Late ‘80s/early ‘90s hip-hop revivalism has created a subgenre that is typically redolent of elitist pretension. What you get more often than not are artists obsessed with expressing their disillusionment with contemporary mainstream politics creating albums of envious bitching over production sounding like second-rate Native Tongues, Wu-Tang, or anything referred to nowadays as “real hip-hop”.
Masta Ace has avoided these pitfalls and maintained relevance throughout a career exceeding twenty years, despite his well-worn industry cynicism and generally throwback-sounding beats. Just about every album he has made after the disintegration of Marley Marl’s Juice Crew has followed some sort of concept inspired by Ace’s dissatisfaction with the music industry, and each one of those albums have arguably been classics or near-classics.
He’s been able to pull this off because, at his best, he has a gift similar to what made Blueprint-era Jay-Z so good. He raps in a conversational way that makes it incredibly easy for people to actually listen to what he is saying. As a listener, it feels as if he is talking directly to you; you come out of a Masta Ace album feeling like you really know this guy. Instead of sounding like just another bitter underground rapper, he takes the listener through ranges of emotions and forces them to see things his way, all while maintaining a sense of humor. Here is a guy who’s had the skills to be recognized amongst the hip-hop elite for two decades and the charisma to enjoy mainstream success, yet never been close to a household name unless your house is in Brooklyn. He makes you feel his stress, but the strongest emotions he conveys always have to do with his deep love and commitment to hip-hop music.
Now, four years past announcing his retirement, Ace returns on The Show, the debut album from his new crew, eMC. Consisting of Ace and his frequent, Milwaukee-based collaborator Stricklin, as well as Lyricist Lounge vets Punchline and Wordsworth, eMC is something of a super-group to those who follow indie hip-hop.
The Show, like each of Ace’s last few albums, follows a concept through a series of skits scattered throughout the album. This time we are taken through a day in the life of eMC as they deal with all the trials of trying to get a show off on the road. Missed flights, radio publicity, traffic jams, backstage antics, and other cliché road scenarios are all touched upon with typically good humor. The album wouldn’t suffer without the skits, but they do a good job of setting up themes for particular tracks. This makes The Show one of those rare hip-hop albums on which most songs have purpose beyond just setting a groove or creating an arena for emcees to let their skills run wild.
As a group, the members of eMC compliment each other reasonably well. Each emcee’s greatest strength is unique among the group. Ace’s strength lies in his natural status as the crew’s wise master, and his previously mentioned gifts are well intact. Stricklin is a pure emotional rapper with an intense flow who pays special attention to the emphasis he places on each word. Wordsworth is the most technically gifted of the crew; he can rhyme just about every other word, as well as alliterate and still say things that make sense. Punchline has a smooth, laid-back flow and probably the best voice in the crew. With the only guest verses coming from the likes of Little Brother and Sean Price, not many faults are apparent in the emceeing.
Occasionally, Ace’s rhyme schemes will sound pretty simplistic, but his subject matter usually outshines. Stricklin has a tendency to sound too negative when contemplating his mainstream failure, steering himself towards the aforementioned bitch-fest territory. Too much Wordsworth can seem overwhelming and monotonous, like watching an expert gymnast doing flips all day; his exceptional skills are much more potent in small doses. Puchline’s Achilles’ heel is, ironically, his dependence upon using punch lines, which in his case typically use forced or cliché double entendres — he essentially ruins an otherwise good verse by saying “We gotta reach out and touch the kids like Michael” on “Make it Better”. His narrative-driven verses are much more effective. Such is the benefit of creating a group album. These emcees have each other throughout The Show, on which their flaws are much less glaring than they would have been on solo albums.
The production on The Show is consistent if not amazing. With proven underground producers like Ayatollah, Marco Polo, and Nicolay behind the boards, subpar beats are few and far between. Certain things,– like the dated chipmunk soul hook on the otherwise-good mother tribute “U Let Me Grow” threatening to bring the song into sappy, overly sentimental territory — are the only real kinds of production faults here.
In the end, The Show is yet another pretty good throwback hip-hop album on which Masta Ace has been a central figure. For fans of his last two albums, Disposable Arts and A Long Hot Summer, to which The Show is very similar, recommendations don’t come easier than this. This is high-quality, self-effacing contemporary underground hip-hop: something rarer than most fans would like to admit today.