[22 June 2009]
We all know the feeling. Sometimes the internet can really be a pain in the ass. Sure, it’s great in that it offers infinite knowledge and media at your fingertips. But as a music lover, you have likely also gotten to the point when you declare enough is enough. It usually hits you when you look at your iTunes window and find that you just passed a ridiculous number of tracks. As such, some artists can get swept under the rug—like Tiye Phoenix, whose name rang a bell but didn’t hit home until I learned that she worked with the Polyrhythm Addicts on their last record. Then her name began popping up on Twitter as rappers, producers, and writers were discussing and hyping her new record, Half Woman/Half Amazin’. Though it doesn’t quite live up to its title, Phoenix comes damn close to crafting something amazing on here.
The classically trained pianist-turned-rapper bursts through the gates with “Tiye-Tanium”, a punchline/simile-driven masterpiece of tough hip-hop backed by a gritty Beatminerz production. Besides being a killer track, it sets the pace of the album’s next four cuts, which all hit just as hard as their predecessor. And it’s via these tracks that you realize Phoenix has everything you would want in a rapper. She has a chip on her shoulder (“The Award”) but also a very sincere softer side (“Too Late For Us”), too. And she hits you hard with a punched-in flow that hardly wavers. That quality is heard mostly on “Stop Right There” as she flows something fierce over horns, a busy bassline, and live drums. Hell, even her weaker moments on here, such as the love song “Bless Me”, aren’t necessarily weak. They just can’t help but be eclipsed by the stronger efforts. That point is further accelerated by the fact that the album bursts through the gates with those aforementioned five good-to-phenomenal cuts in a row.
What truly sets Phoenix apart from many of her contemporaries as a female is the fact that she rarely plays to the fact that she is a woman. You never once hear her using her gender as a crutch. And she never uses it to sell herself. Actually, aside from a few mentions of her gender, you are probably too lost in her lyrics and the beats to realize that yes, you are listening to a woman who can rhyme circles around most men. That is what instantly places Phoenix at the level of an Invincible or a Jean Grae, or a female emcee who is supremely talented and makes you think of her as a rapper first.
Aside from Phoenix’s skills on the mic, Half Woman/Half Amazin’ succeeds on the production end as well. Unlike most records with a mix of beatsmiths, this one doesn’t stray from a cohesive and altogether vibrant sound. The thanks for that can go to fellow Polyrhythm Addict DJ Spinna, DJ Scratch, Apathy, DJ Jazzy Jeff, and even Phoenix herself, who crafted the smooth title track for the record. In other words, here’s hoping you have a neck brace ready. And while none of these producers worked on the following albums, Half Woman/Half Amazin’ has a strong kinship to Finale’s stellar A Pipe Dream and a Promise blended with the Foreign Exchange’s Connected. Perhaps it’s the fact that most of the beats, if not all of them, sound fleshed-out and lush.
But there is another, more obvious reason for that sonic connection (no pun). The final track, “Too Late For Us”, which is the pièce de résistance, features Phoenix and Phonte, of Little Brother and the Foreign Exchange, trading sung and rapped verses. It feels like a leftover Connected track, though it certainly has a flair of its own, thanks to Phoenix. Both rappers/singers sound at home over the smooth production, and we should all keep our fingers crossed that this will lead to more collaborations between them.
While Half Woman/Half Amazin’ stumbles here and there (like with “Bless Me”) and feels a bit long at times, it’s still a well-rounded, great effort. And the only improvements left for her to make are refining some of her punchlines and similes—because, like many rappers, she throws some verbal darts that fail to stick. But even with those nitpicky criticisms, this is an album every hip-hop head needs to hear, digest, and then put on repeat.