[14 March 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
There’s something to be said for staying power in hip-hop, and if groups like Wu-Tang and 7L & Esoteric can teach us, it’s that there is aging gracefully in rap. It’s not about changing up your game, or about trying to keep sounding young, but it’s about morphing young braggadocio into mature, considered confidence. It’s this kind of confidence that would make a collaboration between long-time great hip-hop acts like 7L & Esoteric and Inspectah Deck something to get excited about. The three, as Czarface, have put together an album that feels classic, steeped in their collective pasts, and also full of a hard-earned and self-aware swagger.
If you’re into classic bangers, Czarface can help you out. 7L’s beats are sometimes lean and churning, as on opener “Air ‘em Out”, that moves from buzzing bass to plinking keys over a steady beat without missing a beat. It also fits with the back and forth between Inspectah’s hard-hitting rhymes and Esoteric’s smoother, yet just as blustery, flow. “Cement 3’s” steps into the RZA playbook with voiceovers and rainy-day pianos pushing the song forward. Later, you’ve got the organ swell of “Rock Beast”, the live-band vibe of “It’s On”, the grimy thump of “Poisonous Thought” and so on. The beats are all of a piece, feeling not so much old school as timeless. It’s telling that DJ Premier steps in to produce one track here (“Let It Off”) and the album’s flow goes uninterrupted.
Meanwhile Inspectah Deck and Esoteric trade intricate rhymes throughout. Their back and forth is often exciting, as on “Air ‘em Out” when they both throw down the gauntlet, attacking lesser rappers left and right, mostly by ignoring them in favor of listing their own strengths. On “Czar Rafaeli”, Inspectah Deck assures us he’s “smoother than Sade operate,” while during “Rock Beast” Esoteric lets us know he’s “on money like the president’s face.” It’s the references here that seem important – the classic ‘80s and ‘90s soul of Sade and, of course, a reference to money, but not just money, the guys who made enough history to end up printed on that currency. What we see is the longview these guys take, the understanding they have of legend and legacy and the importance of what came before.
The two do sometimes flow similarly, so it’s nice to have them broken up with solid turns from Ghostface Killah (“Savagely Attack”), Action Bronson (“It’s On”), and Mr. Muthafuckin’ Exquire (“Poisonous Thought”), among others. Aside from offering new voices, these guys also break up the album in other ways. Because for all their love of the classic, Czarface is an album that can play it a little too safe, a little too close to what came before. There’s myriad references to comic book heroes (from the awesome artwork on down), voiceovers from cartoons and b-movies, a song that samples Ol’ Dirty Bastard in the chorus (which has now become, apparently, a Wu-related album staple), a sample from Ric Flair (another new but reliable hip-hop trope), and lyrics that pretty much cover all this ground too. That’s to say that Czarface does all this well, but they aren’t exactly reinventing the wheel.
Song to song we see confident production and expert rhyming from guys we know can do both. But while Inspectah Deck may be one of the most effortless emcees in Wu-Tang, he’s not the most narrative. Neither is Esoteric. So while the songs here bang in all the ways you want, they rarely catch you off guard and they rarely tell you where they’re going. Not that they need to, but that sense of direction, out of the past and toward something new, might have elevated a good album to something great.