Typically, when a hip-hop producer decides it’s time to put out an album with his name on it rather than staying behind the scenes on other artists’ albums, that album surfaces as an instrumental opus broken up by a few guest spots from whatever MCs happened to be in the neighborhood. Sometimes, such an album can highlight the musical intricacies that such an artist holds dear without letting spotlight-stealing MCs get in the way, but just as often, it highlights just how lost that artist can become when there’s no MC to hold down the fort and keep listeners interested. Part 2, who has produced for artists like Killah Priest, Saul Williams, and the suddenly ubiquitous Roots Manuva, circumvents the standalone analysis of his production on his first “solo” album Live from the Breadline by putting vocalists on every single track.
For the most part, the strategy works—the crew that Part 2 has assembled for Live from the Breadline is a relatively unknown but solid bunch. You won’t find any of the above-mentioned big names here, as it would seem that their inclusion would undermine the solo album concept that Part 2 is cultivating. Rather, here we have contributions from names like Sandra Melody, Juice Aleem and LSK, every single one of whom at some point will surprise the typical listener by demonstrating skills that far surpass what said listener will be preparing for.
Ms. Melody is particularly refreshing, living up to her name by actually singing, rather than speaking, her vocal parts, but eschewing the typical hip-hop diva role by embodying a refreshing strength in her verses. Part of this is no doubt due to the lower register that her voice holds when compared to the typical female vocalist manufactured by the “urban” scene, but mostly, it’s due to a confidence that she exudes as she jumps from pitch to pitch, spitting out high-speed, highly affected vocals that ultimately sound effortless. Her catchy turn on album opener “Will it Ever” is one of the highlights of the disc, and her periodic appearances over the course of the rest of Live from the Breadline are refreshing and welcoming, like coming home again. Her dancehall-influenced flow ensures that she’s not always the easiest vocalist to understand, but she’s easily the star of this show.
Of the vocals that don’t involve Sandra Melody, there’s a pattern of hitting a home run with one MC turn but turning around and laying down a stinker with another. Fallacy starts off excellently with the everyman anthem “One of Dem Days”, but can’t seem to keep up with himself on “Get Square”. Reggae crooner LSK is the perfect choice to lead a track called “Hard Times”, whose subject matter should be obvious, though it’s unfortunate that he’s relegated to the relative background on the many other tracks on which he features. And then there’s Juice Aleem, who tries for a Kanye sort of dichotomy by contributing both a tale of high-speed nightlife and a tribute to his mother, the latter of which works quite well while the former falls into unfortunate clichés (albeit clichés expressed with some impressive imagery).
Still, it’s on that same track, called “Chasin’”, that Part 2 himself most impressively flexes his production muscle. On top of a jerky beat, Part 2 lays down a wide variety of synths that might seem fairly pedestrian if they didn’t so accurately depict the night out that Aleem is describing. In the placement of the sounds that are used, you can hear honking car horns, ringing cell phones, the hum of a crowd, and a pulsing dance floor, among all manner of other unidentifiable percussive noises that add to the atmosphere, and he does all of this while maintaining a style that could still be accurately described as minimalist.
It’s “Chasin’” that truly drives home the fact that Live from the Breadline is about Part 2 himself rather than his MC buddies, even if those buddies are the most obvious feature of his album. The production is what holds the album together, and it’s a constantly interesting, futurist sound that can’t really be compared to anyone else making music today. Every sound is so crisp and clear, given its own place to exist alone in the mix, that the production sounds deceptively simple, even as layers that number into the double digits make their way into your speakers. Seemingly random elements make sense after multiple listens, often reacting to the words and melodies of the vocalists. The end result is an album that actually sounds like a truly collaborative effort rather than a bunch of vocalists picking some ready-made beats and putting their best attempts at lyrics on top; the beats just wouldn’t be the same without the vocalists, and the vocals wouldn’t be nearly as effective without these beats.
Comparisons with Massive Attack are inevitable, given the multi-vocalist approach of Live from the Breadline, and they’re understandable, especially considering the combination of female R&B vocals, breathy reggae vocals, and more traditional rap vocals. Still, it’s likely to be similar to the Bristol collective’s Blue Lines in a less direct, less obvious way: This is the sort of release, particularly in the area of Part 2’s production, that is bound to be imitated, but never quite replicated. Part 2’s production savvy is undeniable—a little more consistency from his collaborators and he could have a true classic on his hands.