El Da Sensei: The Unusual

[28 June 2006]

By Steven J. Horowitz

When an emcee who’s been in the rap game for a countless number of years drops a new record, heads turn on the basis of history. But in the case of El Da Sensei, a Jersey artifact who used to rock mics with Tame One in the group the Artifacts, dropping a new album is simply making it known that he’s still around. Sacrificing artistic longevity to take his time on his releases, Sensei drops his fourth record (second on the solo trip) The Unusual since 1994, an enjoyably refreshing and unapologetic slab of rhymes and beats from the Jersey native.

Slathering the mic with his one-liner tactics, El pumps his way through 14 tracks of carefree goodness, neither upstaging himself nor taking himself too seriously. His hood clairvoyance and experienced air of wisdom allows him to lay down rhymes without conforming to the sea of topicalities in which mainstreamers perpetually drown. Experience plays a large role in this abstinence from the typical on The Unusual, specifically in separating his subject matter from what has become the norm for today’s new blood.

El is aware of the dichotomy between old and new, and addresses this factor on the track “Rock It Out!” a pseudo-club bounce on which El delivers his wisdom with a gaggle of choral support. El raps, “Rule number 1:  (What’s that?) / Never think you can adapt and roll with the new jacks / (How you stay relevant with the times?) / Kick-ass rhymes and attitude, I’m always gonna shine.” Practicing what he preaches, El grabs a couple handfuls of beats from producers known (and otherwise) and launches into this ear-pleaser, stamping the album as a throwback to the time where emcees rhymed for the fun of it, not for the Benjamins.

Though the separation between the old and new rings true throughout the album, El does his best to capture the best of both worlds. On the kick-off track, “Crowd Pleasa” (produced by Illmind) the first thing heard is a group of male voices crackling in a relaxed coo, but then launches into a head-bobbing beat that weaves barbershop with hip-hop. Later on the album, “Blow Shit Up! (Army Edition)” is introduced by the same rusty sample used at the beginning of Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks”, popping into an army groove that maintains its rap over flecks of needle cracks and platoon chants.

The beats on the album offer a structure of support for El to rip the mic on, but he mostly refrains from sticking to a single subject for more than two one-liners, all for the sake of impresario. This technique becomes a bit tiresome as the album progresses, as El delivers in a style that rarely changes. He sounds as if he writes lyrics on his own accord, only to later fit them into a comprehensive rhyme once the beat starts. The downside of writing in this way is that El sounds as if he comes up short at the end of every bar, as he takes a moment to collect his thoughts before he commences with his next line.

With that factor in mind, El puts aside delivery to do what he does best: one-liners. Although they are not excessively flashy, his rhymes remain punchy and clever without the emphatic delivery that many top-40 rappers use to accentuate their wittiness. On the track “Gunblast”, El raps over a crimped jazz guitar, painting a picture of revenge seekers and the means they take to accomplish their goals. He raps, “No remorse in his eyes / Only the target and the goal to take the soul from the cat that he despise / Most times, not even thoughtful of the chance of bystanders catchin’ it / Long as the victim do a dance.” This hood-omniscience allows El to deliver his impressions with a relaxed-yet-stone-cold grimace, crafting an image of emotional turmoil and shifty intentions without imposing the representation on the listener.

The Unusual includes refreshing appearances by D.I.T.C. member O.C., and Boot Camp Clik component Sean Price, on “Nuttin’ to Lose” and “No Matter”. Both artists inject the harsh darkness of street life that El does not include throughout the album, with Sean Price stealing the spotlight with his lines “Word to mother / My shit raw dog, like fuck rubbers / Motherfuck literally, I fuck mothers”. Though this crassness may be harsh, it offers the listener a smirk-worthy quote that would surely make El blush. But although El may be devoid of rhymes about rubbers, he manages to present his album with intelligent proportions, and like a fine wine, he will only get better with time.

El da Sensei - Crowd Pleasa

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/el-da-sensei-the-unusual/