7L & Esoteric’s latest release, A New Dope, left me scrambling for words, searching for the best way to introduce it. I mean, I could just say, “This Bostonian duo has taken an unorthodox approach to crafting this record.” But having you experience it, short of buying the actual album? Well, that’s a different flavor altogether.
I thought I’d start with one of those lateral thinking problems, you know the ones where you’re given a scenario with only a few pertinent facts and you’re asked to explain or solve some apparent contradiction. Something like, “A father and son are involved in an accident, the son is badly hurt, and when the father takes the son to the hospital, the surgeon declares, ‘I can’t operate on him, he’s my son!'”
Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to figure out how the heck this kid could be the son of the “surgeon” as well as the “father”. The answer, of course, is simple enough, since most of us are the biological offspring of two people. There are exceptions, but this isn’t Maury or Springer, this is a music review. Keep it simple. The surgeon, therefore, is the boy’s mother. The problem compels you to examine your assumptions because if you assume a surgeon is male based solely on the word “surgeon”, you’ll never get the solution.
At this point, you might expect me to say “Tada!”, or insert a parenthetical drum roll, and then go on to explain how 7L & Esoteric’s music demands that you suspend your assumptions about hip-hop. Then, I’d say their new album takes a sideways approach that allows you to see the process of creating an album from a different angle. And then I could tie it all together with a clever punch line about how this duo succeeds in challenging musical norms with the same finesse as the lateral thinking problem recited above.
Yeah, I could. But I won’t. Because that “lateral thinking” analogy is corny. And (now’s the time for the “Tada!” or the drum roll) that’s my point.
While it’s true that 7L & Esoteric’s “new dope” might indeed be something different from the norm, differentness doesn’t guarantee greatness. Being great, or even good, takes skill. It also takes vision (and maybe some luck as well). Luckily (for them and for us), 7L & Esoteric meet all those requirements and then some. The result is as great as it is entertaining.
When I opened the press kit, I found a gold Staples brand CD-R. On it, the words “A New Dope” and “Press Advance” were scrawled in red marker. Above all that, the band name “7L + Esoteric” (with the “i” and the “c” so close together they formed a “k”) was also scribbled in red. There was no album cover, only a black and white press release with comments from the artists and a track listing. I almost expected the CD to give me mission instructions and then announce a five-second window before self-destruction.
Don’t take that to mean the music itself is generic. It’s not. True, they’re taking their craft in a different direction (compare this album to Esoteric’s freestyle available for download at The Demigodz website). But 7L & Esoteric are vets in this game; they were kicking beats and lyrics before the Fresh Prince moved out to Bel-Air. It’s just that they’ve got a new agenda this time around, hence the album title. And they’ve got a concept as well. Peep the album cover at 7L & Esoteric’s MySpace page, a poster-like display of the two artists in boxing gear, putting up their dukes and posing as if ready to pounce. It’s humorous and, much like that lateral thinking problem I mentioned earlier, it takes a sideways approach to the business. As I see it, the boxing analogy references the duo’s new strategy for making hits. Get it — hits? (Okay, maybe it’s just me.)
No matter how you look at it, the project’s unique, starting off with “Dumb”, the first injection of the duo’s specially formulated dopeness. “Dumb” epitomizes the theme of the disc — that is, the slang of “gettin’ dumb” or having a good time, but there’s a bigger picture too. There’s a time capsule effect through the use of cultural references laced over a techno-like beat, such as:
Mike Tyson’s such a clever guy
Illmatic was good, but it’s no Aquemini
I spoke with Madonna on I.M.
MySpace, Led Zeppelin’s my friend.
Then there’s the other definition of “dumb”, the type made popular by Run D.M.C.’s “You Be Illin'”: “When you give your girlfriend a lift / to a guy friend’s, you don’t even question it” and “When you party like a rock star / drive drunk, break down, and flag down a cop car”. Now that’s dumb.
The next song, “Everywhere”, strikes with a hard beat and cleverly positioned keys. Plus, 7L’s samples and tempo changes provide a nice contrast to Esoteric’s consistent flow. Yet, elsewhere, the DJ and the rapper work in unison, like on “3 Minute Classic” where we find Esoteric’s sexual innuendo (“Triple X like Tic Tac Toe”) appropriately matched by 7L’s steady rhythm. Similarly, “Daisycutta”, one of the album’s best cuts, features Kool Keith and Esoteric trading verses at breakneck pace, ripping the cover off of 7L’s ferociously stormy track. On “Reggie Lewis is Watching”, when the lyrics set the date for 1987, the style of the track makes you feel like you’re back there (especially those dope scratches!) while the execution keeps you aware that you’re hearing something new. It’s also a sign that, like the picture on the album cover, 7L & Esoteric are both essential to the musical fight, with their own formidable talents, unlike a picture that might show one (usually the rapper) standing in front of the other (usually the guy who spins the records). That’s dope, ain’t it?
The prevalence of the “techno” sound, along with Esoteric’s humor and ease of delivery, gives the album an Art-of-Noise-meets-De-la-Soul quality. That’s not a bad thing — actually, it’s downright brilliant — despite the potential for the songs to sound alike. However, there are some exceptions to the general “techno” rule, and these musical exceptions keep the record fresh. Wait, did I say “fresh”? I meant “dope” — because that’s the best way to describe “Take Note”, with its ominous bass line that sounds like it escaped right out of the ’70s. “Feel The Velvet”, a slower grind, also diverges in a good way from the rest of the material. More laid back, this song is smooth and conversational.
If I had to get myself in trouble by pointing out a negative, I’d vote to leave off “Play Dumb”, the last song and revisited version of “Get Dumb”. It’s not nearly as engaging as the first appearance. And, as previously mentioned, the production tends to sound alike, even though this gives the project the bonus of being consistent and thematic. But that’s all right; you can get away with that when you’re dope.
On balance, A New Dope is a treat and a welcome departure from whatever else might be lodged in your CD player. Get it, play it, and play it again.