Over the best part of two decades hip-hop producer DJ Exile and soul sensation, Aloe Blacc have collaborated on numerous releases under the name Emanon. Blacc may be the headline name in the duo but this is undoubtedly a musical partnership. The two have been recording together since their teens and the chemistry between the two is obvious from the outset. DJ Exile creates taut hip-hop backdrops for Blacc’s social commentaries. The pair sounds supremely confident and effortless as they lock into each other’s groove. This is their first album in almost 10 years and sees them make their most powerful and politically astute album yet.
After years working with such heavyweights as Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa, DJ Exile has a clear understanding of how best to craft dynamic soundtracks, ones that serve as perfect accompaniments to Blacc’s agile social commentary. A number of songs are built on jazzy foundations often using an upright bass such as on “Make It Over” and “Forgive Us”. Both of which are reminiscent of Digable Planets and A Tribe Called Quest. “Yesterday” features clear yet slightly mournful jazz piano chords that is the perfect bed for Blacc’s wordy flow.
That is not to say that these are just mood pieces with rhymes over the top. There are an abundance of hooks and melodies that are as hummable as the topic matter is engaging. DJ Exile skillfully uses the high pitch hook of “Shine Your Light” in the song of the same name. It’s a bright and breezy counterpoint to Blacc’s furious pleas for the world to focus on corruption and injustice. Emanon successfully pulls off the same trick with “Forgive Us”. Once again Exile weaves in a cleverly used musical sample as Blacc deftly jabs with cutting social barbs.
There is plenty of variety on show throughout the album. The pounding, marching rhythm of “Death Is Fair” and the heavy groove of “Night Stalker” are two standouts that underscore the pair’s wealth of experience. Impressively, the whole album sounds fresh and free of the standard, clichéd hip-hop staples. The obligatory film samples are present and correct but they are obscure enough to sound fresh rather than clunky. Exile uses the quote from the film of the same name on “In Bruges” and the powerful “living in the moment line” from the action comedy Hit and Run. Both of which are welcome ingredients in their appetizing hip hop soup.
As an emcee, Blacc is as powerful as they come. This is a world away from the more soulful grooves that saw him garner worldwide critical and commercial success. There are traces of his more languid, soulful vocals but they are in direct contrast to his close-knit rapping style. His flow is densely packed, loaded with cutting couplets but ably displaying the deftest of touches when required. Additionally, he has an ability to address common topics in new ways. For example, the aforementioned “Forgive Us” addresses the continual authoritarian oppression of ethnic minorities yet he comes across as apathetic even resigned rather than raging. This maximizes the potency of the song. He also asks poignant questions such as on “Yesterday” where he questions: “Was there ever a time when history was just kind?”. It’s a salient point as we find ourselves in a continual cycle of oppression, inequality and the infringement of civil rights.
Blacc comes across as resolute and unwavering throughout with lines such as “Strengthen your will / They can’t break it” from “Make It Over” and “Life ain’t a box of chocolates / It’s a boxing ring” on “Come on Come All”. Make no bones about it, this is, quite rightly, an angry and political album. Nevertheless, the chosen topics are dealt with intelligently. Often the rhymes come off as very matter of fact rather than vitriolic such as on “The E.N.D”. Blacc illustrates the dawning of his realization of what it actually means to be an African-American which comes across as a painful summation of race relations in America’s past, present and future.
Free of any posing or posturing this is an intelligent hip-hop album that shines a light on the times in which we live. It offers a resilient but often bleak outlook for African-American residing in the U.S. today. However, like the best political rap albums there are plenty of memorable melodies and hooks. These are songs not diatribes. At times it can be a dark and uncomfortable listen but the skillful backing and Blacc’s lean, fat-free flow make this a powerful statement. In a year of political hip-hop albums from the likes of common and A Tribe Called Quest, this is up there with the best.