On Soul Purpose, when ScholarMan calls his experience and career a “journey”, it inspires me. Not because the image of a man embarking on a journey is automatically inspiring, but because you can hear his determination in his rhymes. His delivery is deliberate and somewhat painstaking, as if he enjoys the experience of uttering each syllable but feels a little sad that they have to leave his lips. It’s not an effortless flow, like a nimble freestyle, but it’s smart and methodical. You can tell he invested himself in the construction of his verses, and his work ethic is evident, as is his considerable love and affection for history, community spirit, and hip-hop culture. His previous albums, The Love Freedom Movement with partner in rhyme TrueBless and Candy Medicine, continually celebrate these themes. This is what inspires me about the Maryland emcee, and whenever I hear him I think, “Damn it, I need to work harder too!” But I also think it highlights some room for improvement.
Here’s the good stuff. Soul Purpose (I’m diggin’ the play on “soul” and “sole”, by the way) could be a companion piece to ScholarMan’s Candy Medicine, an album that found him branching out lyrically while further tightening his production skills. This time around, love and affection still rule the day, but in various forms: physical attraction (“No Questions Asked”, an interesting take on LL Cool J’s “Pink Cookies”), long term romance (“Keep the Love Alive”), familial bonds (“My First Seed”), and respect for “real hip-hop”. The latter category basically consists of all the other songs, with the notable exception of “Hood Stories, Vol. 2”, a solid storytelling exercise that provides a follow-up to a “Hood Stories” narrative on Candy Medicine.
ScholarMan reminds me of veteran emcee and beatsmith Large Professor—a compliment which I do not hand out lightly!—but his beats might steal the show from his flow. They’re jazzy and filled with well-chosen and intricately chopped samples, horn loops, and orchestral flourishes, without sacrificing his flair for ‘90s-style boom bap. It’s got a real chill vibe to it and, as far as vibes go, the album gets bonus points for depicting historical figures like Marcus Garvey, Charles Drew, and Kathleen Cleaver on its cover. Reading is fundamental, but History’s essential.
All of this is good, providing consistency and dependability in ScholarMan’s output, but I have the feeling he can do more and add even more depth to his craft by being less rigid in focus and delivery. Continuing to expand his versatility might be the answer, as songs that center around “being real” or providing “real hip-hop” continue to be a mainstay. The songs on Soul Purpose that deal with other topics provide a welcome change of pace, which suggests that an eclectic approach to subject matter could yield dividends. Personally, I like the “Hood Stories” installments enough to listen to an entire album of his detailed storytelling. That type of album might better showcase his wit and charisma in addition to his hard work. That might inspire me and enlighten me.