At the heart of vocal hip-hop lie two elements, MC’ing and production. Sometimes one can make up for shortfalls in the other, although strong production arguably carries more weight, as the success of the Neptunes shows. While Afu-Ra is a skilled MC, his voice is somewhat unmemorable, and his career highlights have mostly come from hot beats rather than hot rhymes. State of the Arts, his latest album, is no exception.
It didn’t always used to be this way. Afu-Ra burst onto the hip-hop scene with blazing verses on Jeru the Damaja’s “Mental Stamina” and its 1996 sequel, “Physical Stamina”. DJ Premier’s tight production helped make these tunes classics, and anticipation ran high for Afu-Ra’s solo debut, Body of the Life Force. He didn’t disappoint, dropping martial-arts-inspired rhymes over minimal boom-bap production by Premier, DJ Muggs, and Da Beatminerz. But the uneven Life Force Radio followed, with its poppier, more radio-friendly production. Afu-Ra seemed like he didn’t know whether to continue the lyrical wordplay that made his name, or to turn the party out.
On State of the Arts, Afu-Ra seems to have cast his lot with moving asses rather than minds. Perhaps influenced by his sex-obsessed Perverted Monks side project, the album is full of big, shiny production aimed at the dancefloor. After the obligatory unnecessary intro, the album opens with the strongly head-nodding “God of Rap”. However, the momentum dies afterwards with a self-aggrandizing skit (there should be a circle of hell where rappers must eternally listen to their skits), and the trudging “Pusha”, with its clichéd, melodramatic strings and Kanye-West-cribbed helium vocal hooks.
Production-wise, the rest of the album is hit-or-miss. “Cry Baby” is unexpectedly soulful, while the relatively minimal “Poisonous Taoist” recalls the glories of mid-’90s hip-hop. But “Livin Like Dat” has an out-of-key sample from Ini Kamoze’s “Here Comes the Hotstepper”, and even Premier’s beat on “Sucka Free” is relatively lightweight. “Rumble” is downright cheesy, with its replayed (and uncredited, tsk, tsk) riff from Judas Priest’s “Breaking the Law”, while “BK Dance” jacks Yellowman’s “Nobody move, nobody get hurt” refrain. But unlike Eazy-E’s “Nobody Move”, the theft is shameless, with nothing resembling content to justify the hook.
In the midst of all this is a frustratingly inconsequential vocal presence. The promo sheet states that the lyrics here are more “straightforward and tighter” than before, but no lines hit hard, no turns of phrase dazzle. The result is just uninspired simplicity. The low point is perhaps this Beastie-Boys-esque verse in “Prankster”:
You can’t stop this hard rock, rock, ready to rock this
I got lyrical ability to bring the hot shit
I swat so many cats to (?) (?)
‘Cause I’m cold as ice, forget the ice in your watch, kid
Spit more flames than the back of a rocket
Mic check 1-2, gunning down my targets
I be the madman in front of the cam
That be stealing your fans, jump up on the red carpet
Make more connections than Nextel, ring your bell
My first connection made your fucking lip swell
Make more noise than a terrorist attack
I’m dangerous like that, in facts, my boys burn up the wax
Uh that’s the way I put myself on the map
I’m a dope MC, I put the squeeze on the dope tracks
Body carefree and a dope track
100-round banana clip, bleed you where you at
Is this really the same MC who, in 1994, 46 seconds into “Mental Stamina”, spit:
Influential, scientifical power
My mental violence will shower
Devour at a crazy rate, I speed into your circuits
and incorporatin’ data banks
Stamina, in the brain is how I slay it
I enforce my boss and I always must obey it
Endorsing a central rhyme of remedies
Against any man at arms that can get with thee
Say it ain’t so, Afu.