Azeem with Variable Unit: MayheMystics

David Morris

Variable Unit


Display Artist: Azeem With Variable Unit
Label: Wide Hive
US Release Date: 2004-04-06
UK Release Date: Available as import

If you're rocking los dreadlocks and believe that the world economy is controlled by a council of twelve and feel like you're being constantly watched and love going to drum circles where you can dance Dance DANCE without inhibition, you're going to love this album. Variable Unit is a funky lounge band mostly defined by Jacob Aginsky's warm, friendly electric organ and, on this particular release, the extremely concise cuts of DJs Quest and Zeph. The emerging sound is what you'd call a vibe, an all-come-together that harkens back to an imagined meeting between Johnny Hammond, Enya, and Portishead. It's extremely smooth and groovy and nonthreatening.

Over the top of the VU beats you've got Azeem, with a smoky flow and an apparently deeply held belief in the New World Order, the Illuminati, and computer chip implants. Hamfisted political diatribe is nothing new in hip-hop, and I guess I shouldn't be surprised considering that he did some time in Spearhead. But it's a shame that he's backslid like this, after the much more subtle work of 2001's Craft Classic, which saw him spit some actual complexity and leaven his politics with a hefty dose of wit. Here, though, in the place of subtlety he smacks you over the head with such insights as "The TV is watching us," "While the rulers and rich celebrate, we all bleed," and, heck, while we're at it:

[They're] Controlling us in secrecy/
Through organizations like
The Rosecrutians, Shriners, Templars or Freemasons,
99 Lodge, Skull and Bone,
The list just lengthens.

These beliefs, while understandable in this day and age, are a great way to let yourself get fucked over politically, and as Azeem delivers them they also make for pretty slipshod art. With his understated flow and smooth backing, he comes off like the inverse of Creed or Amy Grant, full of quasi-religious rhetoric whose superficial expansiveness -- of the auras and astrology vein -- barely masks a ploddingly literal heart. If he could bring the confrontational power and charisma of the similarly simplistic Non-Phixion, he'd be better off, but he's using his inside voice, leaning on the words rather than the delivery -- and the words repeatedly fail to illuminate. For another kind of contrast, while El-P will occasionally throw in some conspiracy talk, it's always placed in a context that struggles for the deeper, more complex truths (see ["I'm America"]). Stuck in the middle, Azeem ends up three steps removed from any truth, either street-level or transcendent.

There are moments where Azeem breaks from this blahzay formula, and it's then that you'll notice his great aural presence on the mic, somewhere between conversation and spoken word declamation. While he's not the most technically advanced emcee, his flow's undeniably solid, and when Variable Unit are feeling a bit funky, as on "What Is It?", his tight lines hint at early Jurassic 5, or even (and I can't believe I'm writing this) a more straightforward De La. It's a genuine shame that so little of MayheMystics is devoted to having this kind of fun.

Variable Unit are far too smooth for my personal taste (when you're softer than Non-Prophets, it might be time to reconsider your formula), but they are extremely tight. Their mix of lounge, jazz, and hip-hop accomplishes things structurally that haven't been done often before, deftly balancing space for verses, to-the-point solos, and evocative hooks. Probably the highlight of the whole set for me is the DJing, as Zeph and Quest are simultaneously razor-sharp and extremely musical, never letting pyrotechnics get in the way of a song. The formula may be put to best use on "Sound Field", a slowly unfolding pulse that provides plenty of space for both the group and the listener to stretch out, with Azeem interjecting occasional ad-libs that thankfully hew away from politics.






Zadie Smith's 'Intimations' Essays Pandemic With Erudite Wit and Compassion

Zadie Smith's Intimations is an essay collection of gleaming, wry, and crisp prose that wears its erudition lightly but takes flight on both everyday and lofty matters.


Phil Elverum Sings His Memoir on 'Microphones in 2020'

On his first studio album under the Microphones moniker since 2003, Phil Elverum shows he has been recording the same song since he was a teenager in the mid-1990s. Microphones in 2020 might be his apex as a songwriter.


Washed Out's 'Purple Noon' Supplies Reassurance and Comfort

Washed Out's Purple Noon makes an argument against cynicism simply by existing and sounding as good as it does.


'Eight Gates' Is Jason Molina's Stark, Haunting, Posthumous Artistic Statement

The ten songs on Eight Gates from the late Jason Molina are fascinating, despite – or perhaps because of – their raw, unfinished feel.


Apocalypse '45 Uses Gloriously Restored Footage to Reveal the Ugliest Side of Our Nature

Erik Nelson's gorgeously restored Pacific War color footage in Apocalypse '45 makes a dramatic backdrop for his revealing interviews with veterans who survived the brutality of "a war without mercy".


12 Brilliant Recent Jazz Albums That Shouldn't Be Missed

There is so much wonderful creative music these days that even an apartment-bound critic misses too much of it. Here is jazz from the last 18 months that shouldn't be missed.


Blues Legend Bobby Rush Reinvigorates the Classic "Dust My Broom" (premiere)

Still going strong at 86, blues legend Bobby Rush presents "Dust My Broom" from an upcoming salute to Mississippi blues history, Rawer Than Raw, rendered in his inimitable style.


Folk Rock's the Brevet Give a Glimmer of Hope With "Blue Coast" (premiere)

Dreamy bits of sunshine find their way through the clouds of dreams dashed and lives on the brink of despair on "Blue Coast" from soulful rockers the Brevet.


Michael McArthur's "How to Fall in Love" Isn't a Roadmap (premiere)

In tune with classic 1970s folk, Michael McArthur weaves a spellbinding tale of personal growth and hope for the future with "How to Fall in Love".


Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.


The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.


Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.


Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.


Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.


The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.


Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.


Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.


Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.