“No one’s ever made it” out of Alcatraz, a voice tells us near the beginning of Rasco’s newest album Escape from Alcatraz. Why is this West Coast MC who’s well regarded in independent-label hip-hop circles evoking the West Coast’s impenetrable prison? Presumably because he feels like he’s carrying a similar burden to someone imprisoned there, and he’s just as ready to try and defeat the odds. In other words, he feels like he’s got something to prove.
Escape from Alcatraz is first and foremost a reaction album, one made in response to the one before. In this case it isn’t about the music on the previous album but the circumstances around its release. I’m not going to act like I know the details, because I don’t, but even a quick listen to Escape from Alcatraz will tell you that Rasco charges one Jon Sexton, of Copasetik Records (the UK label that released Rasco’s 2001 album Hostile Environment, plus his 1999 EP The Birth), with ripping him off, running away with the profits of the album, after giving Rasco high hopes for the album’s success. This is all established right from the first proper track, “Get Free (featuring Shake da Mayor),” which is both a statement of independence and a threat against “Jon the Snake”. And it’s reaffirmed throughout the album, especially on “Snakes in the Grass (The Jon Sexton Story”). There’s nothing subtle or cloaked about any of this; if you can’t tell, Rasco is using his music to get at the throat of the man he feels betrayed him. When he’s not calling out Sexton by name, he’s trying to re-establish his own stature in the rap world by coming out harder and hungrier than ever.
The big chip on Rasco’s shoulder is both the album’s burden and part of its energy source. As sacrilegious as it might be at this point to lavish praise on the album which is the cause of Rasco’s anger, there are no moments on Escape from Alcatraz where Rasco drops his guard to show his tender side, as he did on Hostile Environment tracks like “Message from the Bottle” and “Sunshine (Ayanna)”. Here Rasco’s wearing his game face at almost every step of the way, out to show he can rock the mic like the best of them.
Song after song on Escape from Alcatraz puts Rasco’s voice (which is rugged but also has real presence and stature) over funky, back-to-basics tracks flittered with bits of classic soul jams. The music will get your foot tapping while Rasco throws carefully worded barbs and boasts that your brain will latch onto. As a straightforward showcase of the art of spitting rhymes over beats, Escape from Alcatraz is earns high marks, though the longer the album goes the more the songs start to blend into each other without distinction.
Rasco might not be baring his heart on Escape from Alcatraz, but he is offering an obvious glimpse of where his head is at these days. He’s out to make hot music that he’ll be respected for, wants to get the same acclaim among underground heads that he received for his solo debut Time Waits for No Man and for his work as half of the Cali Agents on How the West Was One. And there’s plenty of places here where he earns his spot on mix tapes and underground radio shows. Chief among them are three blazing duets: “Sweet Science” with Jurassic 5’s Charli2na, “San Fran to the Town” with Casual, and “Endless” with his Cali Agents partner Planet Asia. All three show two sharp MCs continually outdoing each other, keeping the quality level high as a skyscraper. But that isn’t to say that Ras needs a partner to keep things moving. Tracks like “Put Your Hands Up” and “My Life” (the one real serious track on the album, with timely social commentary about poverty and crime) slam just as hard. There’s few lackluster tracks on Escape from Alcatraz, yet the sameness of it all keeps the album from really burning into your skull.