[11 September 2006]
Those who tell the story of hip-hop often describe a time when the music was dictated not by the commercialism, but by the culture. At the time of its inception, hip-hop was organic: it grew on street corners and blossomed into a national phenomenon. Even in those days, skillful MCs were heroes, but they shared their glory with DJs, beatboxers, graffiti artists and breakdancers. Every now and then, artists who are able to channel these glory days appear on the modern scene. One such artist is Travis Blaque, whose debut full-length, The Many Facets of . . . , mixes an old-school musical vibe with a 21st century social consciousness.
Travis Blaque is the recording alter-ego of Fabian Stephenson, a man who has been involved in the hip-hop scene for over 20 years. Stephenson first made a name for himself as a breakdancer, but he soon began cutting his teeth as an MC. By the time he unveiled Travis Blaque, he had already established himself as a successful producer and session MC. The Many Facets of . . . lives up to its name, showing the different sides of Blaque’s musical personality and displaying his musical versatility.
For the past 10 years, Blaque has been the store manager of Soul Brother records in London, which specializes in jazz, funk, and soul. The influence of this experience surfaces frequently on the best tracks on The Many Facets of . . .. Featuring a guest appearance by modern soul master Noel McCoy (Incognito, the James Taylor Quartet) “Al is Dead” hearkens back to ‘70s funk and soul with a spare bass groove and wah-wah-washed guitars. “Let Me Be the One” is smooth and seductive, with Blaque’s steady, low-pitched flow providing the perfect complement to mellow jazz keyboards and the tender R&B vocals of the chorus
Lyrically, about the only constant on The Many Facets of . . . is a strong social consciousness. “In Pursuit of the Flesh” tells the story of a man addicted to pornography and womanizing. “A Song for Troy” is a tribute to the MC’s son, while “Raymond Cist” uses one man’s story to tackle larger issues such as violence and race relations. All of these songs offer a welcome alternative to the sexism and brutality so common in mainstream hip-hop.
The Many Facets of . . . is not a perfect record. Blaque is definitely a capable MC, but he’s not brilliant. Those looking for jaw-dropping vocal acrobatic feats here or razor-witted turns of phrase will be disappointed with the record. There’s not too much variety in Blaque’s flow, and as the album wears on, his straightforward cadence wears thin. A few moments fall flat lyrically, too, but the guest artists, not Blaque, are responsible for these missteps. On the album’s first single, “Who R U?” guest artists Apollo and EvOn drop weird and ineffective metaphors like, “You suck more than a cat with ten nipples and fifteen kittens”, and “the UK is on the rise like fresh bread”.
Despite its flaws, The Many Facets of . . . is a strong debut for Blaque. If nothing else, it is, lyrically and musically, a refreshing alternative to mainstream hip-hop. Those who prefer underground rap with a dash of experimentalism and tricky wordplay would do better to search elsewhere, but those who prefer hip-hop with old school flavor and modern social criticism should look no further than this solid record.