Experiments are good for hip-hop. Sometimes the success is in the attempt.
California Bay Area emcee Azeem is undoubtedly one of the most gifted writers in music, and especially in hip-hop. I'm calling him an "emcee" rather than a "rapper", but not necessarily in the Rakim sense of the word "emcee" (i.e. he "moves" the "crowd"). It's more of an antonym to the image of the garden variety rhymer standing in front of a microphone saying, "Yes, yes, y'all" and "Throw your hands in the air and wave 'em like you just don't care."
Azeem doesn't seem too keen on being called a "rapper" anyway. On his 2007 release with DJ Zeph, Rise Up, Azeem declared in "Everything's Different":
Imagine meetin' your girl's parents and they ask you, "What do you do for a living?"
Now how the hell do I sound, talkin' 'bout, "I'm a rapper"?…
Now look at the frame you place yourself in right there.
On his latest, Air Cartoons, he presents a similar issue in the song "Ghettofarian Style": "Problem? You ain't no solution / F*ckin' rapper. I'm a Human Influence". The assumption that Azeem aspires to be more than a mere "rapper" wouldn't be unfounded, although being a "human influence" might sound a bit lofty. And here you probably thought rappers only had dreams of becoming movie stars. You didn't know they wanted to be "human influences", did you?
I've also described Azeem as a "writer", not a "songwriter", which is in no way intended as a slight. To the contrary, it's meant as a compliment, a testament to Azeem's wit and skill in building engaging rhymes. A talented slam poet, Azeem possesses an enviable love affair with language that's as playful as it is cerebral. The man can really turn a phrase, evidenced by the lyrics reprinted in the Air Cartoons CD booklet. No doubt, reprinted lyrics aren't necessarily impressive on their own, but in this case the act of reprinting them indicates a certain level of confidence. "I'm proud of what I wrote," the artist might be saying. "I want people to know what I'm saying." Here, the lyrics make for a fun read. As lyrical as "real hip-hop" purports to be, the rhymes aren't always showcased in the booklets. A rhyme that can hold your attention on paper stands a real chance of being a solid listen over a dope beat.
Air Cartoons is an intriguing experiment and, as such, is a record that's uniquely worthy of multiple listens, even if it doesn't wholly satisfy. It's "good", but not "great". Zeph & Azeem's Rise Up was great, stellar in fact, boasting a heavy duty shot of lyricism, humor, diversity of subject matter, and a variety of musical styles. Rise Up's shortcomings were few, but pronounced. It was too short on complete rhythm-and-rhymes, carrying a couple of instrumentals that could have either been fleshed out or completely eliminated. Some saw the record as a departure from Azeem's politically-oriented solo work. And, just so we're clear, "politically-oriented" includes all of my favorite conspiracy theories -- references to "the Illuminati", conjecture about the origins of plagues and diseases, theories concerning the assassinations of historical figures and world leaders, and any other nugget of government collusion. On Air Cartoons, we find much of this in the meandering track "What If", and lightly sprinkled elsewhere throughout the album.
I actually like conspiracy theories. In a really strange way, they allow us to carve a sense of order out of the world's chaos. They give us the feeling that seemingly random events can be fashioned into some semblance of rationality. Of course, all of this comes with a price, such as accepting the worldview that a handful of evildoers are the prime movers of global misery. Other than that, it's all good.
From the perspective of a music lover, conspiracy theories present a few problems. First, they aren't verifiable. You can't prove them, which might be fine enough for an informal debate, but ultimately undermines their effectiveness as fodder for song lyrics. Often, it's unclear what the artist wants the audience to do with the song's information, since conspiracy theories tend to raise more questions than they answer.
In "What If", Azeem asks, "What if killing Kennedy was really a coup?" and "What if the Bush Family let the drugs come through / What if the CIA had a hand in it too?". Even if we are inclined to take these lines as rhetorical questions, and, further, are inclined to believe what's being implied, we are still left spinning our wheels. If we accept the song's scenarios as true, what is Azeem asking us to do then? Is it enough to just know the plots exist? Moreover, if the plots do exist, should we be dancing to them? The listener is left in a difficult position. And, no, I don't accept the possibility that the song is actually Azeem's way of making fun of conspiracy theories. Otherwise, every "bad song" could be rationalized as a satirical take on bad songs in general.
Another problem with Azeem's conspiracy material is that the bluntness it requires clashes with the subtleties of Azeem's otherwise poetic incantations. Politically-oriented often sometimes comes across as direct and confrontational. That's probably why Public Enemy's Chuck D embraced the coarseness of his subject matter, declaring himself "louder than a bomb" and telling folks straight up that his "uzi weighs a ton".
Azeem's experimentation has its high points, though. The most interesting aspects are in the production department, including contributions from Meat Beat Manifesto, DNAE Beats, DJ Spin, DJ Aneurysm, DJ Zeph, Mark Pistel, Anas Cannon, and Kontroversy 396. Despite this diverse squad of producers, the results are nonetheless consistent, with a running theme of futuristic sounds, weird synthesizers, killer scratching from DJ Quest and DJ Z-Trip, and some intriguingly off-center rhythms. Azeem plays into the motif with intermittent references to the year 2017, time machines, and dream sequences, not to mention his dreamy lyricism. DJ Zeph's contributions in "Latin Revenge" would be the biggest departure from the formula, the song being adorned with swinging horns and a breezy, laidback vibe. "Latin Revenge" would probably have been more at home on Rise Up.
The best songs blend Azeem's wordplay with the creativity of his beat makers. "Open 'Em Up", for instance, is a standout, chopping its backing samples in a way that would make DJ Premier nod in approval. Elsewhere, DJ Aneurysm's work in "Triple 6's" reaches for the sublime sonic abstraction that Polyphonic & Serengeti pulled off for 2007's Never Give Up. Likewise, "Welcome to the Serengeti" may be the impetus for a new sub-genre in hip-hop -- minimalist digital Afrobeat (we'll tweak the name and call it "mini digi A-beat"). Even the not-so-hot tracks provide fascinating moments. Yes, it's true that the indigenous war cry added for the hook in "Ghettofarian Style" is quite annoying, but the choice to use it at least fits the song. I can honestly say it's memorable, even if I despise it. Another track, "Set a Blaze", loses the steam it professes to have, but its execution makes Azeem sound like he's rapping from the inside of the very machine he's raging against. That bit of irony is kind of insightful.
And so, as a whole, the experimentation is good. We can always use that, with the understanding that experiments will yield missteps along the way. Here, the missteps come in the form of too many repetitive hooks, a couple of mismatched selections for the beats, and a few ideas that might have remained thought bubbles until they were better developed. "I'm Wac Pt. 2" probably falls into the latter category. Nevertheless, Azeem's skill is undeniable, which is why Air Cartoons should leave us feeling optimistic about his next project.