[23 June 2013]
I wonder if just this one time we can break down the wall that separates critic and reader and just have an honest and frank discussion. You see, normally when writing a review I do everything in my power to be as fair and unbiased as possible. I am a music enthusiast, after all. I can find enjoyment in even the most mundane of albums, and even if I don’t always understand or agree with the music or the message being conveyed, I’m fully aware that everything has its place and that there will always be fans of said music out there. I try very hard to see the bigger picture and to not only dissect the music from a critical standpoint, but also to look at it through the eyes of a fan and really immerse myself in whatever project it is I’m reviewing.
I say that to say this: I really, really dislike this album. Never have I found an album as off-putting as I did this LP. It tested my patience with each and every one of its 14 songs, and for the first time in a very long time, I couldn’t finish it all in one listen. This is especially heartbreaking considering I have nothing but respect for the creator of this project, underground hip hop veteran Sole. As a co-founder of the indie powerhouse label Anticon, Sole played a vital part in my discovery of the independent hip hop scene during the early 2000s. Anticon, alongside Def Jux and Rhymesayers, helped redefine what many of us thought possible in the world of hip hop. The music being produced was often labeled “avant-garde”, and for good reason. It was dense, unforgiving, and—most importantly—innovative.
Much has changed since the year 2000, though. The once rebellious teenagers who had built their lives around an El-P “Independent as Fuck” quote had all but grown up and mellowed. After all, how long can you really stay mad at the world? Listening to Sole’s new record would lead one to believe that “forever” is a more than suitable answer, and that perhaps we’ve all simply become “complacent”, turning our backs on a movement that we feel has long since been dead. Not Sole, though. No, Sole is still fighting the good fight, trapped somewhere between the dense soundscapes of Company Flow’s 1997 masterpiece Funcrusher Plus and the moment the Twin Towers fell in New York. Listening to his new album is like finding an old journal written by your teenage self. Sure, it all seemed so very important and life-altering back then, but now? It comes across as almost silly.
My biggest beef with this album is Sole as a lyricist. I could almost forgive the fact that he’s retreading well-worn ground at this point, but when you hear first-hand just how lazy and uninspired many of his lyrics here sound it’s almost enough to make you cringe. It literally feels like he’s not even trying at this point. “The Trap”, for example, features an interesting enough concept as Sole tackles a southern trap-style beat that sounds like it was ripped straight from a Young Jeezy album. At first it sounds like a strong enough track that might surprisingly enough sound good being blasted out of a nice car stereo system, but digging in to the lyrics turns up lazy lines like “Everybody won’t be rich and get up out the hood / But you ain’t gotta be rich to be a Robin Hood / Ask Wells Fargo, it ain’t all good / Between the cops and the banks, we know who’s robbin’ hoods.”
The concepts are there, and it’s obvious that Sole has a very clear idea of the exact message he wants to get across, but he goes about it in such an amateurish way that it undermines everything he’s trying to say. This is a trend that plays throughout the album in its entirety. “Civil War” features an excellent beat driven by marching drums, but an awful guest verse from Sean Bonnette (complete with the lines: “This war is the special Olympics in the sense that everyone’s a winner”) completely derails the song. Elsewhere, “My Veganism” finds Sole arguing that animals are equally as important as people and stating “And I don’t get how pro-lifers wanna save a fetus / But will bash a cow’s skull in and milk it till it bleeds.” There’s sure to be people out there who will hear this song as a call to arms, but personally I found it ridiculous.
In truth, the weak lyrics might not be so frustrating if the production wasn’t absolutely stellar. Literally every single beat here is on point, and I couldn’t help but wish they had gone to someone else. The production was actually the only thing that kept me moving forward here, eagerly looking forward to what surprises the next song might hold. The backdrops here are so varied and exciting that you never know what to expect. “Gangster Of Love” is built around some insanely catchy synths and features one of Sole’s better performances (“In my youth I was a wannabe gangsta / I still wanna be gangsta, the gangster of love”), while “Prole” wouldn’t sound out of place on the radio with B.O.B. rapping over it. Even when I found myself disagreeing with the overall message of the music, there was still this one driving force that kept me from outright giving up on the LP. Personally, I think this speaks volumes about the overall quality of the beats provided.
The biggest problem here is that Sole just doesn’t seem to care anymore (the intro titled “Introfukyall” should be our first clue; “People Piss Me Off” should be the next). He doesn’t care what his fans think, he doesn’t care what his haters think, and he sure as hell doesn’t care what the critics think. He sounds borderline bitter. Multiple times throughout the album he references the fact that many of his rapping friends had to give up on their dreams and return to the real world, working normal 9-5 jobs like any other no-named person might, and that even though he’s only performing in front of crowds of 30 people at a time, he refuses to give up on his dream. Only as the album drags on it becomes harder and harder to discern exactly who he’s trying to convince—the listener, or himself? He sounds like a man on the verge of giving up on everything he’s always dreamed about, like a man coming to terms with the fact that he’s probably never going to be any more successful than he is now, and he sounds very, very pissed about it. When he states on the aforementioned intro that “I’m just an almost legend who never lived up to his potential”, you believe him.
So yes, a good majority of this album simply doesn’t do it for me. Does it mean that album itself is terrible? Not by any means. What it does mean, though, is that it’s most likely going to be a very polarizing release. Just as I’m sure some people will understand where I’m coming from and my general dislike for the subject matter and tone, many are going to think I’m crazy and latch on to this release, heralding it as another superb addition to Sole’s ever swelling discography. Neither side will be wrong, and legitimate arguments will be made both for and against it.
Simply put, this is the type of album that really and truly is so much more than just “music”. This is one man’s unflinching and unapologetic views on the state of the world around him. Sole refuses to budge or waver in his beliefs, and probably couldn’t care less at this point in his life if you agree with him or not. This is a guy who’s more than paid his dues, only to have the culture he so loves all but turn its back on him. Take the score attached to this review with a grain of salt, because much like Sole, this is simply one man’s opinion. I have nothing but the utmost respect for what Sole is doing here, because even if I absolutely hate the music, he does deserve a fair amount of credit for the debate he’s sure to spark with listeners of this LP. Still, on both a personal and technical level, I found the music here to be flawed and hard to stomach. Had Sole taken the time to refine his lyrics and think of a creative way to approach these mostly tired concepts, then maybe I would have enjoyed this more. As it stands, though, I found very little enjoyment here, and I very much doubt the average listener will fair much better. That being said, keep fighting the good fight, Sole.