[24 March 2009]
Producer albums can easily turn into a wash aside from two or three hot tracks. The reason for that is that like an emcee who gathers a slew of beatmakers, the producer(s) can lose a sense of consistency with a revolving-door policy on who spits or sings on each track. Last year’s King of the Decks, from DJ Revolution, is a fine example of this. While the album as a whole succeeded in providing underground bangers, there were certain tracks that flirted with taking the ship down. A primary cause for that issue, and this goes for most albums like this, was the fact that DJ Revolution invited some of his average friends to the party. To be perfectly fair, even some of the more established rappers, like those in Special Teams, dialed in weak verses. On top of that, a few less-than-stellar beats took the record down a notch. But as a whole, it worked and satisfied hardcore hip-hop heads with a penchant for grittier rhymes. And much of the same can be said about Keelay & Zaire’s debut, Ridin’ High. While it resides on the other end of the rap spectrum, Ridin’ High falls into the unfortunate trap of bringing along some average friends for a trip that just barely remains on the road.
As its title spells out for you, Ridin’ High is loosely built around a concept of driving across the country (or city) with a blunt or two in your system. And behind the wheel are Keelay, who moved from Utah to the San Francisco Bay Area, and Zaire, who hails from Ohio but now resides in Virginia. Their coast-to-coast relationship provides a healthy sampling of East Coast grit mixed with blunted West Coast sunshine and a hint of the not-so-dirty South. But it’s not just Kee & Zee who handle the regional flavor offered up on here. Their guests, a plethora of emcees and vocalists from all over, stir the melting pot. Included in the lineup are such underground titans as Phonte and Supastition, who hail from North Carolina, and everyone’s favorite under-the-radar emcee and L.A. native, Blu. There are also plenty of those aforementioned relatively unknown cats, like Mario Dones of Pittsburgh and Hassaan Mackey of New York, who bring forth a mixed bag of skills.
It comes as no surprise that those bigger names lend themselves to some of Ridin’ High‘s finest moments. In particular, there is “The Times”, the album’s best track, featuring Blu and fellow Californians Fortilive and Nino Moschella, who provides the soulful hook. Blu absolutely rips his verse apart as he talks about “how hard times are these days”. The topic might seem beaten to death, but it’s handled perfectly by the young emcee. And his downtrodden rhymes are well-balanced by livelier spitting from Fortilive. But the track would not be nearly as phenomenal without Kee & Zee’s shiny beat, which is further driven by JFish’s bright keys. Although no other track on here hits the same heights, “Addicts for Real” and “Alright With Me” come close. Tunji, of the duo Inverse, rocks along with classic boom-bap on “Addicts for Real” as he tells of how he fell in love with hip-hop. And “Alright With Me” is simply a smooth-as-silk ‘90s R&B jam that will likely be on your baby-making playlist. Dminor’s vocals groove with piano-driven beat and Phonte’s guest verse, though it is way too short, is witty and refreshing.
As solid as those songs and a few others are, the middling tracks on here beg for you to skip around, rather than digest Ridin’ High as a whole. And, unfortunately, there are too many of them to claim that this album is more than simply “good”. For example, there is the near-three-minute interlude “Nurf to the Turf”. At any other point, this track could work, but it sits between “The Times” and another solid track in the Supastition and Slo Mo feature “Trapped”. So, instead of a ridiculous TKO of “Alright With Me”, “The Times”, and “Trapped”, we get a boring ode to lighting up crammed in between. Also, while the beat for the album-closing “Ridin’ High” is a fun and funky smoked-out jam, it easily could have been cut down to three minutes. Other tracks, like the reaching “I Used to Ride”, just miss their well-intended target, thanks in part to a blend of mediocre guests and beats.
While the final product from Kee & Zee is above-average, it easily could have been something great had the fat been trimmed and some guests left off the roster. But perhaps those features just seem weak based on the fact that the highs are here are ridiculously high and overshadow their otherwise fine counterparts. Or, and this seems more likely, it’s the fact that Kee & Zee could use a few more years and albums under their collective belt. As a debut, though, Ridin’ High is certainly impressive and a sign of potentially excellent things to come. Keep your sights locked on these two, as their ride is not likely to end here.