Although it's not perfect, Innovative Life is a strong showing of an unfortunately overlooked era in hip-hop.
It would only make sense for Stones Throw to sign Arabian Prince, one of the founding members of NWA. Before taking a stab at gangster rap, he was a trendsetter in the world of electro-hop, which has seen its share of minor comebacks. Timbaland is perhaps the greatest and most successful electro-revivalist, blending synth-heavy production with monotonous rhymes that are potent, albeit clichéd. And then there is Stones Throw's own James Pants, whose solid debut Welcome was oozing with the '80s. But for Arabian Prince and other acts of his era, the thumping bass, handclaps, and somewhat-silly raps were what was new and hot, not a trendy way to relive the past.
An album like Innovative Life: The Anthology, 1984-1989 puts a fresh perspective on a time that so many hip-hop fans today either disregard or ignore. Sure, it's not easily accessible and some of it is corny. OK, a lot of it is corny. But, as with any genre just starting out, there are some diamonds in the rough, and one of those is Arabian Prince. Not only does this CD deliver the goods musically, but its accompanying liner notes are fantastic. The booklet reads like a mini-encyclopedia of West Coast rap's origins and how electro evolved into gangster rap in the '80s. For example, there is a two-page timeline outlining major events in the genre from 1982 through 1989. An excerpt from 1986: "Ice T drops '6 in the Morning' on Techno Hop Records. It is considered to be the second gangsta rap record. The melody sounds close to Schoolly D's 'PSK'." And that's just one of three facts from that year.
But a review of the liner notes this is not. As written, the music here is what takes the glittery, Jheri-curl-ridden artist center stage, and -- for the most part -- Arabian Prince does a fine job of commanding your attention. Album-opener "Strange Life", with its syrupy synths and simplistic beat, perfectly captures the feel of '80s electro. Arabian Prince spits casually about numerous subjects ranging from women to his personality as the handclaps and thick bass slam in the background. "Strange Life" is truly old school hip-hop at its finest. And it's not hard to imagine the b-boys and b-girls hitting the floor during the mostly instrumental last two minutes. It's followed by the funky-as-hell "It Ain't Tough", a song directed at the ladies that is clearly heavily influenced by Prince, particularly the sensuality-oozing vocal delivery. Similarly, "Take You Home" is another techno track describing Arabian Prince's encounter with a female who catches his eye at a club. And as the track title indicates, he's looking to take this one home. Of course, she complies, even showing her enthusiasm over the hook as she sings "Take me home boy / It'll be all right". Even though the track shows its age in spades, it could warrant some spins at a party where everyone has a slight buzz and just wants to dance.
It's at this point, though, that the problem plaguing Innovative Life becomes most apparent. The lack of variety here is, to be blunt, troublesome. Whereas similar acts like Whodini and Mantronix, two other under-appreciated hip-hop forefathers, mixed things up enough to stay fresh, Arabian Prince stayed with a tried and true sound. In particular, the title-track and its continuation, "Innovation", blend into one another. While the cohesion is appreciated, it can grow tiring. Also, certain tracks simply drag on far too long. Breaking the mold, however, are the two bonus instrumentals, "Simple Planet" and "Beatdabeat". Both of them sound like they crawled out of an '80s action film where you spent more of your time listening to the music than watching the flick. Just as much of the production feels recycled, Arabian Prince isn't too impressive in the booth. Although he spits a few fresh lines here and there, Arabian Prince's stoic, abecedarian flow is sometimes difficult to take seriously. As much fun as "Lets Hit the Beach" is, the Prince's awkward rhyming peaks at the song's end when he does a slight play on "Row, Row, Row Your Boat".
If you can get past those inefficiencies, however, what you are left with is a strong showing of an unfortunately overlooked era in hip-hop. Arabian Prince might not be the go-to-guy for electro, but his far-reaching influence and abilities do not go unnoticed. If you are looking for an album that will make you shake your ass and teach you a thing or two, Innovative Life is for you. And even if you consider yourself well-versed in hip-hop's humble beginnings, you should still give this one a spin.