston-based emcee Kay, a member of the group The Foundation. Like with Phonte, Nicolay started trading beats for rhymes with emcee, and after working on tracks through e-mail, the two inevitably birthed Time:Line. While building on musical chemistry with an emcee is far from a foreign practice for Nicolay, the relationship between him and Kay seems much less organic on this effort than it had been with Phonte on Connected. Instead of working together to create a joint concept album, each of them takes the record in dichotomous directions, with Nicolay making a lush instrumental terrain and Kay developing the story of an emcee’s journey through life. Even though Time:Line boasts the same concept as Connected in regards to its formation, it inevitably seems more like two solo albums rolled into one, and because the duo relies more on the album’s conception as a gimmick rather than an interesting factoid about it, the project comes off as an attempt from each artist to independently flesh out their own musical ideas and agendas without much regard for the other.
On his beats, Nicolay creates a soundscape that richly blends the crushed warmth of neo-soul with the thick grooves of jazz and hip-hop, impressively maintaining the same tempo on every track to create a silky flow. Since releasing his mellow solo albums, he has undoubtedly grown as a musician, and the maturation is evident on many of Time:Line’s tracks. Instead of allowing all the instruments coalesce into an orchestra of beautiful music, Nicolay has learned to complicate the melody by allowing strings to flourish during one bar and a horn section to surge in the next. And he is quick to alternate in style, moving from spacey on the synth-heavy “Tight Eyes” to a Western-infused reggae concoction on “The Gunshot.” His beats are thoroughly textured, and with instrumentals like these, Nicolay shows that he is becoming increasingly comfortable with pushing his own musical boundaries.
While Nicolay provides musical linearity throughout the record, Kay develops his own concept over the beats, taking on the role of raconteur and telling the story of one man and his experiences. He rehashes the life of an emcee (or Kay himself, as the character is never given a proper identity) by beginning with his genesis on the soul-speckled “Blizzard” and his inevitable death on “When You Die”. As a lyricist, Kay is predominately a storytelling rapper, with each track on the record expounding a different aspect of his central subject’s life. For example, “As the Wheel Turns” is a conceit that likens traveling through life to driving a car, “The Lights” is an ethereal expose of the difficulties in dealing with fame and “I’ve Seen Rivers” draws a comparison between a flowing body of water and the fluidity of life.
Kay holds his own as an emcee, riding the beats with a relaxed and dexterous flow, but he rarely fluctuates in tone or demeanor. Fortunately, his word choice and sentence structure keep the album appealing and fresh, like on the aforementioned “As the Wheel Turns”. On the track, he raps “I rush down the highway, one dark road / Only one car, look to the sky / I’m surrounded by stars / Just a metaphor / All fam looking down at me, guiding me home / Living in this world, knowing I’m never alone.” The lyrics are admittedly optimistic and sunny throughout the album, but it at least shows that he has a sharp intellectual process in his quest to understand the world around him.
Although Time:Line is a smooth and silky chunk of hip-hop, it only stands as a concept album in relation to its recording method, which, on the second go-around, is remarkably less impressive. There is not much chemistry between the two musicians, and as the disc plays, it becomes clear that both of the artists could have made this album on their own. Nicolay is already a seasoned enough instrumentalist and composer to take his music to the next level, one where he can use an emcee to enhance his beats rather than complete them. Kay is unquestionably gifted as a poet, but he could have told this story over a slab of anybody’s instrumentals, even if they were not as musically cohesive as the one on the record. With this apparent inner dichotomy, Time:Line shows what two seasoned artists can accomplish when they set out to make music, and even if the result is not as groundbreaking as it once was, it still shows how some artists can be refreshing in a stale hip-hop climate.
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// Notes from the Road
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