[9 August 2009]
Every year the hip-hop community hypes about a handful of albums with the hopes that one will be able to “save” hip-hop or bring it back to its roots. Last year, we saw that kind of talk about Q-Tip’s The Renaissance, Nas’s Untitled record, and several others. Were any of them really the savior? No, of course not, even though Q-Tip’s album was stellar front-to-back. And were they even trying to be? Probably not. But either way, they were subject to a load of hype and backlash as soon as they dropped.
And 2009 is no different. The “same shit, different day” adage is basically the essential quote for the hip-hop community, particularly online. This year, fans have been slobbering over hearing, amongst others, the next Jay-Z record (The Blueprint 3), the sequel to Talib Kweli & Hi-Tek’s classic Train of Thought, and super-group Slaughterhouse’s self-titled debut. But the reason for their hype is very different from that for Jigga and Reflection Eternal. For those records, heads are more or less hoping the respective artists can deliver another classic in the vain of the albums they follow. Although, to be fair, almost everyone should be hoping that Jay slays The Blueprint 2 and trumps or equals The Blueprint. And the same goes for Kweli & Hi-Tek, though they haven’t worked on a full album together in 2000.
The difference with an act like Slaughterhouse is the term “supergroup”. Very few of these so-called supergroups, from rock groups like Audioslave to rap groups like the Firm, ever amount to anything more than an average to above-average record. And many times, they don’t even amount to an album at all, especially in hip-hop—Murda Inc. and the Four Horsemen anyone? Of course, there are exceptions, such as the Wu-Tang Clan. But they didn’t really become a supergroup until after their debut so that doesn’t exactly count.
That is where Slaughterhouse comes in. The four emcees who form like Voltron, as explained in opening track “Sound Off”, are Royce Da 5’9” (the head), Joell Ortiz (the body), Crooked I (the four arms), and Joe Budden (the legs). They joined forces after Royce and Budden had several conversations about putting together a group. And after months of speculation followed by numerous YouTube videos and unofficial tracks, the announcement came of their self-titled debut. The foursome then hit the studio and pumped out an album in a mere six days, which unfortunately shows in some aspects like certain lyrical blunders. But it’s nothing short of impressive that these rappers were able to craft an album that, missteps aside, is well-rounded, fast-paced, and just short of excellent.
The group’s lead single “The One” is a celebrity-namedropping, wit-driven festival of epic proportions. You have a ridiculous blues-rock riff-driven beat from DJ Khalil, who is cementing himself as a hit-maker. Royce and Crooked both deliver, even with a few cornball rhymes here and there. I’m sorry, Royce, you’re a phenomenal rapper and one of my favorites, but you could have spit about your comeback without using Nickelback in your bars. Anyway, Budden and Ortiz steal the show on this one with back-and-forth rhymes that make for a hilarious and well-executed third verse.
“The One” was likely picked as a single because of its accessibility fueled by a stellar beat and clever verses. But there are others on Slaughterhouse that are worthy of carrying the same torch of single-dom and radio play, such as “Onslaught 2”. Featuring roaring adlibs from Fatman Scoop, “Onslaught 2” might not fit in on a club-ready playlist, but it’s certainly worthy of gracing the urban stations as well as a video treatment. All four emcees murder their respective verses, especially Royce and Budden. The former of that duo packs the most punch, though, with a quick-fire flow for an opening verse that will have you hitting the rewind button multiple times. And Emile’s celebratory beat full of strings, cymbal crashes, and big bass hits is a perfect musical counterpart.
If you haven’t noticed, Slaughterhouse’s livelier jams are the ones that instantly maintain your attention. Perhaps it’s the face that they are just a nice turn from the gutter and grizzly joints like “Microphone” and “Killaz”, both of which remain choice cuts with strong beats from The Alchemist and Emile, respectively. But they are exactly what you would expect from a collection of rappers like this. That’s why it’s a lot more fun and enjoyable to hear them all cutting loose (no pun) on “Cut You Loose”, which follows the guidelines of Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.”, and “Not Tonight”, a shit-talk-filled gala with old school party-rap inflections. The opposite of all of this holds true, too. “Pray (It’s a Shame)” and “Rain Drops” are two somber and depressing tracks that you would certainly expect on one of Budden’s solo efforts. But he, Royce, Crooked, and Ortiz make it work as they tackle topics ranging from never-there fathers to drug addiction.
On that note, one major issue, for some listeners/haters, is the mere fact that Budden is part of Slaughterhouse. Over the years, the lyrically-dominant emcee has developed into a love-him or love-to-hate-him kind of character. His online JoeBudden.TV videos no doubt fanned those flames of hate, particularly the whole Method Man fiasco that is not worth diving into. Others simply don’t think that Budden belongs rapping alongside his cohorts in the supergroup, so much to the point that someone edited out all of his verses. So, one might wonder, is he really that annoying on here? Although some might obviously disagree, the answer to that question is no. Sure, he might stumble when he attempts to keep up with Royce and Ortiz on the quick-tongued “Sound Off”, but Crooked falls short on that one, too. The thing is, Budden is at his best on joints that he is comfortable. Examples of those are “Cuckoo”, when he can rap in a pill-popped haze, and “Rain Drops”, when he can bust out his emotional side. But, to his credit, Budden also surprisingly goes hard on “Salute Me”, a psych-guitar-driven track featuring Pharoahe Monch’s crooning on the hook.
Even with all that praise, there are several problems on here that slow things down. The hooks are weak for the first few cuts, which also feature some of the album’s more cringe-worthy lines. Ortiz is the main guilty there with bars like “too many most frogs go ‘ribbit’ but never leave lilies” on “Microphone”. The unnecessary homophobia, though not rampant, is another annoyance. But it’s also only used a handful of times by Budden and Crooked so it could have been worse. Also, the skits on here aren’t exactly repeat-worthy, but they do help to setup some of the tracks. For example, “In the Mind of Madness”, which depicts a rambling then drugged-up Budden, is a hilarious prelude to the narcotic-induced raps on “Cuckoo”. The only real throwaway is “The Phone Call 1”, which is just a co-sign voicemail from DJ Premier.
All the controversy and hype aside, what’s most important is that these four rappers were able to put out a very listenable and enjoyable record. And to the surprise of many, there is nary a weak beat on Slaughterhouse. There may be some that almost flounder toward average territory, but they are solid as a whole. The same goes for the output of the rappers. All of them have their moments in the spotlight, though some might notice that Royce nearly steals the show. But what is most impressive is these guys were able to put their respective egos aside to create an album you should hear at least once.