Fresh off the heels of yet another founding member's untimely death, Slum Village's first release in five years finds all four group members on record together for the first time, and ignores the group's hard-luck tale in favor of releasing their best record in 10 years.
As sad as Villa Manifesto's storyline is, this record is also without a doubt the strongest in the group's post-Dilla catalog. Like fellow goofballs De la Soul, Slum Village have spent the better part of this decade refining their style into a more distinctly hardcore, street delivery. And while it does maybe strip the group of some unique traits, much like De la Soul's Grind Date, this album finds their soul searching coming to a near-immaculate crest. Yes, two of the group's original three members, J Dilla and Baatin, have passed on in the past four years. And sure, maybe T3 and Elzhi no longer get along, and granted, maybe Young RJ, this album's main producer and former Black Milk teammate as B.R. Gunna, is to blame for much of that thanks to the politics of his Barak label. But while listening to Villa Manifesto, one would be largely unaware of the awkward politicking going on behind the scenes.
In fact, Villa Manifesto is a family affair in the vein of the Dirty District mixtape, as Baatin returns to the fold for a major presence on the album and three J Dilla verses are lifted from the vaults. It's a shame that Elzhi's contribution is cut short here (reduced from full-time member to what are essentially seven non-features) but he makes the most of his opportunities, sounding like the group's most advanced spitologist as always.
A bevy of listeners are probably looking to Slum Village for great production, though, and Villa Manifesto certainly doesn't disappoint. Hi-Tek sounds revitalized after his somewhat lifeless Revolutions Per Minute production, while Supa Dave West, Mr. Porter and Khrysis all contribute work that fits perfectly with Young RJ and J Dilla's vibe. Speaking of RJ, much of his work resembles Black Milk's aggressive Tronic-style, and confuses me as to how his star hasn't broken out like Milk's has.
The album takes a little bit to really get rolling, and the Big Rube/Lonnie Lynn-esque monologue to close "Scheming" slows things down when they shouldn't, but starting with "Earl Flinn", Villa Manifesto becomes a real pleasure. "Flinn" is technically a restructuring of Madlib's beat for another Detroit group (Frank-N-Dank), but the sample is so hype that nobody's going to be mad Lib flipped it for the D again. "Faster" is definitely the most blatantly pop track in SV's catalog, but it's also Munroe's best feature since 2008's Tronic (also his first).
"2000 Beyond" gets a huge boost from ?uestlove's best Funky Drummer riffs and acts as a climax of sorts for the album's first act. From there, the album maintains a standard of quality that's only really intruded on with the odd chorus and rhythm of "Um Um". But as the musical ideas start to take a bit of a backseat, you get "The Reunion, Pt. 2" as Baatin brings his struggles with drug abuse to hard copy more matter-of-fact and emotional than ever before.
The rest of the music, whether it's the too-brief conscious back-and-forth with Little Brother on "Where Do We Go from Here?", the disco-funk floor filler of "Dance", the long soul session with Dwele "Don't Fight the Feeling" or the following 3-minute T3 instrumental "Daylight", Villa Manifesto proves time and time again to be a slavishly cohesive release. It feels very much like a labor of love for T3 and his cohorts. Even Illa, J Dilla's brother, turns in a pair of exuberant performances after his mostly lukewarm debut a couple years ago.
The MCs (save Elzhi) in Slum Village still aren't life changers, but their techniques and verses are so refined and in pocket that it hardly matters. Villa Manifesto may not be one of 2010's most successful releases commercially, but the respect it pays to the Slum Village brand, its pair of fallen members, the spirit of Detroit hip-hop and its listeners deserves recognition. Beyond that, the fan service provided by collecting nearly all the major players in the SV sound over the past two decades in one place for the first time is enough to make a Detroit fanboy like me come close to tears. You won't find many more cared-for hip-hop efforts this year.