Insight: The Blast Radius

[26 September 2004]

By Stefan Braidwood

Perspicacity Rocks

The track order of The Blast Radius means that the first letters of the song titles actually spell out the album’s name. Now, when was the last time you saw that kind of attention to detail brought to bear on a musical project? Yet this considered approach to every facet of output, from the minutiae up, is endemic in everything Insight does, from his rhymes, to his verses, to his concepts, and on to the arch of the album’s tracks overall. But then the St. Thomas-born, Boston-residing MC/DJ/producer/engineer (/designer/animator/painter/programmer/consultant/businessman, etc.) has been described as a hermit introverted almost to the point of obsessive compulsion. Not that, given his myriad self-taught abilities, he really needs anyone else to bring his goals to fruition. Oh, and he “stand[s] five foot tall / And use[s] speech to punch words / Through a concrete wall”. So now you know.

Not that you ever have the impression of being in stuck in a studio with someone who’s been by himself for much too long. You’ll be worried alright, if only by just how capable he is in how many ways, and how badly he shows up about 99% of, well, I suppose you’d have to call them the competition. Talk about blowing the mainstream away. Though everything here is exceedingly accessible, if fairly intense, it’s just… well, take “Seventeen MCs”. The title prompts visions of a posse cut taken to mad extremes—there’s a bit of a buzz about a track on Fabolous’s forthcoming LP that is rumoured to feature 9 guests, the most that I’ve heard of to this point. But it’s actually Insight rapping (damn well) in 17 different voices over a jazzy party jam, varying rhyme patterns, tongue twisting, hooky chorus and all. Like Big Daddy Kane if he had terminal schizophrenia and a Napoleon complex, mayhap.

And yes, his unrelentingly dense rhymes are delivered with such conviction that he is indeed worthy of comparisons to that legend. Tracks like “Hazardous Material” (“The mic’s like a Mac truck / Your mind is a crash toy”) or “Unexplained Phenomena”, with close partner-in-rhyme Edan’s Cat-In-A-Hat-on-PCPisms, certainly bring bewilderingly intricate, graphic wreck to opponents. In fact, one of the problems with this recording is simply that the rhyme assault very rarely backs down (as it does on amusing tale of a hapless male friend/buggaboo, “Bother Me”), so listeners to most contemporary hip-hop are going to have a bit of trouble adapting before they can enjoy the ragged rivers of rhythmic rhetoric instead of feeling daunted by the demanding assault on their concentration.

When they do, there’s a wealth of knowledge, skill, and indeed insight on display; whether dealing with the modern culture of misinformation (“Lots of Facts About Control”, which states “Forced labour on Dominican sugar plantations / [Is] responsible for 15% of the US trade nation”), the events in recent history that affected the development of both hip-hop and Insight himself (“Time Frame”), the process of personal and universal growth (“Evolve”), or the behavioural patterns we enact every day, even though they don’t really seem to be taking us anywhere (“Another Cycle” and “Daily Routine”). On “Inventors (Black)” he provides a compelling depiction of how someone’s day would be vastly altered without the many and various inventions of this obscured yet significant group; not a subject I’ve ever heard addressed before, I must admit in my shameful ignorance. How many do you know of, though? And did you know that the black vote theoretically ends come 2007?

Also included is a (great) preview track of forthcoming crew project Midnight Shipment (another Insight-helmed group, Electric, dropped their debut earlier this year if you can find it), the piano-laced good times joint “Visual Audio”, on which the three MCs manage to come over as an exceedingly charismatic amalgam of J-Live and Little Brother. So, is The Blast Radius something like a classic? Only time will tell; it certainly eats everything else I’ve heard so far this year as a pre-sun-up snack (and no, “Repast Radius” would not have been a better title).

This is a record that forces you to acknowledge just how under-informed and under-achieving you are, not to mention just how wack virtually all modern hip-hop is, however hard you’ve been trying to convince yourself of the opposite. Did you know that, phonetically, crunk means sick, ill, or diseased in German? It will take a lot more than this veritable tour de force to put the ailing shadow that is the contemporary commercial scene out of its misery, but it’s an explosive start. Thanks for your vision and the demonstration, Insight; the rest is up to those of us listening, may we be many.

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