C-Rayz Walz -- no matter how hard he tries -- just isn't a party rapper.
C-Rayz Walz is a storming, stomping, powerful battle rapper beyond compare. The problem, however, is that there aren't any battles to fight right now.
For those who heard C-Rayz' debut on Definitive Jux, 2003's underrated Ravipops, the Walz sounded like he was in the middle of a fight with some invisible opponent, and he came out swinging, rapping over Victorian-era strings, jungle-ready club beats, and Joni Mitchell with equal aplomb. It wasn't flawless, but it showed a rapper with bite and courage. Unfortunately, an above-average album just wasn't cutting it at Def Jux, especially following masterpieces like Aesop Rock's Labor, Mr. Lif's I, Phantom, and El-P's Fantastic Damage. This, plus subpar releases from Party Fun Action Material and S.A. Smash (*shudder*) lead many to cite Def Jux as a once-great label already on the downfall. Walz followed it up with 2005's Year of the Beast and the following year's 1976: Return of the Beast -- the later being a personal (yet rushed) tribute to his recently slain brother. Needless to say, things weren't going the C-Rayz Way.
Sharkey has put out some indie-leaning solo releases in the past, but this music nerd soon began snagging some more wide-screen credits, working for Jean Grae, the Pharcyde, and even a late-era Public Enemy. Yet Sharkey's techno-funk sound is a far cry from Walz' comfort zone, which is perhaps why C-Rayz wanted to hook up in the first place. Would this be another collaboration on the same level as Kanye West's relationship with film composer Jon Brion? Could C-Rayz break down those commercial Wallz after long last? Listening to Monster Maker makes the answer loud and clear: no.
The problem with Monster Maker lies in the match-up itself. It should first be noted, however, that this is C-Rayz' most musically consistent album to date. Not the sound of raw demos or a mixed bag of various producers' tracks -- no, this is a cohesive album. Sharkey's beats are epic, layered, and even dynamic. Opener "This Ol' Twisted World" has the kind of overblown Las Vegas-funk that Jay-Z was trying to roll with when he released "Show Me What You Got" as his (disappointing) post-retirement comeback single. "My Way" rides on a stop-start horn crunch that sounds like the funkiest army march you've ever heard your life, and "Electric Avenue" recaptures that '80s-styled B-boy techno that DJ Z-Trip loves so much (seriously, Young MC would have a field day with it). Based on production alone, this could've been the go-to party album of 2007. Yet C-Rayz Walz -- no matter how hard he tries -- just isn't a party rapper.
Pulling off pop-rap requires a certain amount of personality. Even though Will Smith will never have genuine hood cred, the man is a born entertainer, and he reminds you of that on every line he spits. 50 Cent's VIP section is roped off by his womanizing, party-starting presence. C-Rayz Walz just sounds painfully out of place, no matter how many Technicolor synths he's surrounded with. Even though "Jumping Off at the Jump Off" is a great club track (complete with giddy cellos and can't-wait-to-dance backbeats), C-Rayz resorts to nothing more than trite cliché for a jam where the music overtakes the lyricist by storm:
When I'm in the club
I come here to party
Up-rock the party
Drink some Bacardi
I'm tryin' to shake it up
Y'all wanna to get me stirred
It's all good, girl
As the album progresses, however, the still-good productions get less imaginative, and C-Rayz continues to bring nothing to the table. In the last few tracks, Sharkey returns C-Rayz to the street-level hood beats he's more familiar with. Guests come along, but they manage to outshine the party's host. Vast Aire (himself a recovering victim of Bad Solo LP Syndrome) absolutely buries his surroundings. Often, he does it in just one verse (like the smug battle stunner: "You should turn around / In fact, you should change your nouns"). "Loss of Niche" puts C-Rayz back into boasting mode (Sharkey here sounding weak by making a cheap remake of Kanye's "Gone"), and when he references both Notorious B.I.G. and The Chronicles of Narnia within a ten-second span of time, you can tell he's back in the zone. Yet up-and-comer Zooks still gets the upper hand, cramming as much wit into a verbal diss as he possibly can:
You sound Pinocchio
Blowin' soda okie-doke
And jokas from here to Tapioca
I'm pud-ding the finish-ing
Touches on your sorry ass
Zooks brings a remarkable energy to the last part of the album, though that momentum is crushed by closing track "Slim Chances" -- a wandering, meandering piece that should've been left off the whole thing to begin with.
It's horribly unfair to criticize an artist for changing part-way through his career. No one wants to make the same record over and over again (unless you're Linkin Park), and C-Rayz Walz certainly wants to grow and expand his palette beyond what's expected of him. Unfortunately, he's just not cut out for the type of beats that Sharkey throws at him, even with a few promising glimpses here and there. C-Rayz Walz is a battle rapper through and through, and the day when he finds a synthesis for his hardcore verbal style and expanding pop sensibilities, he'll have something equating to a masterpiece. Until then, we have a disc of lyrically short club bangers that were never meant to be. Monster Maker indeed.