If the duo’s name didn’t spell it out for you, the cover art for Gangrene’s Gutter Water certainly will: this is not sexy music.
Save for one sampled line, the gutter isn’t a melodic place. There’s no singing, let alone Auto-Tune. Raekwon is the closest to “household name” status, although an impassioned Guilty Simpson earns his place in 2011’s Most Wanted file. Women are nowhere to be seen. Hell, most of the songs don’t even have refrains. The result is something like a hip-hop version of The Expendables without the star power, all bad boys and no bull.
Vet producer Alchemist and rapper Oh No (you may know his brother, Madlib) take pride in making some confrontational gutter shit, all weird samples and wet basement fungus. Production duties get split down the middle, and the two kick up beats as ugly as the album’s swampy cover. But peppered with sub-Wu-Tang samples, many sewage-related, the album often sounds too boilerplate to be exciting. Aside from one of the Big Twins, whose Louie Armstrong flow begs for a throat lozenge, every rapper here — including the hosts — sounds like a faceless orbital member of a hip-hop posse, better suited to backing up superstar livewires.
For all the lack of personality here, Gangrene sure tries hard to let heads know how unpretty this is. Having taken three years to perfect the levels of nasty, Gutter Water opens with a wicked laugh, another song with a deathless scream. Before the guest appearances, Alchemist informs us whose show it is, but suffers from the same stilted rhymes that hinder most producers, for whom rhyming is a flirtation. Witness the thrilling soliloquy that opens “Boss Shit” — “I hit back in my chair / And smoke on a fat blunt / And smoke until the blunt disappears”. Do go on!
Oh No fares better with a cool but focused flow that loiters at the intersection of LL Cool J and Fabolous. He’s a competent MC, but often gets into a monotone rut that hurts most “purist” hip-hop releases. Don’t expect raps about sarcophagus pussies or brain-eating in Tonka trucks, although there is more than one reference to cutting someone’s tongue out. Oh No does get in some bizarre one-liners (“I stay high like the pussy of a giraffe is”), and Evidence uses his spot on “Wassup Wassup” to do with “chips” what Jay-Z did with “to/two/too” back in ’96, laying on slice-of-life detail like frosting: “Wait my turn, these cats tap, I default / Sit and watch, eating kettle chips with sea salt”. Generally though, the lyricism leaves something to be desired, and with few head-cocking moments, the couplets can’t help sinking into the sludge.
Musically, envelope-pushing was never Alchemist’s thing; it’s not Gangrene’s either, and trends aside, there will always be a place for camouflaged head-nodders. Alc is still set on shaping street struggles into strident bravado (peaking on Jadakiss’s “We Gonna Make It”, which made moving enough coke to fill a whale sound like a civil service). You don’t need to reinvent the wheel to make good hip-hop, but the 10-and-2 driving gets dull after a while.
The best cuts are Alchemist creations painting a single metered keyboard stab like a lane marker on top of gritty drum tracks, as on slow rollers like “Not High Enough” and the horn-driven title track. Unfortunately, the catchiest song, a neck-snapping monster by Oh No called “Take Drugs”, half-asses a blunt chorus (instructions: repeat title in a stuttery fashion) that D12 would’ve rejected for being too obvious. For what it’s worth, though, “Get Into Some Gangster Shit” has to be the best song with the words “gangster shit” in the title.
Despite Gangrene’s (worthwhile) commitment to keeping it realer than radio, the visual metaphor on Gutter Water is a stretch: the music isn’t shit, but it’s not the shit either.