[21 July 2011]
Let me guess: You were wondering where Guilty Simpson’s been since his 2008 debut LP (well, he did do OJ Simpson with Madlib in 2010). You’ve wondered why Sean Price has mostly seemed transparent lately, even on the Heltah Skeltah reunion LP two years ago. And you wondered how Black Milk went from perfect to overambitious in just one move when Album of the Year proved overwhelming. I’m obviously extrapolating myself onto my readers, but am I that off base? Random Axe, according to my lights, is a trio of critically acclaimed auteurs who have all basically slipped under the radar recently, either because of their absence or because of the absence of their amazingness. That’s not to say that this trio has disappointed anyone per se, only that they seem like a group uniting because, taken individually, they’re old news.
I have to start this way because, frankly, Random Axe renders obsolete the idea that any of these three rap artists are washed up. Random Axe isn’t a throwback to the mid-‘90s because of its sound, but because it sounds, and more importantly feels, so unified and right. Random Axe is a group consisting of two Detroit hoods and one New York City (self-proclaimed) burnout, yet it feels like the work of three dudes that spent their whole lives experiencing the same ups and downs; the same losses, disappointments, failures, and successes. As such, the trio of Black Milk (sometimes spitting, but always on boards), Sean Price, and Guilty Simpson feels like that rare sort of rap collaboration that isn’t frivolous or transitory, but necessary.
Throughout this album—which blows by in a very manageable 40 minutes—Sean Price provides the explicitly technical perspective. Why wouldn’t he? He’s from New York, and that’s what he knows. His signature humor is often present, but it’s no secret that he’s here to provide the “Woah!” raps. Likewise, Guilty Simpson provides the equally nihilistic but definitively more simplistic and translatable sentiments that act as a perfect foil to Sean P’s lyrical thug persona. And behind all this is Black Milk production that samples obviously from Daru Jones’s drum sessions for Album of the Year, but never succumbs to them. Black Milk prefers to revert to his Tronic days, while nodding subtly to the past. Even the noticeable ode to the golden age that occurs during his outro to “Chewbacca” feels distinctly Black Milk.
Though the desire is strong, it’s hard to call Random Axe a classic hip-hop album, rather than a very, very good one, because neither featured rapper has the knack for hooks that certifies the cream of the crop. The music here isn’t exactly catchy, it’s simply immensely satisfying, the sort of music self-proclaimed hip-hop aficionados ought to test themselves by in order to gauge their realness. However, this certainly has no aspirations to be a universal album. In that regard it satisfies the fans’ expectations even as it disappoints those who expected it, not without reason, to be a classic. This is without a doubt the best collection of other artists’ songs Black Milk has ever whipped up, and Guilty plus Sean P seems to be an immaculate duo (the Black Milk verses and New York vs. Detroit references scattered throughout aren’t bad either), but there’s just something missing. Perhaps it’s the concept of a hit song, of something that gets stuck in your head for days. The closest moment is guest Danny Brown’s proclamation that he wouldn’t date your girlfriend because she resembles an aardvark on album highlight “Jahphy Joe”, but it’s a fleeting moment in the middle of a verse on an album full of memorable verses. I’m very, very far from damning this album, but I’m disappointed Black Milk wasn’t able to frame a “Matrix”, “Losing Out”, or “Try” for these guys to spit their anger over. It would have pushed Random Axe from merely excellent to album of the year territory.
The best I can say is this album is probably going to remain the strongest grower of 2011’s hip-hop roster. I don’t doubt, and won’t argue against, those that claim Random Axe belongs in the pantheon. I just feel some little thing is missing, some insignificant morsel that should have no bearing on whether you explore Random Axe’s Random Axe or not. By all means, dive in head first with comfort. Enjoy yourselves.