It came as a shock to Cypress Hill fans, and everyone else, when the band decided to take a stab at rap-rock on their 2000 LP, Skull and Bones. Talk about a divisive decision. It is equally surprising to discover that over the next 10 years, they would continue to hold onto that sound. Who can blame them, though? In today’s rap game, selling singles like the chronic-laced, mid-tempo “Insane in the Brain” isn’t going to fly. So the L.A.-based rappers tried to flip that shit and re-invent themselves for the sake of maintaining relevance while making a few greenbacks. It is with this in mind that I approach Cypress Hill’s eighth LP, Rise Up, with as open of a mind as possible. In doing so, let’s start with the good.
For a 39 year-old MC, B-Real still solidly spits with that trademark high-pitched nasally flow. Immediately on the opening track, “It Aint Nothin” (which he also produced), he makes it known that he’s still got it. This continues on the following track, “Light It Up”, ladened with a funky, east-coast Pete Rock beat. Both tracks showcase the group in good form behind unusually upbeat production as they re-establish their rap CV. A few tracks later on “Bang Bang,” also produced by B-Real, positive results continue. Over an eerie, hyper-staccato snare, in concert with a liquid-y stretched out keyboard sample and the occasional high-pitched vocal sample, B-Real is in full gangsta-mode, warning us to “never forget what you say in the street / if you talk too loud / you’ll get laid with the heat.” The track feels both updated and a throwback to the darkly ominous, chronic-laced gangsta rap of old Cypress Hill. Unfortunately, these kind of tracks no longer produce radio singles and thus are in short supply on Rise Up. Which leads us to the bad.
As much as B-Real still seems lively, Sen Dog seems to have smoked himself out of being a rapper. He sounds exhausted and unimaginative all over this record. He doesn’t even appear on all of the tracks. This imbalance, coupled with the array of random producers, causes an inconsistency in the LP’s sound that hurts Rise Up on tracks like the half-hearted, street-wise attempt at positive rap “Get It, Anyway” or “Pass the Dutch” – a reinterpretation of Musical Youth’s 1982 hit “Pass the Dutchie” – which re-samples the classic live, “Do you want to get high?” introduction of “Hits from the Bong.” This re-hashing of an old hit (no pun intended) showcases the mixed bag that Rise Up finds itself stuck in. It gets worse, though.
Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave appears twice, as Cypress Hill takes another stab at hard rock that would make, dare I say, Kid Rock or even ZZ Top happy. Unlike Morello’s early work with Rage, neither track contains much of an edge but sounds dated already. However, the lowest point of Rise Up may be the awkward confessional “Carry Me Away”, where both Sen Dog and B-Real take their turns rapping about the confusion of being young and the regret they feel for the wrongs they have committed. If these saccharine admissions were not enough, Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park takes over during the chorus to serenade us with enough sugary sadness to make us vomit all over our I-pods. Amongst these awkward low-points, Everlast and Daran Malakian of System of a Down also make appearances, just to solidify this record as being at least half in dedication to reuniting a bunch of has-beens looking to re-ignite their careers.
That leaves us with “Armada Latina”, the surprisingly catchy, Marc Anthony-featuring single and album closer. Despite finding itself in uncharted territory for Cypress Hill, the mid-tempo track, which oddly pairs a Stephen Stills sample with the clanging of mid-tempo Latino-infused drums, is kind of…awesome? Couple that with the laid-back swagger of the Miami-born Cuban guest rapper Pitbull, and “Armada Latina” works well for what it is –a radio-friendly, laid-back club single. The track is so out of left-field and fits nowhere on the album that it’s refreshing, ending the awkwardly bloated and unbalanced Rise Up on at least a strange and interesting note, if not a positive one. Is Latino-drenched R&B next on the Cypress Hill agenda? Hell, why not?