[7 June 2009]
In hip-hop, it’s practically a given that if you’ve got skills as a beat maker, your skills are limited on the microphone. Generally speaking, there’s probably some truth to that presumption, as the exceptions are rare. One exception, however, is Boston, Massachusetts rapper and beat smith Raydar Ellis, whose breakout Late Pass has been aging gracefully since its release in 2006.
With a historical ode to graffiti art (“Graffiti Rock”), hip-hop’s least discussed element (along with maybe break dancing), Late Pass was only slightly shy of excellent, highlighted by Raydar Ellis’s smart, judicious use of skits and variety of subject matter. Best of all, Late Pass showcased a producer who was nimble enough with his wordplay to match wits with his musical backdrop.
Between Late Pass and his 2009 tag-team operation with Quite Nyce, Champs vs. The League, his musical signatures continued to evolve and expand, witnessed by his production work on Raheem Jamal’s Boombox (2007). There, he worked up his Boston boom bap into a more sophisticated percussive set to complement the flow of the emcee.
For Champs vs. The League, Quite Nyce joins Raydar Ellis in an EPMD-style collection of lyrical tradeoffs. Compared to Late Pass, it’s an album of songs modeled after his collaborations with Short Bus in “Pay Homage” and “Every”, except the hooks are a lot stronger here and the one-liners (“It’s all about the Benjamin Bannekers”) and punch lines snap a whole lot smarter (“See, every rapper thinks they’re fly, but most of them don’t land great”). Raydar Ellis himself acknowledges his growth with lines like “I’m at a greater point of clarity than most kids / That’s ‘cause time didn’t age me, responsibility did”. Meanwhile, he and Quite Nyce fill their verses with confidence as well as the technical prowess of intricate rhyme patterns, imagery, and diction. The subject matter isn’t as expansive and diverse as it was on Late Pass, but with rapping duties shared by two, Champs vs. The League boasts a singular focus. And on the production tip, the album is packed with bouncy bass lines, jazz-style flourishes, and clever loops.
I’ve only got two real nitpicks. One, the “champs” motif isn’t carried as consistently as it might have been, although it does show up in some of the lyrics (“Forget changin’ the game, I’m tryin’ to own the whole damn arcade”) and a couple of the song titles (“Trophy Room”, “Leading the Leaders”). Two, the tag team approach loses steam somewhat because the two rappers sound similar in tone and style, so much so that I kept wishing there could be a third emcee—especially one with an off-kilter flow or a distinguishing voice, like a Method Man or a Busta Rhymes—to jump into the mix on a regular basis. Guests like Project Move, Akil of Jurassic 5, and Soulstice help, although it felt like the project could have been even more dope if executed by a trio. But these are minor inconveniences when the standard is as consistently high as it is here.