Slum Village’s sound is that of seduction. No, they’re not R. Kelly-imitating wanna-be playboys, but hip-hop aural interior decorators with a knack at crafting aesthetically pleasing environments from just a handful of elements. On their second proper album Trinity, as on their debut Fantastic Vol. 2 and their lost-to-label-woes first album Fantastic Vol. 1, their sound is built on a foundation of classic soul grooves and no-nonsense rhyming, but has enough surprising sonic flourishes to keep things feeling futuristic.
Though the first track greets listeners with an angelic choir singing, “welcome to the trinity”, that soon leads into what is one of the hallmarks of Slum Village’s sound: booming bass playing a melody. The group’s minimalist style is built on bass, but it’s used in melodic and harmonic ways, not just to shake your bones through. Tracks like “Insane” and “La La” (and almost all of the other 21 tracks) use bass as part of a minimalist, melodic interplay. This style’s the calling card of one of the group’s founding members, producer Jay Dee. It’s what’s made him known as one of today’s biggest talents. Yet on Trinity Jay Dee is mostly absent, appearing on only two tracks.
The batch of producers who have taken his place, including Waajeed O’Bryant, Harriem Riggins and Slum Village’s own T3, continue the sound that Jay-Dee and Slum Village established in the past while tweaking it and pushing it forward. Some do so with fresh, at times almost experimental touches, as on the Scott Storch-produced “Get Live”, where the MCs sound at times like they’re coming through a megaphone and a bizarre, almost vacuum cleaner-esque burst of noise is used as a harmonic backing voice. Others do so by matching Slum Village’s sound with musical styles of the past, pushing both in new directions. The Riggins-produced single “Tainted” blends their style with a ‘90s R&B love ballad, while the T3-produced “Disco” comes up with a sound that nods toward electro but also has a ska-like light bounce to it. On every track, there’s an interesting musical atmosphere to sink into. Chopped-up robot-like R&B vocals meet you here, a lone piano trill emerges over there. Everywhere something’s going on.
The group’s approach to rhyming is equally pleasurable. T-3, Baatin and new member Elzhi each match a smooth, low-key flow with blunt lyrics. They’re continually at war with wack MCs, exuding a humble cockiness about their place in hip-hop. They’re also continually seducing the ladies, though often with more romantic-sounding pick-up lines than your average Don Juan. Take a line like this, for example: “Sex is the farthest thing from my mind / I’m thinking how we get together like the stars align.” Each of the three has his own style and they work together beautifully. On some songs they take the old-school-style tag team approach. On others one of them will step forward and deliver a soul-searching, introspective rhyme that seems to come from nowhere.
Slum Village are a group with their own sound, no doubt about it. It’s a sound that’s as instantly recognizable as it is satisfying and full of surprises. Yet they’re also a group eternally dogged by two major misconceptions. The first is that Jay-Dee is Slum Village. The second, closely related, is that Slum Village’s sound equals A Tribe Called Quest-lite. Both of those are founded on and furthered by music-critic mishaps and the hype machine, which ensures that the easiest way of summing a group up will be the one that’s repeated as often as possible, whether it’s true or not. Slum Village do not sound like Tribe, except for the fact that the production style prominent with SV also appears on Tribe’s last two albums (ironically the ones most critics hated). Jay Dee molded Slum Village’s musical character, but he was never the only talent in the group. Trinity should be the album to lay those preconceptions to rest; instead most reviews have just repeated them.
It’s a shame that an album has to come with that sort of baggage attached, as one listen to Trinity should clear that up right away. With an uplifting mellow party vibe, ear-catching rhymes and a Zen-like minimalist style that takes decades of music and points them toward the future, Trinity stands tall on its own.