From looking at just about any record label that achieves a measure of dominance in its time or comes to define a signature sound—Motown, Blue Note, Death Row, Bad Boy, Stones Throw, to name just the very first few that come to mind—it’s clear that certain elements must be in place for this to happen, such as: a number of strong releases, a deep roster of talent, some spark of originality to differentiate the label, and an audience hungry for what the label has to offer. From a look at Natural Selection, the new compilation from the relatively young Brooklyn-based indie hip-hop imprint Nature Sounds, it’s clear that, if it can even just maintain the success that it’s been having, the label is here to stay—and possibly to carve itself a space in history, as well.
Nature Sounds’s niche is “underground”, but that’s broader than a cursory glance would suggest. In truth, beyond the only real unifying factor, mainstream commercial viability (which in this case is “less than it deserves”), the Nature Sounds roster is respectably diverse: there’s a surprisingly large number of Wu-Tang members/affiliates (Masta Killa, Killah Priest, Hell Razah, Mathematics), but they’re mixed in along with assorted legends (MF DOOM, Pete Rock), minor legends (Ayatollah, R.A. the Rugged Man), and the occasional supergroup (Xzibit and Phil the Agony are just half of Strong Arm Steady sort of a West Coast hardcore Cream).
The over-arching sound here is a hard-edged, street feel, with reliably-consistent flows (mostly concerned with the basic hip-hop themes of hustling, threats, and lyrical prowess) backed by a wider palette of tight production. The two Strong Arm Steady tracks actually end up as low points of the collection, but they’re not too bad; “Gold Chain Music” specifically buoyed by a droningly sinister beat and a Planet Asia appearance. Even the most lyrically boring songs here are brought up by their production: “Stick Up” has a dark, bouncy spy movie vibe, while the Scram Jones beat on “Guerilla Rap” adds a rush of urgency to the proceedings (which, admittedly, weren’t that weak to begin with, containing one of two Raekwon performances on the disc).
“Angeles”, a teaser for the much-anticipated Ghostface/DOOM album, is (as expected) a definite highlight, the two talented MCs each doing their thing for a verse on a floaty, sleek waft of horns and strings from DOOM’s studio. As an ode to the fairer sex, it’s equal parts appreciative, wistful, and bluntly explicit; as a collaboration between two of the most prominent underground artists of the present-day, it doesn’t disappoint in the slightest, and it does its job of building anticipation for the upcoming Swift & Changeable remarkably well.
Masta Killa’s “Ringing Bells” is another strong track, the Wu-Tang MC spitting solo over a beautiful banger of a beat. Later on, he joins Raekwon to tear into Pete Rock’s “The PJs’”, a chopped funky bassline sauntering right on into a shimmery cloud of dream. Mathematic’s untitled instrumental is another strong point for the album, building tension for three bars before tearing it right back down with reckless ease every fourth bar. Certain downswings of gangsta bluster notwithstanding, the compilation is generally well-compiled and, overall, dope.
Fresh off of strong releases like R.A. the Rugged Man’s debut and the Special Herbs box set and moving forward to new albums from Pete Rock, Masta Killa, and (possibly even within our lifespan) Ghostface and DOOM, Nature Sounds is clearly here to stay. Natural Selection is a strong sampling of the label’s potential with some standout tracks and no real weak points that makes a great addition to any hip-hop collection.