Simpson's grumbling's gotten boring, but Oh-No's beats are as fresh as they've ever been (straight off the farm, we're talking).
Guilty Simpson's a hypocrite: For somebody who spends the better part of a song entitled "Look Alive" imploring his listeners to, well, "look alive", he squanders the few precious moments he's got on this five-track mix-tape slurring like a drunk making only a passing try at coming out of a coma. Whether he's marking his territory, as with "Rap Stampede" or proclaiming his plans to advance hip-hop in "The Next Phase", his vocals seem powerless and confused; when his voice fades out proclaiming that he's "moving on to the next phase" he can barely make it through the word "phase" before the lilt leaves his words and they flat-line. There are moments in "Look Alive" where the music drops for a silent sting that seems meant to emphasize the importance of Simpson's single, stabbing word but the words he chooses are so trivial -- in one moment all he can think to say is "wow" -- and the delivery so deflated one is left wondering if he actually pronounced the words or if he is merely expelling air after being poked with a needle.
There are rare moments where his voice rises in aggression to impart a much needed tension to the music but it's miscalculated. Worse, it's aimed at the wrong targets entirely. While the lyrics often suggest that Simpson's protesting other rappers, the callousness of the society he grew up in or a failing relationship his vocals are so desperately playing catch up with producer Oh-No's beats that it sounds as if his conflict is with these same beats. If "Presence" is the only track that features a living Simpson the only reason anyone can tell is because finally, one hears Simpson panting: He's chasing the rhythm and melody so doggedly that he's got to stop and take a few moments to inhale and exhale (maybe this explains those deflated "wow"s?).
And he needs those breaths, too, because despite the often languid pace of Oh-No's complex rhythmic loops there's nothing lazy going on here. Maybe this is why they decided to include instrumentals of every song on the B-side of the tape: Somebody at Stones Throw recognized just how impressive these samples are. What emerges in "Ragged" without the distracting, threadbare vocals is just how nervous the song really is; what sounded like a gentle heartbeat before now reveals itself for a heart about to burst and a sense, a prevailing tension, that the song could stop short at any second. If "Next Phase" sounded clichéd before (how many rap songs are there about moving rap music beyond the milieu? Gang Starr practically made a career off of this kind of posturing) it sounds spacey and confident here.
There are the occasional superfluous bloops and whirs that seem meant to emphasize in the most banal way how far out in the stratosphere the track is but they're easy to overlook in the face of some honest-to-god laid-back funk and some brilliantly inserted backing drums that peep up from time to time with just enough subtlety to lend much-needed body where none even seemed to be lacking before. Only "Rap Stampede" seems ill-serviced by the change. As unwelcome as Simpson's slurred mumbling and his idiotic lyrics were ("I'm eating out Italian / It's a cakewalk/ I did the host like'a Little Debbie..." make a strong case against rap-as-poetry) they masked just how bland this stumbler, less a stampede than a single elephant swaying and stomping carelessly, really is.
Guilty Simpson's always occupied an interesting strata of the rap paradigm, has always been able to get by on his strange, charming mix of big-dog machismo, inebriated anger and strange ability to bring his vocals down to a kind of purr, but this album reveals how limited this toolset is. If he's unable to mesh with instrumentals even this strong then there may be a reason he sounds so lifeless on this album: he may, in fact, actually be dead.