Dilated Peoples are one of those groups whose major label work has never managed to completely fulfill the promise of their early, underground releases. They've been stuck in the conundrum that's familiar to a lot of groups that have made their way "up" through the ranks: bands sign to major labels because they want more publicity and promotion, and to sell lots of records. Yet they want to accomplish all of this without appearing so crass as to alienate their cult following. The catch is that these days few major labels are willing to allow bands to make a gradual transition from cult heroes to superstars. It's all or nothing.
Neighborhood Watch is Dilated Peoples' third album for Capitol. 2000's debut The Platform and 2001's Expansion Team split their loyal fan base but saw steadily increasing sales. Now it's clear that Neighborhood Watch is meant to be their big break, whether the group -- MC's Evolution and Iriscience and DJ Babu -- devised it that way or not. Fiercely purist, Dilated bait mainstream radio by calling in old buddy Kanye West, who just happens to be hip hop's producer of the moment, for some help. Then, as if out of guilt, they stick the West collaboration, "This Way", at the end of the album. But you still can't read about Neighborhood Watch without reading about West and "This Way". It would almost be easy to forget that there are a dozen other songs on the album.
Here's another good example of the tough situation Dilated are in: On "Reach Us", they decry "commercials that talk you into buying shit". Yet the Neighborhood Watch press release boasts how "This Way" has been licensed by Volvo as part of their new, urban-oriented advertising campaign. Television advertising is the new MTV, so what's the big deal if an up-and-coming rap group (who are honest about their ambitions, by the way) work the system to their advantage? The best way for Dilated to render questions like this moot would have been to deliver a killer album that so impressed hardcore fans and newcomers alike that the band's commercial aspirations became irrelevant (think the Roots' Things Fall Apart or Moby's Play). Unfortunately, Neighborhood Watch sounds for the most part weak and tired. Three years in the making, it makes you wonder if the band were struggling to come up with material.
Lyrically, Evidence's and Iriscience's themes are consistent, if not well-defined or cleverly-rhymed. They don't trust anyone. Not criminals, cops, the government, rival crews, capitalism, the schools, the streets, women, not even their own fans. Reasons for and possible solutions to the problems aren't well articulated, so the result sounds like so much paranoid sputtering. On "Poisonous", Iriscience warns about women who "[f]ront like they're fans / Only out for your bucks". "Big Business", though, takes the cake for ill-advised socio-political commentary: "I fight for peace, that's what the problem is / War's big business, just ask an economist." If you're fighting for peace, isn't that war, too? And if you're going to get your point across, it's gonna take a more smoothly-phrased couplet than, "Fightin's nothin' new to me / I even corrected what the public school system tried to do to me." What did they do, anyway? And what does this have to do with war and "Big Business"? Symptomatic of the whole album, it's a classic case of good intentions, poor execution. The only thing Dilated can trust is their crew, their family. We know this because they tell us several times.
Marginal rhymes might have been carried along by outstanding production, but most of Neighborhood Watch's beats are leaden, too. Although several producers, including Evidence and regular Alchemist, are involved, the rhythms thump along reliably but slowly. "Marathon", for example, rides a catchy but played-out Bootsy Collins bassline. There are some exceptions. The Evidence-produced "Who's Who" is carried by a funky wah-wah sample, a one-note ringing sound and Babu's excellent turntable work, which is the album's only consistent strength. The atmospheric "Reach Us" opens things up and lets some air in, while "Love and War", another Evidence production, makes good use of Kanye West's trick, the sped-up soul sample. "DJ Babu in Deep Concentration", an instrumental showcase for Babu's skills, just might be Neighborhood Watch's best track. As for the big West collaboration, "This Way" co-opts a female-sung R&B chorus a la Black Eyed Peas. It's striking and anthemic, but not as memorable as hoped for.
Make no mistake, Neighborhood Watch's steady hand is preferable to lots of the hyperactive, misogynist junk out there. But it shows that Dilated have completely lost the edge of early singles like "Triple Optics" and "Third Degree". So far, it hasn't paid off; "This Way" stalled at Number 23 on Billboard's Hot Rap Tracks chart, while Neighborhood Watch hasn't sold as well as Expansion Team. If those Volvo ads don't turn things around, Capitol will show Dilated Peoples the way back to the underground, where they'd probably be better off, anyway.