Why are so many popular MCs so irredeemably lame? It’s a serious question that no one ever has the guts to ask. Most chart-topping rappers are more concerned with selling a lifestyle than with selling their drama. And as harsh as it may seem, many indie rappers are more concerned with defining themselves in contrast to their blinged-out counterparts than with stretching their creative vistas. Both sides of the debate are unswervingly concerned with the maddening pursuit of “keeping it real” — the former by keeping their minds exclusively on their money, and the latter by keeping it claustrophobically mundane.
Anyone who loves hip-hop might look at this falsely constructed dichotomy and ask themselves: “what the hell happened to the way hip-hop used to be?” Back in the day, when keeping it real didn’t mean keeping it boring, hardcore rappers were more concerned with rocking a party then rocking their Escalades, and true lyricists were less concerned with their bank account than their state of mind. You don’t have to sell out to the Man to rock a funky beat, any more than you have to be granola-eatin’ chump to rhyme about the shape of the world. There is no better proof of this than Azeem’s Show Business. This is one of the best albums of the year by one of the hottest MCs I’ve heard in quite a while. This guy has the goods, and he’s not afraid to show up just about every MC this side of MF Doom as the ciphers they are.
One of the album’s best tracks, “Non Stop”, begins like this:
“This is my world, you are all junkies / The soup line’s for nourishment, verbal punishment / Tape stampedes of apes on amphetamines / Hooked on that Mexican cat tranquilizer /
Hungry for melodies, memories of me / Cerebral, twelve feet above my own ego / Color patterns of Swatch watch on robots / Watch the dope swat the spot sergeant’s coppin’.
This verse is perhaps more abstract than the bulk of the disc’s rhymes, but they do spotlight the precociously catchy way with words that Azeem brings to every joint on Show Business. Look at how he begins the verse simply, with basic declarative statements, before ramping the complexity up with internal rhymes, alliteration and increasingly baroque imagery, until you what you have is a dizzyingly complex opening salvo. With just these eight lines he’s shown more imagination and verbal dexterity than many MCs do in the space of a lifetime. He’s got a flow that sounds as rich as cheesecake, that hits your ear smooth as silk, with the type of bold, clear elocution that most slang-obsessed MCs could never hope to approximate. He sounds confident, and it’s hard not to understand why with material like this. It’s a contagious feeling.
Which is not to discount the other half of Show Business, namely the beats. Whereas most indie hip-hop releases have the kind of limp-wristed beats that just wash through your ears like musical Calgon, every beat on this album hits your cerebral cortex like a brillo pad. The aforementioned “Non Stop”, with beats provided by DJs Zeph and Platurn (the beats have been provided by a group affiliated with the Bomb Hip-Hop label), is a great example of this. This beat, with a crisp bongo break set opposite a funky upright bassline and a spare disco-era string vamp, could rock any club from the ATL to Oaland. The chorus even contains vintage freestyle samples from back in the day — “guaranteed to turn a motherfuckin’ party out”. It’s just a damn fine song, a brilliant evocation of the best kind of old-school vibe, and I say that without any equivocation or caveat.
Azeem seems equally comfortable whether he’s preaching against the short-sighted materialism of his fellow rappers on “Platinum Trends” or the self-destructive nature of hip-hop grudges on “Blood, Water and Wine”. “Blood is thicker than water”, he intones, “Water is the source of life / I guess friendship is just cheap wine”. He even goes where few thugs fear to tread on the bonus track “F.U.W.”, which is an acronym for an especially insulting commentary on our beloved President.
Azeem is just a wonderfully gifted MC, fully in command of his abilities and blessed with the type of consistently phat beats that most MTV rappers would kill for. He seems to be that rare member of the hip-hop nation who understands the art and science of true lyricism — the poetry and the rhythm, the use of simple simile and metaphor to create complex effect, and the power of direct honesty to carry true sentiment. This is as fine a rap album as you’ll hear all year.