[8 January 2008]
Hi-Tek has been keeping his production career in perpetual motion over the past couple of years by providing beats to 50 Cent and Cassidy, keeping his pockets filled in the process. But in between the studio sessions for those marquee performers, Tek focused on amassing tracks that inevitably turned into full-length solo releases. The result has been a series dubbed Hi-Teknology and on each of the discs, he has created musical backdrops filled with crisp soul loops and thick drums that force his guests to one-up their rhymes in an effort to match the supple beauty of the beats. Hi-Teknology, the first of the compilations, was released in 2001, featuring a smattering of tracks with soul beats that seamlessly jived with rhymes from guests like Common and Slum Village. Five years later, Tek released Hi-Teknology 2: The Chip, a more mature record that slightly faltered in its consistency but still maintained the nostalgic essence that marked Tek’s style.
A year after the second release in the series, Hi-Tek has quickly returned to the boards and whipped up the third installment titled Hi-Teknology 3: Underground. The album signifies a digression from the A-list domination of his previous two records by swapping in Ohio-based emcees, but it also conveys a much more intrinsic musical deviation. Tek has almost entirely abandoned the style that made his previous albums such refreshing endeavors by discarding soul samples and settling on kitschy keyboard sounds. The album’s beats sound as if they were programmed on autopilot, and although Tek shows that he still maintains some musical integrity with a few tracks, the whole effort suggests that Tek has lost sight of what initially made his beats so potent. Whether or not this stems from the fact that he spent so little time between his second and third albums, Hi-Teknology 3: Underground proves that Tek may not be as reliable as he once appeared, and even though there are songs that bear originality, this portion of the series is certainly the weakest.
The blandest and most mundane tracks are the ones that feature unknowns from Ohio, who are unable to save the beats for their lack of compelling rhymes. “Handling My Bizness” is one of the most insufferable songs that Hi-Tek has ever made, and the beat sounds as if little to no effort was put into its creation. On the track, Tek simply mixes a sparse kick drum, panned hi-hats, a steadily snapping snare and a vanilla string melody into a skeletal groove that nauseatingly repeats without any variation. “Bizness” features Lep, Count, Big D and M-1 from Dead Prez, and although each of them drops somewhat lyrical verses, they sound indistinguishable from one another as the beat deadens any sort of personality with which it comes in contact.
“I’m Back” features an appearance from Rem Dog, an unknown emcee who spits his taunting rhymes with an endearing lisp, making his empty threats seem much less affective than they could potentially be. In addition to Rem Dog’s uninspiring style, the beat is militaristic and straightforward, sounding too reminiscent of the anthematic trash that clouded tracks like “March” on Hi-Teknology 2: The Chip. “Ohio All Stars” suffers from the same type of musical and lyrical tedium, with choppy rhymes delivered by Cross, Showtime, Mann and Chip The Rippa. Over the clunky and pallid beat, Showtime adds to the pool of uninspired rhymes, spitting “I’m feeling myself like I’m putting on lotion / My rims ain’t the only fucking thing that’s floating.”
The album clearly has more missteps than hits, but a couple of the tracks show that Tek has not completely sacrificed his integrity for this new and relatively inferior style. The first single, “My Piano”, is a gutsy and rich bumper featuring Ghostface, Raekwon and Dion, all of whom match the beat’s stinging veracity with subdued and peppery verses. Tek blesses the track with his own smoldering rhymes, but the song most shines in its melodic construction, featuring a somber vocal sample set against a desperate guitar melody and chased with minor piano cadences.
“Time”, featuring Talib Kweli and Dion, also possesses the same soul-based musicality that marked Tek’s previous beats, boasting glittering guitar chords that play against a sharp bass line. Dion offers smooth harmonies over the liquid beat, allowing Kweli to spit gems like “I climb through the windows of the mind and unravel / Mysteries, the back of history, see how I time travel?” The only track on the album that does not feature vocals also happens to be one of the best, titled “Come Get It (Tekstrumentals)”. On the instrumental ditty, Tek spins a web of syrupy snaps, heavily filtered vocals and a cascading melody stripped directly from a music box. The tune lasts for almost four minutes, but it has such soulful authenticity that it begs for the addition of some glib rhymes. And even without the addition of an emcee, it conveys that Tek is still capable of dishing out beats that can hold their own, even if one of the most inept emcees is thrown into the mix.
But if Hi-Teknology 3: Underground is indicative of anything, it is that Hi-Tek is moving farther away from his signature sound and settling for less. The album is packed with throwaway numbers that could have come from any amateur producer let loose in the studio. And although it may be a humble move for Tek to throw unknowns onto one of his records, he is better off with experts who have already proved their talent for riding a beat regardless of its palpability. If Tek decides to continue with his series, he needs to remember what put him on the map in the first place, and if that means digging deeper in the crates and throwing away his newfound collection of keyboard synths, then both he and the rap game will much better off for that conclusion.