[25 August 2009]
Hand me a late pass or call me out of the loop, but I had not heard about the Rebel Yell until only recently. And when I did, it’s safe to say that I was greatly anticipating their debut, Love & War. A major reason for that being James Poyser’s heavy involvement in the group. We all know, and probably love, Poyser for his past collaborations with the Roots, as well as with Common and Erykah Badu—the talented producer crafted their Grammy Award-winning “Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip-Hop)”. But how would Poyser stand in different territory with vocalists Khari Ferrari Mateen and SupaStar, both of whom have also worked with the Roots. Well, as far as their debut effort is concerned, the Rebel Yell is standing on solid, albeit inconsistent and somewhat shaky, ground.
Love & War, which aptly touches on both of those topics, plays a lot like a more politically-driven, but less flashy take on PPP’s Abundance. That comparison holds weight primarily because the two acts, although worlds apart, both seem to have traveled to the heavens while putting together their respective efforts. PPP’s trip might have been more successful, but the Rebel Yell’s travels were not completely in vain. Similarly, there are particles of Sa-Ra’s latest journey (Nuclear Evolution: The Age of Love) in this album as well. It’s less the sexuality that was at full force, but more that aforementioned spacey quality.
Proving that point in spades is the one-two near-knockout of “Heartbreak101” and “Life…”. The former is an uptempo, toe-tapping track that features SupaStar tackling territory akin to that on Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreaks. The thing is, though, Supa can actually sing and put emotion into his vocals. And if you’re not familiar with Kanye’s last and darkest record, then “Heartbreak101” is simply your prototypical broken-heart anthem. As for “Life…”, it’s one of the darker and more somber cuts on here. But it’s because of those qualities that it instantly stands out. And you would have to be foolish to deny the lushness exhibited by Poyser’s production, which shines thanks to a distorted guitar and dusty drums.
This trio’s efforts aren’t totally successful, though, which makes for that inconsistent sound mentioned earlier. And even when the group executes its sound perfectly, there is a certain flat quality that often rears its head. This is particularly true on tracks like “Everybody’s Doing It”, which is a slightly clever knock on mainstream music trends, and “Spend the Night”, an otherwise groovy joint that is heavy on the corniness. These tracks are more of the same that we have all heard from both R&B and hip-hop artists for years now. And to make a stamp with these, it takes more than what the Rebel Yell have done. It takes a certain amount of creativity paired with a hint of credibility. While this group has shown it possesses both of those qualities, neither are consistently displayed. Rather, there is a mixture of the good and the bad, with the ugly sometimes sneaking out from under the musical bed, too.
Love & War is just too middling to be more than an average album. The crescendos are too far and few between and they are outnumbered by tracks that are either only slightly entertaining or painfully dull. And that’s a damn shame because Poyser and his pack of singers can churn out a fine tune now and then. But they appear stuck on delivering a message that can be sometimes sonically lacking and lyrically trite.