[2 August 2007]
As music lovers, we know which albums we think are “classics.” We can debate whether certain albums should be included among music history’s elite recordings. At the same time, we’ve honed our ability to pinpoint the albums we think are “duds.” But what about the releases that fall in the middle?
The worthwhile-but-not-quite-classic albums—let’s call them “sleepers”—are fascinating because they are our staples, our worker bees, our consistent performers, yet they’re perennially in danger of being overlooked. Since they’re not “masterpieces” or “classics,” they fly at a cruising altitude that’s below most of our radars and don’t enjoy the limelight of critical acclaim. Maybe the promotion is lacking or the artists aren’t “popular” enough to garner headlines and ubiquitous magazine coverage. Still, these records aren’t the disappointing releases that follow huge debuts; they aren’t garden-variety bad records—keeping in mind that “disappointing” and “bad” are vague and subjective terms in the first place. Take the hip-hop landscape as an example. It’s fascinating that universally maligned Vanilla Ice gets mentioned, albeit derisively, more often than, um…what’s his name…remember that guy back in the ‘90s with the phat rhymes and the hot beats? Okay, well, that guy was dope.
The “What’s-his-name” syndrome is, in a nutshell, the fate I fear most for A-Plus’ 2007 release, My Last Good Deed. Despite A-Plus’ line, in the song “Javelin”, that there “ain’t no regulatin’ my shine”, his album could very well end up being the “sleeper” hip-hop album of the year, with critics and diehards praising its consistency but nevertheless forgetting to name it on our eventual lists of recommended CDs.
I don’t know if that’s happening, but I believe it could. Why? Well, Adam Carter—also known as A-Plus and sometimes as Plee—is a member of a “posse.” And being a member of a posse means you’ll either break out from the group and grab the limelight for yourself or you’ll always be viewed as a member of your crew regardless of what you do. A-Plus has been in the California crew Souls of Mischief (consisting of Tajai, Phesto, Opio and A-Plus) since the early ‘90s. In 1993, they released 93 ‘Til Infinity, with A-Plus producing the title track. Souls of Mischief, in turn, is affiliated with the larger collective called the Hieroglyphics, which has included Casual, Jay Biz, Pep Love, Snupe, Mike G, Mike P, Domino, Kwam, and Del the Funkee Homosapien. The Hieroglyphics had a stable of artists similar in scope and spin-offs to the Wu-Tang Clan, Army of the Pharaohs, the Justus League, Native Tongue and Boot Camp Clik.
Souls of Mischief’s Infinity is arguably one of the best hip-hop records around (“That’s When Ya Lost” is my jam), not simply because it runs counter to the prevailing West Coast sounds of its era—not as G-Funk-y as Dr. Dre, not pimped out like Too Short, not loop-driven like Hammer (I bet someone is saying “Thank goodness” to that but I still say we gave Hammer a rougher time than he deserved). Rather, Infinity showcased a group of freakishly fearsome and hungry emcees tag-teaming flurries of furious rhymes on every beat. Whoops, did I say “hungry”? I meant “ravenous.”
Here you’ve got an experienced artist in A-Plus, an emcee who helped drop a sure-shot classic with his crew, and who has decided that now, now, this year of 2007, is the right time for him to release his “debut.”
I’ll be the first to admit my preference for “crews” and “posses” over the solo acts they spawn. I think I enjoy the personalities and styles engendered by having more people in the studio. Ya know, I liked Straight Outta Compton-era NWA slightly more than individual Ice Cube (although you could say he grabbed new crews with the Bomb Squad, Da Lench Mob and Westside Connection), individual Eazy-E, or even “individual” Dre (although you can say he too developed new posses with Death Row, Tha Dogg Pound and Aftermath—maybe it’s “still Dre,” but his albums haven’t been “just Dre”). Along those lines, I dig the Wu-Tang Clan as a group more than the solo projects, with the exception of Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and whatever Ghostface does. But what is it the scientists say about results that shake expectations? They are the exceptions that prove the rule.
In the case of A-Plus, his solo output will understandably be compared to his work with Souls of Mischief and, since the crew blended so well together vocally, there are two dangers: (1) that A-Plus isn’t entering the project with a standout persona, resulting in an album that’s not particularly memorable, and (2) that we’ll be looking for the rest of Souls of Mischief to share the microphone and bail him out. I think A-Plus sidestepped those dangers quite nicely, and while My Last Good Deed isn’t the number one album of 2007, it’s not merely a Souls of Mischief album with more A-Plus input than usual. It should have some staying power; it should resonate within the genre. Yes, his buddies from the Souls crew and the Hieroglyphics collective make appearances, along with guests like Major Terror, Casual, Del, Ty Nitty and Jennifer Johns, but A-Plus’ solo effort distinguishes the teammate from the team.
A-Plus’ approach is his own (“I’m different”, he says in “The One”, “don’t compare me to another”), boasting an amalgam of reggae vibes (“The One”, with Major Terror), bouncy West Coast flows (title track, “My Last Good Deed”), beats that knock (“Javelin”), and some fine turns at hip-hop with R&B hooks (the “Strawberry Letter 22”-influenced “Kiss the Sky” and the near perfection of “Far Away From Here”). The album is mainly produced by A-Plus and Aagee (together known as Compound7), with contributions from Jake One, J Zone and Quincey Tones (trust me, the production is more original than the name). Interestingly, the tracks are tied together by slinky, futuristic synthesizers and clever drum programming, from the spooky feel of “Good Time Charlie” to the weird, spiraling crescendos of “What’s Hannin’” (as in, “what’s happenin’”, but more, um, colloquial—y’all know how we do it), similar to Scarface & the Product’s Alchemist-produced “G Type”, as well as the backdrop of “Patna Please” (as in, “partner please”) that twinkles like a preset ringtone on a cellphone.
These touches and flourishes are light and airy, yet mood-shaping, rather than direct and in-your-face. Listen closely to the deceptively simple “What’s Hannin’” and you’ll hear the layers—the bubbling and sputtering beat accompanied by an understated waltzing bassline and Girl 6-like samples cooing, “Ahhh” and “Ohhh yeah.” Add plucky guitar licks and dishpan cuts and scratches (“A Beautiful Thing”) and you’ve got an album that should have no problem standing out from the year’s flood of releases. In “Nothin’ Fake/The Ultimate”, two songs merged into one track (the first features a smooth verse from Del), A-Plus plays the instruments and then adds “record crackle” to give the impression he used a sample. That attention to detail runs throughout the record and it creates a fresh, organic feel while providing something familiar. The question, though, is whether all of this will sound so familiar to listeners that they won’t notice the technique. Will it end up being too clever for its own good?
While we puzzle over that, we’ve got time to examine A-Plus’ rhyming skills. No doubt, the man more than holds his own, dropping breakneck verses loaded with similes, allusions, and internal rhyme. I would’ve been satisfied if he had handled all the vocal duties, with no collaborations at all, but I understand the whole “It takes a village” mentality of the crew. No problem there.
In terms of content, he addresses doubts about being a solo artist (“The One”), confirms his continued allegiance to his homies, pays tribute to deceased loved ones (“Kiss the Sky”), kicks the ballistics about relationship woes (“Now There You Go”), and professes his love for weed (“My Dub Song”). Regarding the weed, he stitches together the usual love-related clichés and places them in a fresher context by substituting “dub” for “love.” For the sake of clarity, a “dub” is a “20-sack,” the same type of 20-sack Snoop was talking about way back when in “Who Am I? (What’s My Name)” when he said, “I got five on a 20-sack” (remember the rest: “…it’s like that and as a matter of fact / rat-tat-tat-tat / ‘cause I never hesitate to put a fool on his baaaaaack…”—that’s the radio version). In A-Plus’ song, you get lines like “What’s dub got to do with it” and “I feel like LL—I need dub”. Hey, anybody can do pro-weed material—big deal—but it takes a special person to flip a Pat Benatar song title into “dub is a battlefield”. Makes you wanna scream like Pat, “Whoa oh oh oh oh oh oh oh ohhhhhhhhhhhh…we are strong! No one can tell us we’re wrong!” Word. Likewise, I know Barry Manilow catches a lot of flack, but A-Plus gets much props for coming up with phrases to rhyme with “Barry Manilow” in “Patna Please” (“I know the antidote” / “You and your man’ll choke” / “don’t even matter, though”). That’s no small task, lemme tell ya.
As technically correct as A-Plus’ delivery is, it’s also the source of the perception (at least among those I’ve played the CD for) that A-Plus lacks an identifiable “it”-quality, some type of “pizzazz” in his personality, or “wow”-factor. I agree that the album is consistent in quality but lacks a breakout hit, but I disagree that A-Plus lacks charisma. Here’s what’s happening: he’s mixing his fast-paced style with his slower cadences, sometimes elongating certain syllables the way Ludacris might do, all the while calibrating his rhymes to the key and pitch of his accompaniment. The result, then, is that his voice operates as an instrument or, if you want to use my argument against me, as one instrument among many.
To me, the layering of his vocals creates a type of harmony, but the layering plus his pitch work to blend his voice with his sound-scape. I know, I know—rap in general is arguably about an emcee using his or her voice as an instrument but, here, you can almost get swept away in how A-Plus angles and projects his words, how he vocalizes and inflects, to the point that you have to go back and say, “Wait, play that again. What did he say?”
For me, his approach works and shows how tuned in he is with his material. For others, it’s going to sound like vocal camouflage, and A-Plus might seem like a chameleon who adapts to his sonic environment. But give it chance. This joint is solid, from start to finish, with skilled collaborations, textured production, and a range of styles. My favorite cuts are: “The One”, “A-P-L-U-S”, “A Beautiful Thing”, “Patna Please”, “Far Away From Here” and “Now There You Go”.