Marco Polo: Port Authority

[10 June 2007]

By Steven J. Horowitz

The producer-hemmed record has recently become a mainstay in the streams of underground hip-hop releases. On these efforts, a single producer mans the boards and relies on his Rolodex to spice up the beats, attempting to broaden his individual sound in order to match the diverse styles of his guests. Such recent albums have injected a refreshing wave of enjoyment into the stale hip-hop climate, but those producers who settled for comfort and length over girth and experimentation deadened their forays’ repeatability. In recent memory, the most notable beat-coddlers, Hi-Tek and Snowgoons, succumbed to this trap by clotting their records with lackadaisical rappers whose styles were incongruous with their musical inklings. This resulted in records that were good in theory, but somewhat unsatisfactory in execution and wilting in panache.

Marco Polo, a producer hailing from Toronto, Canada, is making it his prerogative to dismantle the notion that producers must either sit backseat to their guests or sacrifice their sound to match the emcees. His debut, Port Authority, is an unexpectedly affecting record that pairs exciting and palpitating beats with a chunk of rappers who almost perfectly balance the instrumentals behind them. Polo manages to make each beat sound shiny yet bucolic, a skill that musically holds the album together without making it trite or repetitive. His choice of guest artists is equally as impressive, with legends like Kool G Rap and Large Professor dropping rhymes as potent as the lesser-famed artists, such as Kev Brown and Roc Marciano. With this combination of knee-deep East Coast emcees and beats that recall the golden era of hip-hop, Port Authority stands as one of the best producer-focused records among the recent flurry of botched and misguided efforts.

With his beats, Polo composes with the intention to channel the nostalgic b-boy style of the mid-‘90s, and manages to succeed on every track while sounding fresh and crisp in a modern day context. “Get Busy”, which features the forever slept-on Copywrite, sports oozing violins and a brooding piano sample reminiscent of the progression on Fabolous’ Just Blaze-produced “Breathe”. The beat, although squeaky clean in sound, is filthy enough to stand next to the rusty street opuses of classic LPs, and with Copywrite dropping punchlines with every couplet, the track becomes authentic in its quest to emulate both the past and the present. Copywrite even raps, “Man, in ‘95 I thought music was losing its touch / Compared to now, that was a golden era, who would have thought?” As Copywrite questions the present status of music, Polo and his beat assure listeners that hip-hop still has the potential to echo the same grittiness of golden era rap.

This theme is continued on the fantastic single “Nostalgia”, featuring living legend Masta Ace, which is based on an autumn beat that glistens with a jazz guitar and breezy chimes. On the track, Ace name-checks the Latin Quarter and Union Square while reminiscing about the days when hip-hop “was so thick in the air”. Kardinal Offishall also analyzes the current state of hip-hop culture on the militaristic “War”, spitting indignant rhymes over a beat that bounces with the same emotional veracity. At the end of the disc, Polo even throws in a remake of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Electric Relaxation” titled “Relax”, featuring J*Davey, who sing-raps over an updated version of the beat. Although Port Authority is such a blatant attempt to recapitulate the early jazz-fusion and street hip-hop of the ‘90s, Polo shapes the sound to effortlessly gleam in a rejuvenated fashion, and while tracks like “Relax” had a chance of being slaughtered, he refuels each beat with his lavish care and intense scrutiny to polish the records.

Although the album is mainly based on capturing the sound of yesterday, several rappers take their opportunity to shine in order to cater to their own personal agendas. Jaysun, a rapper who is part of Special Teamz, rhymes about his biracial background and conception from a test-tube on “All My Love”. Polo backs his bitter sentiment with a sensitive sample, making the track more of a collaboration than an attempt to match the subject matter by bowing to the rapper’s style. But even when the rappers fall into braggadocio and self-reflection rather than being nostalgic and criticizing hip-hop, the beats sometimes pull the tracks out of blandness to overshadow the message of the lyricist on the track. Buckshot of Boot Camp Clik is dwarfed on the track “Go Around”, where Polo crafts an instrumental that sounds simultaneously soft and rough by combining crunchy drums with an old time brass section. While Buckshot raps about his record label, Duck Down Records, Polo squashes the banal raps with a beat that could breathe with or without the inclusion of an emcee.

One of the best tracks on Port Authority is “Speak Softly”, where the interplay between resurrected emcee Jo Jo Pellegrino and Polo’s eerily ominous beat captures the organic chemistry that makes hip-hop such a creative and unique genre. Pellegrino wraps his four bar rhymes around a sample of a vocal clip that sings the title of the track, giving Polo both a presence on the record and a stake in the track. On the cut, Pellegrino spits, “When shorty decided to call my cell cause she was bored sitting home / Talking all loud and shit, now wifey pissed like ‘Who’s on the phone’ / I told her ‘Wrong number’ then hung up / When I got the chance to roam, I called her back and said ‘Next time you ring my jack’ / Speak softly”; he weaves similar stories throughout the track that are ripped straight from his life to bleed hood clairvoyance and street mentality.

With such extraordinary comradery and equal parts beats and rhymes, Port Authority accomplishes exactly what Polo sets out to achieve. The record flows mercilessly and comfortably, rarely bending in style and always working to both satisfy the musical impulse to channel the past while accommodating the emcees of the present. Each emcee drops equally compelling rhymes, and while they are given the opportunity to steal the spotlight, Polo remains the victor in grabbing the listener’s attention and maintains his presence throughout the record. Although the album is a bit drawn-out, with 18 tracks and over 70 minutes of hip-hop, Port Authority rarely wanes in potency and creativity, a trait that is sure enough to turn the head of any emcee who needs a beat that is made not for profit, but formulated only for the love of hip-hop.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/marco-polo-port-authority/